The man who saved Denmark’s Jews

Virtually everyone has heard of Oskar Schindler, and a great many have also heard of Nicholas Winton, the humanitarian who rescued 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia at his own expense, shortly before Germany invaded. But have you heard the name Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz? Although he didn’t physically carry out rescues in the way the other two did, it is fair to say that this hero saved the lives of 7,000 Jewish people – essentially, the entire Jewish population of Denmark.

Some of the bravest of the brave in World War Two were those Germans who, like British double agent Johnny Jebsen and Karl Plagge, sought to damage the Nazi Party from within at great personal risk. Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz was one of these. A high German official and Nazi, Duckwitz had lived in Denmark for several years before the war began, and had a great affection for the Danish people. Consequently, he was assigned a role as a special envoy to Nazi occupied Denmark, overseeing shipping affairs between the two countries. Being an ‘Aryan’ nation, Hitler looked relatively favourably upon the Denmark, which, as a small nation with a tiny army, was forced to surrender when Germany mounted an invasion. King Christian X was left alone, the people were treated relatively respectfully, and, despite the Nazis taking over in 1940, the Jewish population were also left largely alone… that is, until 1943.

German soldiers disembark in Copenhagen, Denmark, during the 1940 invasion
- Hutchinson's Pictorial History of the War, Series 5, No 1

This was year that the Danish people were forced to blow up their own navy, to stop the Nazis using it against the Allies, and the year that the Danish resistance started coming into its own. It was also the year that Dr Werner Best, who had already overseen the roundup and murder of Jews in Poland and France, sought permission from Hitler to start implementing ‘The Final Solution’ in Denmark. Luckily, news of this request reached the ears of Duckwitz, who acted as an advisor to Best, in September 1943, and he immediately set to work to try and help the threatened Jewish population. First, according to the Facing History website, he travelled to Germany to try to talk the authorities into the refusing permission but, on learning Hitler had already approved the action against the Jews, he rushed to Sweden to ask the President to please welcome any Jewish Danes who wished to flee. Having received this promise, and already contacted the Danish resistance, he learned the exact date the roundup was to begin: Friday, October 1st, 1943.

Duckwitz’s final act was his bravest yet. He tipped off the leaders of the Jewish community, who informed their congregations on 29th September, the day before the celebrations for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, were about to commence, that they were in grave danger. There was no time to lose. Thanks to Duckwitz the Danish resistance had had time to lay their plans, and hiding places and transport to the coast were already organised. When the raid on Jewish homes took place on the 1st, the only ones home were the very few who had not believed the warning was genuine and those too old and sick to flee. But where were the rest? As far as the Germans could tell, they had quite simply vanished. How? Where had they gone? It seemed logical to think that they were escaping via fishing boat to Sweden, no more than 20km away at its furthest point from the Danish coastline, and in places just 5km across the water. In fact, when the soldiers began searching the fishing boats with dogs, they did manage to round up a handful of the fugitives, but no more than that. Why not?

Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, Wikimedia Commons

As Lois Lowry explains in the epilogue to her excellent ‘Number the Stars’, a fictional account of the rescue of the Jews seen through the eyes of a little girl that is nonetheless based on firm fact, the Germans were quite right to suspect that the Danish Jews were escaping by fishing boat. Over the course of just three weeks, hundreds of small vessels carried an incredible 7,200 Danish Jews to safety in their holds. The resistance workers and fishermen risked everything to save these people, but all their work might have been in vain if it had not been for the brilliant Swedish scientists, who were approached by members of the resistance to help overcome the problem of those most astute and accurate man-hunters, the dogs. No matter how many fish the boat owners dumped on deck to conceal the trap doors leading to their holds, and discourage the soldiers from searching for them, the dogs were not to be fooled.

So, scientists swiftly created a simple yet ingenious cocktail of dried rabbits’ blood and cocaine. Each fisherman was presented with an innocuous looking handkerchief, infused with this potent mixture, which they could casually hold whilst answering enquiries from suspicious German patrolman. The search dogs, scenting the tasty blood, invariably ran straight for the handkerchief, ignoring any other smells that might be lingering around boat. The second they sniffed at it, their sense of smell was temporarily destroyed by the cocaine. After that, no matter how the handler urged them on, the dogs would find nothing whatsoever of interest aboard the fishing vessel.

Danish Jews arriving in Sweden, Wikimedia Commons

In all, just 473 Danish Jews failed to escape during those crucial few weeks. According to Facing History, even those unfortunate souls were never sent to the extermination camps, thanks to the continued appeals and warnings by Danish officials on their behalf and the manoeuvrings of the excellent Swedish Red Cross, who eventually persuaded the Germans to deliver even those captured Jews to Sweden. Ultimately, 99% of Denmark’s Jews survived the war, even while two out of three of the Jewish people spread throughout the rest of Europe perished. Of course, Hitler’s respect for the Danish people helped, and Sweden went above and beyond to help out its neighbour. However, it is obvious that, without the work of Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, thousands of Danish people would have been put at risk. His example of quick action, great compassion and a total disregard of danger fired not only the resistance workers and fisherman, but the entire Danish population, to believe that they could make a difference in a time of great evil. 

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