Our Shared History : The Spirit of Saving a Stranger

This is the most dramatic part coming up. One day, a young man I had never seen before comes to the banker and he says, “do you have a Jewish servant here?” The banker says, “yes, little Hana.” And, he came and asks me if I have a bike. I said yes. He says, “get on the bike and follow me.” Today, if my grandchildren or children followed someone on a bike, I would kill them. But, it was a different world.” 
– Hana (excerpt from an oral narrative, 2010)

As a child, we often times hear our grandparent’s stories with little interest or empathy. We don’t understand just how significant their life experiences are in the creation of our own moral fabric. But, if we are lucky enough, we will grow to become adults, and have the space and time to explore the ways in which these intimate influences have come to define us.

I grew up being fully aware of my grandmother’s history as a Holocaust survivor; it was no secret. But there was only one part which I retold to my friends, and that was the climactic escape she made from Denmark to Sweden in 1943. Before I began exploring Hana’s history, this short narrative existed as the pulse of her story. You could feel her heightened heart rate; it resonated in the details and the enthusiasm she gave in recounting this escape to us grandchildren.

The rescue of the Danish Jews holds a special place in the studies of World War II history. Denmark was occupied by the Germans on April 9, 1940, but unlike in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and others, relatively little changed with the Nazi presence. There were many reasons for this. The first, and perhaps most important, is that the Nazi’s saw the Danes as Aryan; the Nordic people, in principal, were equal to the Germans. And on the economic side, Denmark supported close to 10% of Germany’s food needs during the war. As a productive, blond-haired, blue-eyed nation, their fate was brighter than any other occupied country.

It is also necessary to mention the character of the Danish people and their government. The best word I can use to describe what I have learned and experienced is “humanistic.” The genuine care for the people around you without the concern of what religion or country a person stems from was as present of an ideology during the war as it is now. This humanistic nature and approach to life resulted in 95%, nearly all of Denmark’s 8000 Jews, to be saved.

In September of 1943, German diplomat, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, secretly informed the Danish resistance that there was a formulated plan by the Nazis to round up and deport the Danish Jews to concentration camps. The Danes spontaneously organized a nationwide effort to smuggle Jews and their non-Jewish family members to neutral Sweden. In little more than three weeks, more than 7000 Jews were ferried across the Baltic waters. Less than 500 people were caught and deported to Theresienstadt.

Attaining a spot on one of these small fishing boats cost a hefty sum, but 17-year old Hana was taken pity upon; she had no money, no belongings and no companionship. On a cool October night, after being hidden in a church bell tower for many days, she was hurried to a boat. She recounted, “We got the signal and ran from the upside down rowboats to the fishing boat which was supposed to take us to Sweden. I knew that the fisherman would not take me because I had no money at all… I turned my pockets inside out to show the fisherman. He looks at me in the eye and said, “I didn’t ask you, did I? Hop on board.”

Hana hid, along with 18 others, underneath herring on this small fishing boat. She shared this space with the Chief Rabbi of Denmark, Marcus Melchior, and his family. One of his five children was fourteen year old Bent Melchior. Bent would later go on to succeed his father as the Chief Rabbi of Denmark and become an outspoken, open-minded member of the Jewish community.

In February, I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Bent Melchior at his home in Copenhagen. He is 85 years young and as sharp as a tack. When I first arrived at his apartment and claimed that my grandmother was on the same boat as he was, I could tell that there was some convincing to do. As we sat in his living room, comparing stories, details began to match up. And slowly but surely, as the time passed, we became more comfortable with each other, moving from one conversation to another, discussing the finer points of history as well as perspectives regarding the challenges we face in today’s society.

Rabbi Bent Melchior is a brilliant man with a warm heart, and it was my pleasure to have the chance to not just visit him once, but twice. I thought that when my grandmother passed away that I had lost the chance to ask details about this history in person. I have her photographs, diaries, and documents which offer a wealth of information, but nothing compares to hearing the emotions in someone's voice. Sitting across from Rabbi Melchior in his humble home, I had this sensation of nostalgia to that moment over six years ago, when I first asked my grandmother to tell me her story.

The nineteen people onboard spent over 18 hours at sea attempting to find Sweden, a ride that should have taken three to six hours at most. The fisherman, as scared as the others, had no knowledge of how to navigate; he didn’t know how to use his compass and had never been in the open waters. They were incredibly lucky to not have been spotted by the German soldiers.

It was chance that they reached Sweden. They were out of fuel, sea-sick, starving, and scared.

It was a grey, damp afternoon when they neared the shore. Seven-year old Per-Arne Perrson, spotted their boat from a distance and ran to tell his father who was a local fisherman. Although boats had been regularly arriving in Sweden for the past couple of weeks with Danish refugees, it was an unfamiliar site for this community.

They stopped the boat about 500 meters from the shore, fearful of what land they were close to. If they had reached Poland or Germany, they would have been guaranteed an ill-fate. But, the words “Welcome to Sweden” resonated like sweet music to their ears, sung by the good-hearted fisherman who came to greet them. It took him four trips and nearly two hours to bring all of the refugees to shore. Many were terrified to come out from hiding and afterwards, all of the remaining evidence had to be expunged.

As Rabbi Melchior recounted his memories, he shared that he was still in touch with Per-Arne. Their families had maintained a friendship over the years; when they were younger in age, they would visit each other often. Per-Arne, now 77, lives with his wife in the same home as he did as a child. And just a few weeks after learning about this connection, I found myself in Southern Sweden, standing on the same sand that Hana had once stepped on. Rabbi Melchior summed up this feeling well, “to stand there and realize that had it not been, had we not at that time, reached this place, we would have ended up at the bottom of the sea.”

Per Arne's daughter, Monica, picked me up at a bus station in Trelleborg, along with her husband Lars-Göran and their daughter Emma. I sat in the front seat of their car, with my backpack snug up against my legs. We didn't talk much, but I later learned that they understood English quite well; speaking posed more of a challenge. We drove for about 30 minutes past the flat farmland towards the small village of Beddingestrand. I reminisced to myself about my time on the farm as the landscape felt familiar. We arrived at the home of Per-Arne and Marianne Persson, and I couldn't help but smile at the many small international flags that hung along the laundry line.  Knick-knacks lined the home and the smell of the sea filled my nose.

I spent the evening with them. We talked as Annika, Per-Arne's other daughter, translated for us. We looked at pictures and discussed the details of that day in 1943. Monica and Annika walked me to the shore and showed me where the boat was spotted and where they touched land for the first time. This history is a part of them. The daughters grew up hearing the details over and over again just as I used to listen to my grandmother. It is part of their identity. It is a part of mine. Our stories anchor each other and I believe that to be a beautiful bond.

What Per-Arne’s father and mother did was a courageous act, and partly inspired by his mother’s Danish background and knowledge of the language. Although Sweden was neutral and had granted asylum to the Danish Jews, it didn’t mean that everyone was accepting of this policy. Knowing the community’s disapproval, the pair stood their ground and made a choice to follow their own ethical guidelines. They saved nineteen lives.

The refugees were given a place to sleep and a warm meal before traveling to the nearby city of Akarp, where they were quarantined in an agricultural high school. The Red Cross had set up a station there to help the Danes as they tried to find ways to adapt to Swedish society. Hana found herself a job at the high school cleaning in the kitchen before eventually moving north where she received a nursing degree. She remained in Sweden until the end of the war.

I have now listened and internalized this story in three different countries. There are different perspectives and on occasion details differ. I can even see that within my own grandmother’s documentation. How she recounted this event in her life varied depending on her age, her mood and who she was speaking to. But, those incongruent facts from 73 years ago are unimportant. They do not define or change the impression it left on those involved. The spirit stands strong.