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The Long Legacy of the Shoah in Scandinavia

Europe’s refugee crisis has revived interest among Scandinavians in their nations’ legacies during WWII and overturned some long-held beliefs about their history

Shalom Goldman
June 25, 2019
Original photo: Wikipedia/National Museum of Denmark
Danish SS soldiers disarmed by resistance fighters in Copenhagen, 1945Original photo: Wikipedia/National Museum of Denmark
Original photo: Wikipedia/National Museum of Denmark
Danish SS soldiers disarmed by resistance fighters in Copenhagen, 1945Original photo: Wikipedia/National Museum of Denmark

Within the Northern European countries that make up Scandinavia there has been a revival of active scholarship and popular interest into the treatment of Jews during World War II. The subject is very much alive in these countries and much more so than in other parts of Europe. In recent conversations with academic colleagues in Oslo and Stockholm I learned that in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway the most talked about books of the last few years were reassessments of the role each state had played in response to Nazi rule and to the persecution and murder of Jews.

To understand why these questions have once again riveted the Scandinavian reading public we need to look to the current refugee crisis in Europe. These reassessments of Scandinavian wartime actions are inspired by a consideration of current attitudes toward migrants and refugee policies in light of how each country responded to the presence of migrants and refugees in its past: episodes which did much to shape their subsequent national mythos. Between 2015 and 2017 the three nations admitted large numbers of refugees. Sweden had the most the most liberal policy and admitted close to 160,000 people. Norway and Denmark admitted far fewer: 30,000 in Norway and 20,000 in Denmark. The countries have varied how they have responded to the refugee crisis but in all three it has precipitated a shift to the political right and the enactment of migration restrictions. This shift to the right has exacerbated existing tensions between more conservative voters and the long-established Muslim communities in each country. And it is the sum of these tensions and the ongoing political battles they inspire that have led Scandinavian intellectuals—both liberal and conservative—to look back at their country’s attitudes and behaviors during World War II.

In 1940, Norway was conquered and occupied by the Germans and ruled by a collaborationist government led by Vidkun Quisling. From 1942 onward Jews were targeted for deportation, and by war’s end half of them had been murdered.

In Denmark, the Danes surrendered to the Germans in 1940 and were able to maintain a degree of autonomy until the fall of 1943, when the German army and the SS took over the country. Thus, until the fall of 1943 the Jews were more or less protected by the Danish people and their government. As the historian David Lampe noted, “Because of Denmark’s lack of racial prejudice, the Jews considered themselves safe, and practically none tried to get to Sweden until the fatal autumn of 1943.” Remarkably, this protection extended after the 1943 SS takeover and almost all Danish Jews were saved by evacuation to Sweden.

In Sweden, the government declared neutrality—and maintained it. Jews in Sweden were safe, and they endeavored to save their fellow Jews.

Historian Lucy Dawidowicz noted in her landmark 1975 study, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945, that in the German-ruled countries where Jews came directly under the rule of the SS (Austria, Poland, Russia, the Baltic States) their fate was sealed. But: “In other countries of Europe—those allied to Germany, the so-called neutrals, and those which, though invaded and occupied by the Germans, nevertheless retained some autonomy, the fate of the Jews depended on each country’s commitment to civic equality and on its historical treatment of its Jewish population.” Dawidowicz’s observation applies directly to the Scandinavian situation in which a given nation’s “commitment to civil equality” would be determinative. Let us see how this commitment worked or didn’t work in each of our three countries.

In Norway during the first two years of Nazi rule, the roughly 1,700 Jews living in Norway suffered few privations. But soon after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, in which the Final Solution was articulated and planned, the aktions began. In November 1942, 540 Norwegian Jews were rounded up by local police and placed on the cargo ship Donau bound for the Polish port of Stettin. They were brought to the cargo ship by train. From Stettin they were sent to Auschwitz. Of these 540 people, only nine survived the war. In subsequent months, some 800 Norwegian Jews in total—nearly half of the country’s overall Jewish population—were deported and murdered.

And what of the Norwegian resistance? A recent reevaluation of Norway’s role in the Shoah, What Did the Resistance Know?, by veteran journalist Martha Michelet, asserts that contrary to national myth and popular assumptions, some resistance leaders and fighters were indifferent to the fate of their Jewish fellow citizens. In 2018, Dagbladet, one of Norway’s major newspapers, dubbed it “the most important book of the year.”

According to Michelet, resistance leaders had news of the impending roundups and knew from German sources three months before the November 1942 aktion that Jews were to be deported. Michelet acknowledges that the resistance smuggled many Jews to safety in Sweden, but this leaves the question: What of those who were left behind, or were betrayed to the SS? Why didn’t the resistance work to save them? There is evidence that not all resistance members were committed to smuggling Jews out of the country and that some resistance leaders felt that whatever resources were available should be used to fight the German forces occupying Norway.

In Norway today, the resistance is celebrated in museums, novels, films, and history books. And any questioning of the resistance’s heroic reputation is not taken lightly. Michelet’s book challenges this consensus, and has generated considerable controversy.

According to Paul Levine, a professor of history at Uppsala University in Sweden, Norway acted like the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France.

“They implemented their own anti-Jewish laws, used their own manpower, confiscated property and discriminated against Jews before the Germans had demanded it,” Levine told the Reuters news agency. “Norway,” he said, “didn’t have to do what it did.”

It is only in the last few years that Norway has come to terms with its complicity in the deportation of 800 Jews. In 2012, on Europe’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Norwegian prime minister apologized for the country’s role in the Shoah and acknowledged, “Norwegians carried out the arrests, Norwegian’s drove the trucks and it happened in Norway.” In 2015 the Norwegian National Rail Company apologized for its role in the deportations.

Sweden was the only Scandinavian country that declared its neutrality, and to some extent managed to maintain it throughout the war. From 1933 onwards the relatively large community of Jewish Swedes (large relative to the other Scandinavian countries) urged their country’s government to accept refugees from German persecution. With the help of the American-financed Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Swedish Jews were very effective in this advocacy. Pontus Rudberg’s 2017 book, The Swedish Jews and the Holocaust, reveals new information about these efforts. Sweden’s Jewish community organization, which represented the nation’s 8,000-strong Jewish community, declared in 1938 that, “We will be judged in our own time and in the future by measuring the aid, that we, inhabitants of a free and fortunate country, gave to our brethren in this time of great disaster.” In the first years of the war the numbers of refugees Sweden welcomed was small. But after 1942, when the Danish and Norwegian Jews fled their home countries, almost all of them were accepted by the Swedish authorities and provided for by the Swedish government, the Jewish community and the JDC. It was the Swedish public at large, and not only its Jewish members, who welcomed the Danish and Norwegian Jews.

Rudberg addresses the claim made by some critics that the Jews of Sweden did not do enough to enable Jewish refugees to enter Sweden “because they feared that it would increase anti-Semitism in that country.” Previous research, Rudberg notes, tended to see the Swedish Jewish response to Nazi terror as “passive and overly cautious.” He refutes these claims effectively through the use of recently revealed documentary evidence, and concludes that, “in a number of ways Swedish Jews acted to aid their brethren throughout the entire period of 1933-1945.”

In Denmark the Jews were protected by the Danish government and citizenry, and later by the Swedish government and people who sheltered them. On Oct. 3, 1943, when the Gestapo sought to round up all of Denmark’s 7,000 Jews and deport them by boat to Poland, the bishop of Copenhagen issued a protest and ordered it read in every church in the country. It said:

Wherever Jews are persecuted because of their religion or race it is the duty of the Christian Church to protest against such persecution, because it is in conflict with the sense of justice inherent in the Danish people and inseparable from our Danish culture through the centuries … Our different religious views notwithstanding, we shall fight for the cause that our Jewish brothers and sisters may preserve the same freedom which we ourselves evaluate more highly than life itself.

The bishop closed his letter with this justly famous exhortation: “We shall therefore in any given event unequivocally adhere to the concept that we must obey God before we obey man.”

A documentary produced by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Rescue in Scandinavia, includes interviews with both the rescuers and the rescued, and features rare footage from wartime Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. In that film, a common sentiment among the rescuers is that they felt they had no option but to help the Jews; “common decency” dictated their actions.

But not all Danish Jews were saved from deportation. Over 400 were rounded up in the Oct. 3 aktion and taken to Theresienstadt. But because the Danish government persisted in its claim to the Germans that these Jews be protected, they escaped the fate of other Theresienstadt inmates, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz. From 1943 to 1945 the Danish Welfare Ministry kept track of the Danish Jews imprisoned in Theresienstadt and arranged for private individuals to send food and clothing parcels to those held captive. Thus, Denmark’s concern for its Jewish citizens transcended its borders. The word citizens is central here; the Danes refused to accept the German diktat that Jews be declared a foreign element in Denmark.

A fresh view of this singular rescue can be found in Danish journalist Bo Lidegaard’s book, Countrymen: The untold story of how Denmark’s Jews escaped the Nazis, of the courage of their fellow Danes—and of the extraordinary role of the SS Lidegaard argues that the Danes acted in their own interest as much as they acted in the interest of Denmark’s Jewish citizens. For the sake of their nation’s integrity and autonomy under German rule, Danish authorities refused to concede that Denmark was an undemocratic society in which a group of citizens could be denied the protection of its own government. What enabled them to get away with this to the extent that they did was Nazi race theory, which saw the Danes as “Nordic” and thus as a “superior race.” Denmark, according to Hitler’s wishes, was to be a “model protectorate.” The Danes cooperated with the Germans up to a point, and the Germans valued that cooperation. But at the persecution of its Jews, Danes drew a line they refused to cross.

As a child, I had heard of the rescue of the Danish Jews and was told the story of “the king of Denmark and the Jewish star,” an apocryphal tale about the Danish king, in defiance of the Germans, riding through Copenhagen every morning wearing the yellow star. Behind the myth, however, is an historical truth. The King did advocate for and represent the democratic integrity of the nation and its willingness to protect its Jewish citizens.

The story of the Danish rescue of the Jews has been told many times. What Lidegaard’s book brings to light is the very uncharacteristic behavior of the German authorities in the country. Not only was the German army seemingly ineffective and indifferent to their orders, but so was the SS. In occupied Denmark there was friction between the Wehrmacht and the SS and this friction may account for the almost peremptory attitude by authorities of the German army in response to orders from Berlin to deport the Jews. But documents uncovered by Lidegaard show that in the Danish case the SS itself was somewhat lackadaisical and passive, highly uncharacteristic behavior for that murderous organization. Speculating as to why this was, Lidegaard suggests that: “Even Hitler’s most trusted men, who were deeply engaged in the Final Solution’s murderous logic, were challenged by the occupied country’s clear rejection of this very logic.”

To return to historian Lucy Dawidowicz’s observation, the fate of the Jews in each European country not under direct SS control “depended on each country’s commitment to civic equality and on its historical treatment of its Jewish population.” Denmark’s commitment to civic equality, even under German rule, enabled that nation to save its Jews. As the rescued Jewish Dane Herbert Pundik put it in a 1994 interview, “We were saved due to the fantastic Danish sense of decency. The lesson is that individuals count. You can be a rescuer.” In a world that faces the greatest refugee crisis since World War II these are heartening words.


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Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.