A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During World War II

Recently, the Central branch of my public library organized a shelf display of books about World War II. As I casually inspected the intriguing array of books one of them caught my eye. Emma Werner’s A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During World War II looked particularly promising. Because of the book’s Denmark setting, I could read it as part of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. It could also count it as part of Joy’s Back to School Reading Challenge, the Introverted Reader’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge as well as the Book Dragon’s Library Books Reading Challenge. So, with all those reading challenges in mind, of course I grabbed Werner’s A Conspiracy of Decency, adding it to the growing clutch of books under my arms and headed to the automated check-out machines.

After finishing Werner’s 2002 book about a week ago I’m glad I took a chance on it. While it’s probably not the most in-depth and sophisticated look at the Holocaust I’ve encountered, I thought her survey-like approach of the subject matter made for light but engaging reading. But her book’s greatest strength is the story itself: how the people of Denmark under Nazi occupation were able to save well over 90 per cent of the nation’s Jewish population is nothing short of miraculous.

After several highly placed individuals learned that Denmark’s 7000 plus Jews were to be forcibly deported over the course of an evening, plans were quickly set in motion to warn the country’s Jewish community of the Nazi’s evil plan. After hiding the Jews throughout the country, they were later ferried across in fishing boats to neutral Sweden. This was facilitated not only by the actions of willing Danes but by the inaction of sympathetic elements in the German navy, since many of them happened to be older reservists and/or military careerists who loathed the SS and Gestapo and therefore did not share their antisemitic ideology. (According to Werner, there are no recorded incidents of the German navy attacking these vessels or arresting their passengers) While in Sweden the younger refugees attended school with many children and some college students completing their studies thanks to Danish textbooks and study materials that were smuggled across the sound. (One student even continued his law school studies as he waited out the war in Sweden.) Others took jobs and continued their lives with comparatively little interruption. Amazingly, after Germany surrendered and the Jews returned to Denmark, many found their homes had been taken care of by their neighbors. Instead of finding their belongings looted many discovered that their plants had been watered and their household pets had been fed and taken care of. Compare this to a place like Poland, where close to 90 per cent of its Jewish population did not survive the war or France, where the Vichy collaborationist government was a willing participant in the deportations. Or places like Lithuania, where many nationalist elements actively took place in the killings.

But there were other contributing factors. Denmark was blessed by having a neutral neighbor separated by a narrow stretch of water. Denmark’s Jews were also able to flee to that neutral neighbor, Sweden, after the country adopted a more pro-Allied foreign policy once it began apparent that the tide of war had turned against Germany. In addition, unlike many part of Europe, Danish society was not plagued with antisemitism. Overall, Danish society had a high degree of civic engagement and many of its democratic institutions weren’t completely squashed by the Nazis. The mixture of good luck, good geography and good people all helped Denmark’s Jews survive one of humanity’s darkest hours.

This little known period of history makes for great reading. I feel quite lucky that I stumbled upon this book at my public library. Had it not been for them, I might never have read this book.

9 thoughts on “A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During World War II

  1. I think I had heard something about Denmark’s response, but it’s still amazing to hear more of the details. Reading accounts about other countries is so dispiriting – humanity turning on each other so quickly and remorselessly, with the nasty little coda of survivors returning from concentration camps to find their neighbors had confiscated all of their belongings.

    How were the 10 percent of Danish Jews killed? Were they in parts of Denmark where it was harder to obtain the escape that others did?


    • Those who did not survive the War were those who either could not be warned of the impending deportations, chose not to leave or were found by the SS and Gestapo. Those Jews were sent to a holding camp near Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. Thankfully, many of them survived thanks to the efforts of influential Danes and friendly elements within the Swedish government and the International Red Cross. Those people were instrumental in preventing the Danish Jews from being sent to the death camps at Auschwitz. They also mailed them care packages that somehow made it through the German postal system.
      It is truly an AMAZING story!!


  2. It is an amazing story. Kids now learn a bit more about it from Lois Lowry’s modern classic, “Number the Stars,” so that is nice. I used to live in DK and still didn’t learn about it until after my year there. I recently heard of a book called Hitler’s Savage Canaries, all about the Danish resistance, and am hoping to get it soon. (The Danish resistance called itself Holger Danske, which is a great story too–Holger being a legendary warrior said to sleep until his country needs him again. Like King Arthur.)


  3. Pingback: Become the Expert: The Enlightenment Project | Maphead's Book Blog

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