In Copenhagen, both the Jewish Museum and the Museum of the Danish Resistance make reference to and display a simple artifact: a train ticket. It is funny, the things that really connect with you. The story of the attempt to save the 8,000 Jews living in Copenhagen from the concentration camps is always moving and at times heroic. Yet this simple piece of pasteboard sticks.
The spine of the story is simple enough: the Nazis planned a round-up of the Jews, but word of the plan was leaked at the last minute by a German official who contacted the city’s chief rabbi. Within hours, the escape to neutral Sweden had begun. Ninety-five percent of the Jews would avoid deportation to a concentration camp, their surreptitious journeys to safety accomplished by some combination of car and truck and boat — and rail.
You take two trains from Copenhagen Central station to get to Gilleleje, a small fishing village on the coast north of the city. The first train takes you through small towns and birch forests to Helsingor, which Shakespeare translated as Elsinore, which is the site of the castle where something was rotten in the state of Denmark. From there, the second train to Gilleleje stops in more than 15 places and takes about 40 minutes to travel 16 miles.
Many of the stops are nothing kind of towns, many without stations and some even without shelters. The last bit really is a tedious ride — go 2 minutes, stop for 30 seconds, go 3 minutes, stop again. It does not take much imagination to understand the fear the Jews must have felt at each of these stops, not knowing who might get on as the train shuddered to a halt; the fear of what it must have been like for those Jews fleeing the Nazi SS — their money sewn into the linings of their coats or stuffed into hurriedly-made girdles; a shirt worn beneath another shirt, and a sweater, and a coat, just in case; a small overnight bag but not much more; and two train tickets in their pockets, one for the return trip they would never make, purchased so as not to arouse suspicion at the station. Coming back? Of course they were coming back
The tickets, then. I pull mine out of my pocket and look at it as I am thinking about this story.
The rabbi had spoken and the warnings had been passed along and people were moving within hours. All kinds of schemes had been worked out but the goal for almost all of the Jews in Copenhagen was the same: to get to neutral Sweden, only a few miles away from the city by boat. Some were smuggled in cars and trucks to various points along the shore but many took the train. A few hundred traveled that day to Gilleleje. The railroad people must have understood what was happening, even with the ticket scheme; there was no way to keep the movement of that many people a secret. In fact, the SS became aware at some point because the Danish resistance received word that the SS had gathered at the small station in Gilleleje in order to apprehend the Jews traveling there on the train.
So the Danish resistance stopped the train. It was at one of those little, nothing places along the way. There was probably nothing there but a small concrete platform and maybe a bike rack. The resistance boarded the train and made the following announcement: because of trouble ahead, anyone traveling beyond Gilleleje needed to get off the train now. So the Jews got off, and were saved.
The rest of their journey would be made hidden in cars and trucks. The SS met the train a few stops later, a train containing no Jews. Instead, they would be taken to Gilleleje and hidden in attics and barns and spare bedrooms and summer homes that had been closed up for the season. Some of the people offering hiding places were paid by the Jews for their trouble. Others did it for free. It is not a big town today, only 7,000 people, but it was much smaller then, only 1,200. There were said to be about 200 Jews being hidden on the first night.
The next day, they began to gather on the pier, hoping to get on a large boat headed for Sweden, and freedom. During those days, other fisherman who helped were paid for their trouble, and the risk involved. In general, they would need to sail south toward Jutland, as if on a normal fishing trip, before turning north toward Sweden after they were out of sight of the coast.
The piers are still places of work today, with boats docked and a small town containing shops and restaurants just up the road. That day, there were more than 200 Jews on the pier, just a gangplank away from this one large boat and from freedom, and then a rumor began to circulate through them that the SS were coming. There was a panic, among the Jews and also the captain of the boat docked there. The captain sailed off with whomever was already on the boat. The rest were stranded.
It was a false rumor, as it turned out, but it did not matter. The Jews on the pier now needed a place to stay before different travel arrangements could be made. About 20 went to a private home nearby. But the largest group, more than 80 people, took the short walk up the hill from the coast, up toward the main road through town, and ended up in the attic of the Gilleleje Church.
Seven decades later, it is an easy stroll up through the town. The steeple of the whitewashed church is visible even through an occasional fog.