Saving the Jews of Copenhagen: Part II

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Ulla Skorstengaard has been a pastor at Gilleleje Church since 1996. She has learned the story of that night well, partly from historical study and partly from speaking to some of the old-timers in town, many of whom she has eventually buried.

The church dates from 1538, they think. It is plain and beautiful, with brick floors and wood benches. It started because local fishermen petitioned the king for their own church, and it is not even considered to be particularly old by Danish standards. Yet it has been visited by the Queen of Denmark and the Prime Minister of Israel, among others. “It is special,” Skorstengaard says.

She takes me up to the attic.

First we climb some stairs to the choir loft. Then there are several more steps up to a panel in the ceiling that pushed open on hinges. For some reason, I notice a squeak in the third step. How that little squeak must have pierced the silence that night, when the door was bolted from the inside and only opened if you knew the secret code word. Today, it opens with just a shove.

“It is very much like it was that night,” Skorstengaard says, as we climb up. You can see the addition of a few electrical junction boxes, and there are a few church odds and ends stored in places — but they might have been there back then, or something like them. It is a big space, and it would seem that 80-odd people could fit easily if not comfortably. There is no bathroom, no heat on what was a cold night in 1943, and there could be no lights because they would be seen through the windows. It is daytime as we walk around, and sunlight streams through. But as night fell, the only light would have come from the moon.

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There, the Jews in Gilleleje hid — until the SS found them. They were all taken into custody and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic — all but one young man who somehow concealed himself in the spare rafters of the attic and escaped through the church steeple. “I still look up there and can’t figure out how they didn’t see him,” Skorstengaard says.

There are several competing theories about who told the SS about the Jews in the church attic. One popular story is that of a local girl who told an SS officer whom she had been dating, and it has been repeated often enough that many accept it as the truth.

“But what is truth?” Skorstengaard says. “Truth is what you tell afterwards…The one version, about that young girl working at a hotel who warned the SS? It might be true. It might not. When you remember that it was such a small place, only 1,200 people then, just think about it. You can’t hide 200 people in such a small village without people knowing. The Germans were already mingling among the people, and one slip of the tongue is all it would take. It is human nature that if you find a scapegoat, it is the easy way out. That way, all of the people don’t have to carry the burden.

“It is likely more complicated than a single girl,” she says.

The story of the Danish Jews is one of the great human stories of that terrible period. In the decades since 1943, the story of Gilleleje has been told and re-told. The citizens have been recognized by the State of Israel for their actions. The period is memorialized in a small museum exhibit in town. But when Skorstengaard came to Gilleleje as a pastor, there was reluctance on the part of some to continue to spotlight this moment in time.

“When I came here, there were people who did not want to continue to tell the story,” she says. “They said it was done, that it was over. People said, ‘We have to let it go.’ I said, ‘We cannot let it go. We have an obligation to tell it.’”

As she listened to the older people in Gilleleje, she heard stories of complicated motivations among the rescuers, of how many of them took money from the people they were rescuing. She heard stories about what they called “Jewish buttons,” and as she is telling me, she struggles to explain what it means.

“Those who had money, they were able to buy golden handgrips for their doors,” she says, searching for the right word in English. Golden doorknobs, then. Jewish buttons.

“Many did accept payment,” Skorstengaard says. “But I have buried fisherman in this church, men from that time. Some brought Jews to Sweden and they were not able to come back for 1 1/2 years. They were not able to make any earnings. They were not in contact with their families. So, payment? Who was paying the price?”

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As a student of the history of those days, it is the paradoxes and the complications that seem to interest Skorstengaard the most. We are back downstairs now, out of the attic, and she has just shown me two large gold menorahs, Jewish candlesticks, that were a gift to the church. She says she brings them out and places them on either side of the casket at funerals, and as part of the confirmation ceremony.

It is her belief that the real hero of this story is Georg F. Duckwitz, the German official who warned Rabbi Marcus Melchior that the SS crackdown was coming. She says, “In the center of evil, there was this goodness. I think that offers hope for everyone, don’t you?”

She stops for a moment, then continues.

“We are the most famous church in Denmark for helping the Jews,” Skorstengaard says. “But they were caught by the SS in our attic. When you think about it, we didn’t help them.

“A paradox,” she says. “A wonderful paradox.”

 

 

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