It would be trite to say that the month of July is full of significance for Jews. For a people so old and steeped in history every month of every year has its own important anniversaries
But with the passing of each year the second world war anniversaries become even more precious and closer to our hearts. The march of time leaves fewer people alive with first hand experience of what could be described as Germany’s war against the Jews.
July saw celebrations of the Battle of Britain, the defeat of the Luftwaffe by the Royal Air Force. If the vastly out numbered British flyers had lost its probable that Hitler’s grip on Europe would never have been prized open and with it the fate of all Europe’s Jews sealed. it was also the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp when the full horrors of the German ” final solution ” of the Jews was found to be beyond the imagination of people’s worst fears.
To cap off the month we witnessed the conclusion of what could well be the last major war crime’s trial. In the dock stood Osker Groening . No butcher or sadist he. That what makes it so much more frightening. Just a book keeper.The book keeper of Auschwitz. A stark reminder that to keep an empire or war machine ticking over the little people are as important as the leaders and without them the state cannot function. Where are bees without their drones?
Groening now 94.years of age freely admitted his guilt but said he had no choice and had to do what he was told.What he was told was to meticulously record all valuables brought into the camp by the Jews and ensure they went back to Berlin to pay for the war effort. To his credit, if such a word can be used in this context, Groening did not deny the Holocaust , his part in it, nor say he did not know what was was going on.Despite saying he had no choice he did. He could have volunteered to fight on the Russian front but being the chronicler of the possessions of dead Jews was by far a more comfortable existence.
Now we come to that word choice. What choice did the peoples and leaders of the countries which fell to the Germans have when it came to protecting their Jews.? To their eternal shame many gave up their Jews eagerly and willingly and every hero was matched by a collaborator.
However most of the great and the good said there was nothing that could have been done. The Germans were too insistent and too strong. They pointed to Churchill who had refused to waste bombs on the tracks that led to Auschwitz. that nothing could be done was a story I believed until I visited the Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, last week. The museum is currently running a special exhibition on the Jews in war time Denmark. The resistance and bravery exhibited by the vast majority of the Danes and their insistence in not giving up their fellow countrymen what ever their religion displays a humanity which puts the rest of the continent to shame..
The Danish Government and King were initially allowed to run their internal affairs by the Germans largely on the basis they would do as they were told. But from day one they refused to pass any anti Jewish laws ,deprive Jews of their businesses or make them live in ghettos despite the ever increasing blandishments of the Nazi occupiers.
By August 1943 resistance was reaching such a level that the Germans decided to take over and sort out the Jewish problem at the same time. A social democratic politician was tipped off by a German that the Jews were to be rounded up and be deported. Instantly the Government swung into action and started their own round up of Jews who were spirited en mass Dunkirk style in small boats over the water to Sweden. Of the near 9,000 in the country more than 8,000 made it. Nine perished in the seas when unseaworthy boats overturned in the rough waters.
Some 473 , who could not be contacted in time ,were deported to Theresienstadt rather than Auschwitz under the supervision of the Danish Red Cross. Their insistence on regular visits to their fellow countrymen prevented all but seven being deported to the more notorious death camps. Frequent letters and parcels were sent at the cost of the Danish Government . Children who had been left behind by their parents in this modern day Exodus , some by accident others by design, were fostered by friends and neighbours and none betrayed.
Not only was the community spirited away almost intact but the authorities where they had the time and the man power recorded all their possessions and property to await the return of the exiles.There were truly miracles all the way but not all stories even those with happy endings are without tears and drama.
Despite the best efforts of the Danish red Cross 52 of those who were deported to Theresienstadt never made it back. The rest of the community save for those who drowned in the original escape flotillas survived the war. A dozen or so of those who returned announced they were resigning from the community and no longer wanted to be Jews.Rabbi Melchior, the community leader, raged that these people had handed a belated victory to Goebbels and the Nazis.
Some hidden young children did not recognize their natural parents and one girl when old enough went back to her foster parents, leaving a distraught but understanding mother, who eventually consented to her adoption. Others who had not had time to list their belongings before heading for Sweden found in some cases on their return their homes stripped bare. One women saw her curtains in the windows of a nearby house . She called the police who returned them along with various other items. But the furniture had disappeared.
All Jews who had lived in Denmark for 15 years were financially compensated by the Government on their return. Later on this was extended to all Jews. Despite surviving many of the returnees, be it from the camps or Sweden, were mentally shattered. Trauma counselling was then still years away.
Of course this miracle could not have happened without the Swedes who opened their borders to Denmark’s Jews. If you are travelling in Europe please visit the Jewish Museum which is in the grounds of the beautiful royal Palace, Christianbourg Castle, and take in a true story of humanity and compassion. Its a pity in the length and breath of Europe this story of hope and compassion was unique. It did not have to be.