Barbara Wahlberg: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.
Barbara: I'm Barbara Wahlberg and I am the vice president for education at the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. I am also a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teaching Fellow, and I have been teaching about Holocaust education for the 30 years that I have been a teacher in Cranston at Cranston East. Today, I want to introduce Howard Veisz who is our Baxt Lecture Series lecturer for March 20th at the library.
To give you a little background about Howard, I'm going to read what's on the Museum of Jewish Heritage website about Howard and the Gerda III, the boat he is going to be talking about. Today, Gerda III is believed to be one of only three Danish rescue boats still afloat. A fourth is displayed indoors in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, having been saved from the fate of other retired work boats and brought to the United States by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a living memorial to the Holocaust.
Also remarkable is the story of Howard Veisz, a current volunteer who steadfastly ensures that the stories of Henny and Gerda III are remembered and kept relevant for people around the world today. Following a career in law in 2009, Howard was ready to do something different. Howard and his wife, Lorraine, set out on a two-year sailing voyage across the Atlantic and then through Europe, [00:02:00] and the Caribbean. He figured they’d return from their trip and get back to real life. “But that’s the kind of experience that makes it hard to go back to what you’ve been doing before,” he explained.
With three transatlantic voyages under his belt, Howard became actively involved at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum in 2011. He was, in his own words, “the apprentice to the apprentice” in the rigging shop for a massive project restoring Mystic’s 1841 whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, and getting it under sail for the first time in 93 years.
As the whaling ship project wound down, Howard’s interest in Gerda III, also docked at Mystic Seaport Museum, arose. The connection was powerful. Howard didn’t descend from a line of whalers, he pointed out, but it was quite possible that a great-aunt or great-uncle were saved from the Nazis by a Danish rescue boat. Howard’s father was also forced to flee from the Nazis, escaping from Berlin to Bolivia in January 1939, before reaching the US and returning to Europe as part of the D-Day invasion forces.
I'm going to let Howard tell you the rest of his story and tell you a bit about mine and how I met Howard. My husband and I are members of the Mystic Seaport Museum and sometimes when we have nothing to do or nothing planned, we will escape for an hour or two to Mystic. We love to stroll through the grounds of the Seaport and see what's new and what's going on. One of my favorite boats is the Gerda III. She is near and dear to my heart as I am a Holocaust educator.
During our visit, one day I approached a national park ranger who was standing on the dock next to the Gerda III and asked her about it. She smiled and said that the boat was not her purview but that of the man down there and she pointed to two gentlemen scraping the Gerda III's hull, preparing to paint it. [00:04:00] She called down to one of them. "Howard," she said. "someone wants to meet you." That is when I met Howard. He came up from out of that little rowboat and sat down to talk with me when he heard that I taught about the Holocaust in my high school classes.
He may not remember this, but I do, and it made such an impression upon me. He also told me about the book he had written and how it detailed the daring brave and selfless mission of the Danish small boat fleets that ferried thousands of Danish Jewish citizens across the Øresund Strait and Kattegat Sound to bring them safely into Sweden. The Gerda III was one of those boats, and this is her story.
Of course, I was so excited to hear about the book that I went to the Seaport Museum store and bought two copies, one for the Sandra Borstein Holocaust Education Center and one for me. It was while I was reading the book that it struck me that Howard would be a wonderful speaker for our Baxt Lecture Series and as they say, the rest is history. I want to welcome Howard Veisz and to thank him for coming to speak with us about Henny and her boat.
Howard Veisz: It's a pleasure to present a different kind of Holocaust story, a story of the one nationwide effort to save a country's Jews from the Nazis. Three and a half years after the Nazis invaded Denmark when the Danes could no longer keep their Jewish countrymen safe at home when it suddenly became clear that the Danish Jews could only be saved by getting them out of Nazi-occupied territory, the country sprang into action to warn the Jews about the Nazis plans to capture them in a matter of days, to find temporary refuge within Denmark, and to commence a massive maritime evacuation to Sweden, the only unoccupied territory within reach.
The rescue of the Danish Jews was a mammoth operation and an [00:06:00] incredibly successful one. During the month of October 1943, 1,000 fishermen and other mariners manning approximately 300 rescue vessels supported by tens of thousands of other Danes on shore transported nearly 95% of Denmark's Jewish population, some 7,742 individuals to safety, and with them, another 650 loved ones of other faiths during a month of clandestine crossings from occupied Denmark across that body of water known as the Øresund to Sweden.
From high overhead, the nearly simultaneous launch of rescue operations up and down the Danish coast would've looked like a magnificently orchestrated centrally directed event. In fact, it was a sum total of hundreds of individual efforts initiated in some cases by boat owners and their crews and in others, by individuals who set out to recruit them. Gerda III, which is preserved and displayed at Mystic Seaport is one of the vessels that took part. It's largely through the story of this vessel and the people associated with it that I'll be describing what took place.
It's one of just three vessels out of the 300 that remain afloat. It survives thanks to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which sent a delegation to Denmark in search of a rescue boat while the museum was still on the drawing boards in the 1990s, and there it acquired Gerda III as a gift from the Danish government, restored it to precisely what it was during World War II before bringing it to the US. Then thanks to Mystic Seaport, which has maintained and displayed the boat on behalf of the Museum of Jewish Heritage since its arrival in 1997.
My knowledge of the subject derives from nearly 10 years that I've spent helping to preserve the vessel as a Seaport volunteer, and also researching a story both here and in Denmark, the story of the boat and again, the people associated with it. If you were to save one boat, this would be it. [00:08:00] It's likely that any boat made more crossings or rescued more people than Gerda III. It conducted rescue missions throughout the month-long Jewish rescue operation in October '43 when it saved some 300 people, 10 to 15 at a time, in each crossing, and throughout the rest of the five-year Nazi occupation of Denmark when Gerda III served as a lifeboat for hundreds of other people who were being hunted by the Nazis, a period in which another 600 or 700 people were saved by this boat.
Its role as a leading boat in the Jewish rescue mission had a lot to do with the type of boat it is. It was built in 1926 for the Danish Lighthouse and Buoy Service to maintain navigation aids along the Danish shore, and to bring supplies and crew changes to a major Lighthouse, the Drogden Lighthouse right where the Baltic narrows down to that straight between Denmark and Sweden. It was built to go out every day, often in the rough weather experienced during the rescue and during World War II, its job provided an ideal cover story for its hundreds of clandestine rescue missions.
The most significant key to its success was the group of people that formed up around it. At the core of the operation was Henny Sinding, a young woman who had just turned 22 at the start of the rescue. The rescue operation brought her quickly into a more mature, serious adulthood. She had been employed since turning 18 by the Lighthouse and Buoy Service, and also important for purposes of the rescue, she was a daughter of a Danish Navy officer who had this Lighthouse and Buoy Service, much like the coast guard under his command.
Another key participant was a 20-year-old Danish Navy cadet known to all his friends as Mix who became, over a tumultuous 14 months, the first great love of Henny's life and a central figure in the rescue and resistance. Then there was the boat's four-man crew and finally seven members of a university-based resistance group led by a medical student [00:10:00] named Jorgen Kieler.
Their combination, all of these people together, propelled the Gerda rescue group to the forefront of the overall rescue operation. The story begins in April 1940, seven months after the start of World War II, when Danes awoke to a land, sea, and air invasion. Denmark was forced to surrender in a matter of hours but not unconditionally.
Germany, to be sure, satisfied its initial goals, securing a share of Denmark's agricultural output, the ability to produce goods in its factories, the ability to build and man coastal fortifications, and with its simultaneous conquest of Norway, just above Denmark, control over access to the Baltic. Denmark also obtained an important concession in return for its military stand down, an assurance of political independence that Danes construed to guarantee the preservation of its democratically elected government, control over its internal affairs, and as a vital part of that control, the ability to protect Jews and other countrymen from Nazi interference with their lives and property.
Remarkably, for three and a half years of occupation, that pact held, and Danes successfully precluded the kind of Nazi measures that were put in place in every other occupied country to demonize, isolate, and persecute the Jews. Danish Jews could maintain normal routines, but it would certainly be too much to say they could maintain normal lives.
With Hitler's Berlin headquarters only 225 miles from Copenhagen, his troops on the streets, the ever-escalating persecution of Jews across the border, and ultimately, the disappearance of Jewish relatives and friends from the rest of Hitler's domain, it became increasingly clear that the freedom, and very probably the lives of the Danish Jews rested on Denmark's continued commitment and ability to protect them.
Year after year, the Nazis pressured Denmark to restrict the freedom of Danish Jews [00:12:00] and were repeatedly rebuffed. That pressure intensified after January 1942 when at the Wannsee Conference, the Nazis completed their plans for the Final Solution, the mass murder of Europe's Jews, and put those plans into motion. The Nazis could be persuaded to defer action against the Danish Jews, but in the end, they were not about to let Denmark stand in the way of Hitler's dream of a Jew-free Europe and so as the Final Solution gathered momentum, and millions of people were being sent to the death camps, the Nazis turned up pressure on Denmark to fall in line, and Denmark continued to say no.
By the start of 1943, disputes over the fate of Denmark's Jews had become a cause of great unrest, but not the only one. Throughout Denmark, there was a growing weariness of occupation, and by 1943, an uptick in resistance. An explosion was coming, and on August 25th, 1943, it literally arrived when an early resistance group known as Holger Danske blew up an exhibition hall in Copenhagen that was being readied to house another 2,000 German troops scheduled to arrive the next day.
The blast reduced the building to rubble, and anything left of peaceful coexistence came crashing down with it. When the Danish government refused to crack down on the resistance, the Nazis declared martial law, dissolved parliament, and dispatched troops to capture the few military installations that had remained in Danish hands, although under very tight restrictions as well. Among these was the Royal Dockyards, the homeport of the Danish Navy since the 1600s.
In the short time that sailors could hold off the German military, Danish crews followed standing orders to prevent any vessel from falling into Nazi hands. In an action that helped pave the way for the maritime evacuation that was to follow two months later, 29 Danish warships were blown up and sent to the bottom at their docks. At least two others were scuttled at sea. 13 vessels escaped to Sweden. [00:14:00] Against this backdrop, the occupation chief and SS officer Werner Best telegrammed Berlin that measures should now be taken toward a solution of the problem of the Jews, and a typically ruthless plan was put into operation.
Nazi forces within Denmark stole membership lists with names and addresses of Jews from the Jewish community offices, providing a roadmap for the Gestapo to follow. 300 Gestapo agents were sent in to round up Denmark's Jews in a single night. The night chosen was a Friday night, October 1st, into 2nd, two days after the start of the High Holy Days. Two troopships were sent to Copenhagen to hold the Jews that they anticipated capturing and begin their transport to the concentration camps.
In any other occupied country, all of this would have gone according to plan. Instead, the Gestapo came up almost empty-handed. The unraveling had an unlikely starting point, a civilian member of the occupation staff named Georg Duckwitz. As the German appointed harbormaster for Copenhagen, he was responsible for accommodating the troopships that were to be part of this operation, but he wanted no part of it. He first went up the chain of command, trying unsuccessfully to abort the plan.
Though his objections were moral ones, his argument was a practical one, that any attack against the Danish Jews would trigger a nationwide revolt unlike anything the Nazis had experienced elsewhere or were likely able to imagine. When that approach failed, and with just 72 hours to go before the Gestapo raids began, Duckwitz revealed the plan to one of Denmark's political leaders, a man named Hans Hedtoft. Hedtoft went into immediate action. He began by alerting the rabbi of Copenhagen's Great Synagogue.
The next morning, with Rosh Hashanah services due to start that night, the rabbi told the 150 congregants who assembled that morning that the Nazis were about to capture all of the Danish Jews to ship into concentration camps [00:16:00] and that you must leave now and pass the word, so that two or three hours from now, everyone will know it was happening. By tonight, we must all be in hiding. Hedtoft also used his party apparatus to send warnings through numerous other channels, teachers to students, business owners to employees. Colleges suspended classes so that students could go out and spread the word.
As a result, when the Gestapo launched its raid, it captured only 202 Jews in Copenhagen, mostly elderly, 82 in the rest of Denmark. For Gestapo, it was an unprecedented failure. For the Jews, it was a temporary reprieve. With Gestapo in hot pursuit, no place in Denmark was safe for long. Sweden, across the strait from Denmark, was the only refuge within reach, but it had thus far refused to open its doors. It liked being unoccupied. It didn't want to antagonize Hitler.
On Saturday, the day following Gestapo raids, Sweden had a change of heart. That change was prompted, or at least accelerated, by one of the first refugees to reach its shores, Danish nuclear physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Niels Bohr. Bohr, whose mother was Jewish, was smuggled out of Copenhagen on a small fishing boat and brought to Sweden, where a British plane awaited him, ready to take him to England, from which it was hoped by allies he would move on to the United States.
Bohr refused to go further until Sweden announced in a radio broadcast that he knew could be heard throughout Denmark, that Sweden would accept every Danish Jew who could reach its shores. His bargaining power and Allied persuasion prevailed. On the night of Saturday, October 2, the broadcast he demanded began. A week later, the New York Times reported that Bohr reached London from Sweden today bearing what a Dane in Stockholm said were plans for a new invention involving atomic explosions. The plans were described as of the greatest importance to the Allied war effort.
With Sweden's broadcast, the race was on. Jews headed to fishing [00:18:00] villages, or other harbors north and south of Copenhagen, where most of the Jewish population lived, hoping to find a way out. Here, you can see the overall terrain, the predicament, and also the opportunities. The water is narrow as you get north of Copenhagen, reaching the narrowest point at Helsingør or Elsinore, as we tend to know it, the home of Hamlet Castle, where the gap is just two and a half miles across.
In the initial day or two, people tended to flock there, where, on a map, it looked like you would have the best shot, but what looked easiest on the map was often toughest on the ground. The harbors north of Copenhagen were generally manmade harbors with large walls that were built to keep the waves out but that were also well suited for preventing boats from leaving, or from intercepting them on the way back. There were designs that contributed to disasters in the early chaotic days when rescue plans were still being developed.
Right at the outset, Sunday, October 3rd, all the way in the northern tip at Gilleleje, a boat carrying 19 Jews was spotted, intercepted, fired upon by the Nazis as it sought to leave the harbor, and as the pilot house was being perforated with gunfire, the crew jumped overboard. The Jews on board attempted to press on but quickly ran aground and followed the crew into the water, then being captured as they swam ashore.
On the next day, Monday, October 4, in a fishing village about halfway between Gilleleje and Copenhagen, eight fishing boats successfully brought Jews to Sweden but on their return, the crews were arrested and sent to a Nazi prison, where another prisoner reported that they were treated brutally. Their rookie mistake in this rescue operation, returning at the height of the fishing season with dry nets and empty fishing holds.
The same day, in Dragør, which is at least something [00:20:00] approaching how the Danes pronounce it, about six miles south of Copenhagen, carloads of refugees were cut off by German soldiers as they headed for waiting boats. A short time later, a boat near the harbor hit a mine and exploded. Tuesday back in Gilleleje, the worst disaster of the rescue occurred.
With the Harbor closed and Jews continuing to stream into town, townspeople attempted to protect them by hiding them in a church loft where they thought they would be safe, but an informer gave their position away and 80 people, all but one young boy who climbed up into the bell tower, were captured. In another port, a Jewish engineering student was shot dead by Gestapo agents as he was casting off the dock lines of a rescue boat that he'd arranged for himself and others.
Despite the clear dangers, Henny and the crew of Gerda III threw themselves into the rescue effort at the outset. Explaining her decision, Henny stated, "We never divide ourselves up into Danes or Jews. The Jews were just Danes like we were, and the Nazi attack on the Jews was therefore an attack on our Danish people," one she said that made her furious.
It was the crew that initiated the effort. They were among the very few who had already had some experience with rescue missions. Prior to the Jewish rescue operation, an early resistance group based in Dragør turned to Gerda III to evacuate members of that group from Denmark when the need arose.
The resistance group based there was led by two sons of the Drogden Lighthouse keeper. In those early days, Gerda would take people just as far as the lighthouse, which then could serve as a suitable safe house at sea, where they would await another boat from Sweden to come and take them the rest of the way.
For the Jewish rescue, the crew needed to go further, all the way to Sweden. They needed to go far more often. They needed to reposition the boat, which was now docked at the Royal Dockyard surrounded by Nazi warships, to a place where it was more feasible to get Jewish refugees on board. They needed at least tacit approval from Henny's father, and they needed to make contact with [00:22:00] refugees who were already in hiding. The crew turned to Henny for help with all of these needs and she threw herself in completely.
Heenny relocated Gerda to a dock behind a warehouse across the harbor from downtown Copenhagen in a neighborhood called Christianshavn reachable by a bridge that people walk and bicycle across from Copenhagen daily. On one side, as Henny described it, was a gate opening onto the wharf just in front of the place where Gerda III was docked. On the other side, the door on the street through which we could enter quickly, the warehouse had an attic where she could hide as many refugees as they could fit aboard the boat the next day.
She also arranged safe houses, nearby private homes, where owners were happy to have refugees wait in hiding for what turned out to be as many as four or five days until they could take the last steps to the warehouse, to the attic, and then onto Gerda III. Making contact with Jews, who were hidden all over Copenhagen and surrounding areas was Henny's next job. That task was accomplished, in large measure, by joining forces with Kieler's student group and that group were perfect partners.
Because they consisted mainly of medical students, they had ties to a large hospital complex within Copenhagen that spread the word that Jews who could reach the hospital complex would be hidden first in patient beds with fictitious names and charts, and then when those quickly filled to capacity, in nursing quarters and other staff quarters while doctors worked on linking them with escape boats.
Because the student group's activity prior to the rescue was publishing an underground newspaper, they had close ties to a Copenhagen bookstore whose back room was first a center for underground press activities, and then another center for linking refugees with escape boats, and later a boardroom for the armed resistance.
During the rescue, Kieler's contacts were exactly what Henny needed and Henny's boat was exactly what [00:24:00] Kieler needed, but they lived in different worlds until Mix, who became a member of Kieler's group shortly before the rescue began, brought them together.
Through this group each day, Henny was given lists that she had to memorize with names of refugees and places to meet that day. It was arranged, as she explained, for each refugee accompanied by no more than one child to show up at a certain time and place.
Henny first escorted them to the safe houses, the private homes, and then at 1:00 AM, it became her job to pick them up one at a time and bring them to the warehouse attic. After carefully navigating the darkened streets well after the Nazis imposed curfew, as a dangerous act in itself, the refugees spent the night in the attic, Henny continued to explain, as quiet as mice.
"The worst time was when we had many children, not to mention infants. We always carried a jar of sleeping pills and almost every night it was necessary to quiet some children with a pill to get some calm in the group. Food was taken care of. There was always something to eat or drink for our guests in the attic, but no one could eat. We all had a bad case of stomach ache and the night seemed endlessly long, both for the refugees and the five of us," the five being Henny and the four crew members.
One of the refugees, for whom it was undoubtedly a particularly long night, was a 19-year-old named Gerd [unintelligible 00:25:21]. One of the 80 people who had been captured in the church loft in Gilleleje. Gerd managed to jump from a German army truck when it stopped briefly in front of a Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, ran off, taxi driver observing his escape picked him up, brought him to another hospital where he was again temporarily hidden and where the doctors arranged his escape on Gerda.
Gerd had already been on the run for five years. He was one of several hundred children from Germany and Austria who were brought to Denmark by Youth Aliyah with the intention of moving them on to pre-Israel Palestine, but with the [00:26:00] Nazi invasion, they could go no further. They were trapped and taken in by Danish mostly farm families where they lived and were safeguarded until the need to escape Denmark arose.
Another Gerda passenger that we know of, was a 14-year-old named Aaron Englehart, who lived in Copenhagen with his parents and four younger siblings. For Aaron and his family, the escape began with a knock on their door by their apartment building's manager, who came to warn them that the Nazis were coming and that they needed to hide. They spent the first night as fugitives in her apartment.
Then, because of their large number, dispersed until word reached Aaron's father that doctors at the hospital complex were organizing escape routes to Sweden. Following instructions, Aaron's father collected the family and headed to the hospital chapel. From there, they were led through an underground passage to an auditorium where hundreds of other Jews were already waiting. For a few nights, they were hidden in the nurses' quarters and then taken by ambulances to rendezvous points to meet Henny.
Step by step, she escorted them to the attic and Aaron provided rich details about the final seconds of that escape effort. In the earliest pre-dawn hours that the crew could appear to be riding the boat for its authorized mission, the crew boarded, and Henny led the Jews from the attic to the ground floor. There, she arranged them in two rows and there they stood in the darkness just inside the gate that opened onto the wharf and directly in front of them, they could see Gerda III just a few meters away across a cobblestone lane.
For them, depending on where you were in the month of October, that boat represented the first tangible sign in days or weeks that they could get out of this. They also saw one final obstacle between them and the boat and their hope of survival. That obstacle was two German sentries who marched up and down the dock in endless repetition, actually crisscrossing directly in front of Gerda, [00:28:00] going to the ends of the dock reversing course, and coming back again.
From Gerda III's deck, the crew watched these sentries as well, waiting for the moment when they were nearing the end of the wharf with their backs turned when the moment was as good as it was going to get for one more person to race across to the boat. When that chance arose, when that moment came, they would signal Henny and Henny would literally propel the next person out because there was no time for debate, no time to someone to ask maybe later would be better. That was the chance.
She would push them out. They would dash across the cobblestone lane into the hands of a waiting crew member who would lift them up and quickly deposit them into the cargo hold, which looks today as it did then, a space 10 by 12 feet, four and a half feet high in the center loaded, however at the time, with barrels, mainly barrels of oil for lighthouse generators in the center, other gear. The people would spend their time in there with their backs braced against the ceiling planks of the hull both to be further recessed, harder to find if anybody opened it up, also to be braced against the motion of the boat.
Hatch covers would be put over them. As much heavy gear as possible were deposited on top of that to discourage people from saying they want to see what's below, and the Jews would sit there in darkness, awaiting the boats authorized 7:00 AM departure time. When that time came and the crew started up the engine, the sentries would come on board for a cursory look around and the crew, being smart guys, decided early on that this will work out better for everybody if they make this a friendly encounter rather than a hostile one.
They always had a couple of beers ready to give to the sentries who would be glad to take them, would sit on the hatch covers above this area and there, they and the crew would exchange toasts and chatter while the boots of the German sentries were about this far above the heads of the refugees below. Finally, the moment came where they could cast off their lines and [00:30:00] head out to sea.
From inside the warehouse, Henny watched the boat depart before going home to sleep for a few hours and then repeat the entire process which she did day after day for a month. Over the month-long rescue, Gerda's crew used several routes and destinations that we've been able to document thus far. The shortest, 14 miles to a small harbor [unintelligible 00:30:20] up to about 25 miles, this more circuitous route to a more southerly port in Sweden.
In perfect conditions, the crossings would've taken about two to three and a half hours. In the conditions that tended to prevail, you could add about 25% to that. Each route had its significant hazards. On every route there was always the possibility of encountering a German patrol boat, which were limited in number but present, or hitting a floating mine or the hazards associated with rough weather. Early on October 4th, 5th, 6th, gale, or near-gale conditions persisted with waves seven to nine feet much of the way.
Not a significant problem for Gerda but certainly creating an uncomfortable situation for people below. As soon as they reached Sweden, the refugees were put ashore as quickly as possible so that Gerda could get back to its regular routine, show up at the lighthouse with its supplies, a lighthouse now also manned by German observers and anti-aircraft crews. There was no time to waste. The two known teenagers who escaped on Gerda described setting foot on Swedish soil, as you can imagine, as a moment of profound relief.
As Gerd put it, "A relief from anxiety, anxiety, anxiety." For all the hardships and early disasters, the rescue operation was an overwhelming success. It started with a trickle but it built quickly. October 3rd, 300 people brought across. October 4, 400 in a full gale. October 5, 550. October 6 and 7, 700 people per day.
On the two biggest [00:32:00] days, October 8, Erev Yom Kippur, 1,100 people and on Yom Kippur day itself, the biggest day of the rescue operation, 1,400 people were brought across. Success was due to several factors. First and foremost, the shere number of participants, hundreds of boats from scores of harbors and hundreds of rendezvous points along the shore, places where people would wade out in waters up to chest deep to be hauled to board waiting for boats.
Surge of resistance activities on land, sabotage of plants that were turning out war equipment that diverted the Gestapo from searching for Jews to safeguarding their supply chain. The Danish Navy's demolition of its own fleet, which deprived the Nazis of what could have been an effective line of coastal patrol boats, and 1,300 fishing boats that were out day and night providing camouflage just by doing their job.
When the October rescue was over, many boats and rescuers went back to regular occupations. Others, including Gerda and the people associated with it, did not. By September 1943, resistance was starting to erupt, but the Jewish rescue operation catapulted it to levels beyond what it had ever been and might ever have become.
For the Gerda III rescue group and for the country as a whole, the rescue was a transforming experience. For the student group, with which Henny bonded, the rescue was a bridge from underground press reporting on resistance to active participation. For Henny it was a bridge from bystander status to combatant. Mix helped bring her across that bridge. He reached out for Henny soon after the Jewish rescue operation had begun and spoke to her about some more work that he had in mind once the Jews were safe.
Recounting that conversation Henny said, "For a long time, we walked and talked together and he told me a little about what work was going to be. Mix did not hide that the work was dangerous and suggested I take my time giving him an answer, but there was no reason for me to wait [00:34:00] because, of course, I wanted to join."
This was a process that repeated itself throughout Denmark, as people joined groups whose members were tested during the rescue and proved that they could relied upon, as people found out what they had within themselves, and as they discovered that they could have a profound impact on the course of events.
For Henny and other members of the Gerda III rescue group, throwing that away and going back to passive acceptance of the occupation would've been unbearable. Jorgen's university group with Mix, a few of his fellow navy cadets, and Henny operating as Holger Danske II became one of Denmark's most aggressive armed resistance groups. Their main task was blowing up factories that produced German war machinery.
Henny, explaining her initial role, said, "My job was among other things to help the boys before a sabotage mission to see if Germans were there. I usually walked with one of the boys,” undoubtedly Mix, “and we were supposed to look very much in love, not caring about anything in the world except the two of us and at the same time, look around to see if there were any Germans. This is how I got into it and then one thing led to another."
Over the four months following the rescue of the Danish Jews, Henny's group blew up 22 major industrial sites that was producing Nazi war equipment. One of their raids significant enough to make the pages of the New York Times in the midst of World War II. The raids escalated into all out military attacks, some machine guns, powerful explosives, each successful attack leading to something larger and more daring.
Among the most spectacular was the January 15 bombing of the Burmeister Wain shipyard, Copenhagen's largest, which was then producing engines for the German Navy. Using a commandeered police boat to attack the shipyard, Mix led a 10-man team armed with pistols, some machine guns, hand grenades, and over 400 pounds of dynamite that put the plant out of commission for six months, and with the shipyard ablaze, Henny waited nearby for Mix and three other [00:36:00] escaping saboteurs each carrying weapon-filled suitcases and led them to a nearby apartment hideout that she obtained for the night.
"There, after the others left," Henny recounted, "Mix and I pulled all the furniture in front of the door. Then we put the suitcases loaded with guns and grenades on the floor and spent a very uncomfortable night on top of them." Less than three weeks after the Burmeister attack, the group launched simultaneous attacks on two factories just above the border with Germany.
Putting them in unfamiliar territory, in an area that had been part of Germany in the past, where allegiances were somewhat uncertain, they succeeded in blowing up one factory and when they didn't succeed in blowing up the other that night, they decided to stay and take another crack at it the next evening.
While they were grouped, the Nazis closed in and in a series of running gun battles, two members of the group were killed, Jorgen Kieler and another member of the group shot and captured, several others taken into Nazi custody. As the Nazis closed in, The Freedom Council, a governing body of the resistance ordered the evacuation of members of the group who were still at large.
Henny and Mix were transported separately on a Danish police boat. In late February 1944, Henny later recounting that they were followed by a German patrol boat that fired some shots at us that apparently hit enough so that the boat began to take on water but not enough to stop it.
Throughout the group's onshore resistance work, throughout those four months and beyond Gerda III continued to perform rescue missions. No longer crossing by day but now several nights each week, it brought across allied airmen, fighter pilots, and bomber crews whose planes were too badly damaged to make it back to their bases and had to land, crash, or parachute onto Danish soil and an ever-increasing number of Danish resistance fighters and their families who had to flee when the Nazis were closing in on them. It did that every week until the war was over.
In Sweden, Henny and Mix joined the Danish Brigade. Their lives consisted of training [00:38:00] for what they hoped would be a D-Day invasion of the Danish coast and again, an opportunity to kick the Nazis out of their country interspersed with marriage proposals month after month, to which Henny always had the same response, "Marry you, of course, but not here, not now. When the war's over, when there's peace and we're back home with our families."
After one such exchange on New Year's Eve at the start of 1945, Henny received a message, "Mix has left." He got into a rowboat impatient with waiting possibly for Henny, certainly to get back into battle, he got into a rowboat and rowed back to Denmark landing just south of Hamlet Castle at Elsinore to resume his sabotage work.
Henny received letters from time to time that would be brought across by boats doing work for the resistance, but you could never respond. Working in Denmark as a saboteur, he could never have a return address. The last of his letters, dated February 23rd, was received on March 4. In that he wrote, "My team had a terrible disappointment. The job did not go as planned. Had it succeeded, it would've made the world news. Otherwise, things are going well, but how I long for you. You would be such a help to me now, but we had our time and it'll come again when this is over."
Sadly, that was not to be. Between the time Mix wrote the letter and the time Henny received it, he was captured and killed by the Nazis. It was a burden she carried for the rest of her life feeling that if she had been more flexible with her timing, perhaps the outcome would've been different. I think unfairly. I think he would've gone to fight no matter what.
After a long and difficult transition, she did return to life, lived it well, eventually married another resistance fighter, and returned as well to what she had loved before the war. Jorgen Kieler who was shot, tortured, sent to a concentration camp for 15 months, emerged barely alive at the war's end to become one of Scandinavia's leading cancer [00:40:00] researchers.
The Danish Jews return from Sweden to homes and businesses that in almost every case, the Danes had maintained for them throughout their absence. At the Seaport in addition to the privilege of caring for the boat, I often have the opportunity to discuss the story with visitors. Adults often remark that Gerda is the most significant vessel at the Seaport, despite four other vessels that have been designated national historical landmarks.
Young people have interesting reactions as well. After one recent conversation with an Orthodox Jewish family, as they turn to leave Gerda's doc, I overheard their daughter, a girl of about 12, ask her mother, "Were the people who owned the boat Jewish?" When her mother replied, no, I heard a follow-up with a second question, "Then why did they help the Jews?"
It struck me that this may have been the first time in this person's young life that it occurred to her that people outside of her community might actually care about her. The question she asked is a question that goes to the essence of the story, to the culture and insights that prevented antisemitism from taking hold in Denmark and that set the stage for the rescue.
When the great test arose, secular and religious voices in Denmark combined to urge, indeed demand, that Danes rally to the aid of the Jews from The Freedom Council, the resistance oversight group, came an open letter in the underground press calling on all Danes to help Jewish fellow citizens escape and warning that every Dane who provides help to the Nazis and the persecution of the Jews is a traitor and will be punished as such.
From the bishops of the Danish Lutheran church, to which 94% of the population belonged, came a letter read in every church on the Sunday following the Gestapo's Friday night raids stating that whenever Jews are persecuted for racial or religious reasons, it's the duty of the Christian Church to protest against such persecution and that, in light of Danish history and our constitution, as well as our own religious beliefs, we must fight to preserve for our Jewish brothers and sisters the same freedom [00:42:00] which we ourselves value more than life itself.
These were undoubtedly stirring words but words that cannot have produced the immediate and widespread response that was needed if the message wasn't already deeply embedded in the Danish people. For more than a century, Danish institutions, government, church, schools instilled the belief that a nation is at its best when its people are united as countrymen rather than divided by religion or race.
That, in words that were spoken in parliament in support of passage of the anti-hate criminal statute in the aftermath of Kristallnacht that antisemitism was not just an insult and a danger to the Jews but a threat to Danish democracy. That once you go down the path of relegating a part of society to second-class status, the illness will spread and poison society as a whole. That was a core part of the Danish creed.
Those words spoken in parliament in supportive of the act which passed overwhelmingly were so clearly born out at the war's conclusion when, once again, a regime built upon hate was consumed by it and reduced to ashes while Denmark's commitment to democracy, equality, religious freedom brought it through the ultimate test in some ways stronger than before.
We have here a rare Holocaust story that uplifts and inspires, that leaves no doubt who we would want to be, that demonstrates the capacity and the responsibility of ordinary individuals to act when liberties and lives are threatened. It's a story that Gerda III embodies and how fitting it is that we have this lighthouse tender to light the way in times of darkness. I'd encourage you to come visit Gerda III at the Seaport. It's always on display in the water.
Starting in late May, it's going to be part of an upcoming storybooks exhibit focusing on Gerda and a few other boats that have compelling people's stories attached. [00:44:00] I encourage you also to visit an upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do, which opens on June 17. For more info you might purchase my book Henny and Her Boat but being a full disclosure kind of guy, I'll tell you also there's a new edition somewhat larger with facts that people came to disclose to me by virtue of the existence in the first edition.
Barbara: Thanks for listening, and I invite everyone to go down to Mystic Seaport Museum to visit the Gerda III. She's a lovely little boat and deserving of your attention. Who knows? You might see Howard there. If you are an educator and you're interested in the professional development on Holocaust and genocide studies, the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, along with the Genocide Education Project will be offering a full-day conference on August 23rd, that's a Tuesday, entitled Navigating the Holocaust and Genocide Education Law. Bringing history, understanding, and awareness into the classroom.
We will be offering six PLUs for your attendance, so we hope that you can join us. Look on the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education website to register for that conference. The theme music for this episode has been dramatic inspiring film music by RED productions. Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and is brought to you by library staff and community members all around the Ocean State.
You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and give us a review on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to help us reach more Rhode Islanders. [00:46:00] Rhody Radio is funded by a grant from the American Rescue Plan, Humanities Grants for Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan act of 2021. Thanks again for listening.
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