Tied to a dock at the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut a small, white lighthouse tender sports a huge Danish flag on its stern. The little boat, the Gerda III, belongs to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Manhattan’s Battery Park City. It was given to the museum by the Danish parliament in recognition of what the Gerda III and its crew did in October 1943 when Germans attempted to round up the Jewish population of Denmark for extermination.
Over a period of several weeks, the 46-foot-long Gerda III made numerous trips across the sound that separates Copenhagen, Denmark from Sweden, each time with 10 to 15 Jews packed into its tiny hold. In Sweden, which was neutral, the Jews were safe from Hitler’s Nazis. The little ship and its brave crew saved 300 lives.
Almost 70 years have passed since then, but the story of the rescuers and the rescued remains as gripping as it was when it happened.
In 1943, there were 7,500 Jews living in Denmark. Germany had occupied Denmark since April 1940, but the Danes had been allowed to continue their government with little interference. Jewish life also went on as it had before. Danish Jews continued to hold religious services and retained their businesses and their property.
On Sept. 29, 1943, that changed. The day before, a senior German official, G. F. Duckwitz, had quietly alerted some senior members of the Danish government that the Jews were going to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps beginning on Oct. 1. The Danish officials contacted the heads of the Jewish community and told them to urge everyone to flee. Danes — Jewish and non-Jewish — went door to door to Jewish households with the news.
One of those who fled, Herbert Pundik, then 16 years old and later a journalist, wrote a book about what occurred. “The result was that on the night of October 1st, when the Germans came, most Danish Jews had flown the coop,” he wrote. “They sought refuge with non-Jewish friends and acquaintances or with complete strangers who opened their doors to them.”
Then hidden in trucks and in ambulances, the Jews were driven to the coast, where they were surreptitiously ferried to Sweden. Several hundred ships took part in the rescue. Gerda III was one of them. More than 7,000 people were saved — almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark.
At the time, Henny Sinding, 19 years old, was working for a lighthouse-tending business that her father managed. The Gerda III’s crew approached her to ask her help and her father’s permission to use the boat to rescue the Jews.
“Henny’s father gave tacit permission,” said Anita Kassof, Deputy Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “and thereafter for that critical month of October she would leave her parents’ house at one in the morning to go smuggle Jews and her parents essentially just looked the other way.”
A video called “Rescuers” in the Museum of Jewish Heritage honors people such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler who aided the Jews. The segment about the rescue of the Danish Jews is simply entitled “Denmark.”
“Everybody in Denmark helped the Jews,” says Leif Donde — among those rescued — in the video. “It was the students, the workers, the business executives. It was the farmers. It was the fishermen.”
Henny Sinding appears in the video as Henny Sinding Sundø — her married name — by then a woman in late middle age with a weathered, sunburned face, short hair, no jewelry, a dab of lipstick and bright, blue eyes.
“Why should the Germans kill our Danes?” she asks in the video. “They were Danes like we were. Danes? Jews? They were just Danes.”
Of her role in the rescue, which would have resulted in imprisonment and death had she been caught, she says, “Nobody – he or she – thinks that they are heroes because it was not a very heroic thing to do. It was just a natural thing to do.”
In the video, another woman, Elsebet Kieler, who participated in the rescue, explains her actions by saying, “If you want to remain a human being and take care of your own human dignity, you have to take care of your neighbor. It’s the same thing. You have to protect everyone.”
Denmark was the only Nazi-occupied country that managed to save most of its Jewish citizens. In fact, elsewhere much of the local population enthusiastically collaborated with the Germans in rounding up the Jews.
The Danes protected not only Jewish lives but Jewish property. “Most of the Jews came back after the war and they found their houses intact,” said Kassof. “It’s really a remarkable story. I think it’s a testament to the Danish character.”
Anita Kassof said that Gerda III is in Mystic, Conn. rather than in Manhattan because the Mystic Seaport, a world-renowned maritime museum, has a full-time staff to care for the boat and to make sure that people have access to it and that it’s being interpreted accurately.
“What started out as a temporary arrangement at Mystic has become unofficially a permanent arrangement,” she said. “It’s working out well for everyone.”
For Mystic Seaport hours, admission prices and directions, go to www.mysticseaport.org/. For information about the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place, go to www.mjhnyc.org/. Herbert Pundik’s book, “In Denmark It Could Not Happen” about the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden is available in the Museum of Jewish Heritage bookstore for $16.95.