Denmark & The Early Years of the War (1939-1945)
The Rescue of the Danish Jews & Swedish Neutrality
Hana and her fellow chaverim were placed on foster farms. Some lived close together and some lived far apart. While Hana was lonely in her life, adjusting from being part of a warm household to being a servant to a family with whom she shared no language, she understood how lucky she was.
In April of 1940, Denmark too was occupied, but unlike when the Nazis overtook Czechoslovakia, not much changed in Denmark. Because of the Danes Aryan looks and the importance of their food production for the Nazi army, they were spared the fate of so many other European countries. In addition, Kind Christian X of Denmark declared that all people in his country would be treated the same, regardless of their identity.
For three years, Hana moved from foster farm to foster farm. Her dream of sailing to Palestine soon vanished and reality set in; borders everywhere were closing and rumors of concentration camps were coming to the surface. In 1942, Hana decided she must have more of an education, so she began writing to schools asking if in exchange for work, she could attend classes. One school in Sorø, Denmark agreed. It was a finishing school which meant that it was intended for girls from rich families who wanted to learn how to keep a proper household. Every morning, Hana would wake up at 5 A.M. to clean and by 8 A.M. was sitting in the classroom.
After she graduated, a teacher set her up to work as a servant with a bankers family. It was now 1943. World War II was raging and the letters from back home stopped coming. Millions of people were being killed, including Hana’s parents and brother.
By the fall of 1943, Hitler decided that it was time to deport Denmark’s Jews, who up until this time felt little fear of persecution in comparison to Jews from other European counties. But, that plan was leaked to the resistance movement and in a spontaneous act of human decency, the Danes worked together, with cooperation from Sweden (who claimed neutrality throughout the war) to save 95% of the Jewish population. In the matter of a couple weeks in early October, over 7,000 Jews and members of the Danish resistance escaped across the Baltic Sea to Sweden.
Hana was on one of the last boats that left and shared this part of her survival story with the acting chief rabbi of Denmark, Marcus Melchior, who was escaping with his wife and children. The boat became lost at sea as it was navigated by a fisherman who had never sailed far from the coast before. For 19 hours, the refugees hid underneath herring with a paralyzing fear that would either drown or be caught and killed. It was by sheer luck that they found themselves on the safe shores of Sweden.
Once in Sweden, Hana found herself again in a new country, with no knowledge of the language, no money and no contacts. So, as she had done in Denmark, she wrote to schools asking if in exchange for cleaning, could she attain an education. A nursing school in the north of Sweden agreed. She remained there, creating a new life for herself, until the end of the war in 1945.
An Excerpt from Hana Dubova’s Diary, November 19, 1940
Activity #4 : ‘My World’
Instructions : Inspired by Hana’s diary entry, have students write their own version of ‘My World.’
Materials Needed : Student’s Journal.
Listening Activity # 1
WBUR’s Kind World Podcast (episode #49)
Notes to Teacher : This podcast is part of an award-winning 3-part series produced by WBUR, Boston’s local NPR station. It tells my story as I followed in Hana’s footprints. This specific episode will give the students an overview of Hana’s life throughout the wartime years and provide a concise and engaging way to learn a lot of history in a short period. It will also offer them a lens into how Hana’s journey has influenced my identity as the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor.
Materials Needed : Any device that can play a podcast or open a webpage (phone, ipad, computer).
Debrief Questions : What questions arise about Hana’s story? What pieces of history seem confusing or need clarifying? What questions does this bring up for the students about their own family history.
The Mass Escape of Jews from Nazi-occupied Denmark
Source : BBC, October 8, 2013
Debrief : Remind students that Hana Dubova was on the same boat as Bent Melchior and his family. If it is possible for students to pull out their phones and check Instagram, they can visit the Follow My Footprints Project Instagram (@followmyfootprintsproject) and see me talking with Bent as we travel to Sweden together. https://www.instagram.com/p/BXfRhQNgBWG/?taken-by=followmyfootprintsproject
Activity #5 : What Would You Bring?
Instructions for Teacher : Do not explain to the students the purpose of the activity. After the lesson about the rescue of the Danish Jews, give them a piece of paper and pen and tell them they have 10 minutes to list everything they would bring with them if they were told they were going to flee their home and never knew when they would be back. Inevitably, they will have a lot of questions. Do your best as the facilitator of this activity to keep everything vague. Just as refugees often don’t know where they are going or for how long, the students should be in the dark about where their hypothetical journey will take them. After the initial 10 minutes is up, tell them they have 5 minutes to break the list in half. Then give them 2 minutes to cut it down to only 10 items. Then they have another 2 minutes to cut it down to 5 items. Then they have only 1 minute to cut it down to 3 items. After the activity is over, everyone should share what are their final 3 items. Challenge their choices as they read (ex: if they say money, ask if they mean cash or credit card and why).
After this activity, hand out an article listing what Syrian refugees (or another group of displaced people) brought with them when they fled home.
Here are some options :
Debrief Questions :
- How does it make the students feel that there are more displaced people today than after World War II (this is the first time in recorded history that this is true). Remind them that displacement is not always caused by war, but can also be caused my environmental disasters and other types of persecution.
- One of the reasons that Sweden was able to help save Denmark’s Jewish population is because they claimed neutrality. Have a discussion about what it means to be neutral and whether it is a good or bad stance to take during sides of injustice (remember that there is no right or wrong answer to this question). You may want to start with this famous quote which is currently seen on a lot of protest posters : “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” - Desmund Tutu, South African Activist.
- Why is studying history important to understanding current events? How do you think that learning Hana’s story can help us understand the stories of refugees today?
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Denmark & The Early Years of the War (1939-1945)." (Viewed on December 2, 2023) <https://jwa.org/node/24925>.