Last vessel used to save Danish Jews to feature at ceremony marking rescue
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Last vessel used to save Danish Jews to feature at ceremony marking rescue

A 30-foot cutter called Elisabeth K571 will be 'guest of honour' at event, marking 75th anniversary of the rescue of 7,000 Jews from the Nazis

Image of Elisabeth K571, pictured in 2017
Image of Elisabeth K571, pictured in 2017

Elisabeth K571 is not a name that fires the imagination, and to look at it, this small fishing boat does not suggest wonders. But for Denmark it is a symbol of resistance, and for the country’s tiny Jewish community, one of saviour.

A 30-foot cutter, now owned by a museum and recently restored, Elisabeth K571 is the last surviving vessel to have ferried Jews to the safety of Sweden in October 1943, and next month she is set to be ‘guest of honour’ at a 75-year anniversary event on Sunday 7 October.

The ceremony will take place in the port town in Køge, 30 miles south of Copenhagen, and will include 100 guests there to witness the unveiling of a 2.7 metre granite sculpture created to honour the remarkable and little-told rescue of 7,000 Danish Jews.

It is a story Danes are rightly proud to tell, a story of a nation’s reaction when – in October 1943, under Nazi occupation – Danish Jews started being rounded up.

Panicked Jewish families that had not yet managed to escape saw safety in neutral Sweden, just a few nautical miles away – agonisingly close and visible even on a misty day across the Øresund (Sound). But the coast, like the towns and cities, was patrolled by Gestapo.

Plans were quickly drawn up, and in the days and weeks that followed, Jews from Danish cities were secretly transported to places like Køge by the Danish Resistance, sometimes in mock funeral corteges, sometimes in ambulances under assumed names, nurses and doctors all in on it, registering their ‘patients’. From Køge, the persecuted were helped to the coast.

“From the town square Jews were transported in trolleys, lorries, buses and taxis, driven to Strøby Ladeplads, a little place near the coast south of Køge, where they were hidden in a farm called Tammoseholm,” recalls Bruno Juul, a project manager at the town’s Home Guard Association, which has organised the ceremony.

“Then, in the darkness, they rowed out to two waiting fishing boats. On 8 October 1943, up to 500 fugitive Jews sailed to freedom, landing at the small harbour of Klagshamn in Sweden.”

Juul said the Køge operation was Denmark’s largest, but similar efforts were made all along the coast, from villages such as Nivå, Sletten, Humlebæk, Gilleleje and Snekkersten.

By fair means and foul, Jews were spirited out to Sweden, transported over the water in whatever means available, including rowing boats, sailing boats and fishing boats, hidden under deck, always at night, always under the noses of German patrols.

In nearby Dragør, up to 700 Jews were ferried across the Sound in boats including Elisabeth K571, skippered by fisherman Einar Larsen, who saved 70 Jews alone before being interrogated about his activities by the Gestapo in 1944. He soon fled himself, living out the rest of his days across the waters with those he saved.

He was one of the lucky ones. Some non-Jewish Danes lost their lives for their bravery, including Snekkersten innkeeper H. C. Thomsen, who was sent to Theresienstadt when his actions were discovered. He later died at the camp.

Juul says Danes’ wartime deeds have “so far been overlooked and not described in the history books,” but in the village of Gilleleje, where up to 900 Jews left, and where many local fishermen were interned, stands a 20-foot statue – a gift from Israeli billionaire and shipping tycoon Yuli Ofer in recognition of residents’ help.

Next month, the Home Guard Association in Køge will add another symbol of defiance, a reminder of the heroism of Danes, in a two-hour Sunday ceremony attended by Danish ministers and the Israeli and Swedish ambassadors.

Among those present will be 88-year old Rudolf Bier, father of the famous Danish film producer Susanne Bier, who was one of those rescued.

“When we saw the glowing light of Sweden, the skipper told us that we were in Swedish waters now and saved,” he recalled. “Then we all started singing – first the national anthem of Sweden and then the national anthem of Denmark.”

A penny for his thoughts as those anthems are sung again, under a free-flying Danish flag, with Elisabeth K571 anchored nearby.

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