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The Danish Jews Holocaust Rescue Interview with Hans Henrik Welin

Hans Henrik Welin
Hans Henrik Welin

A Family Legacy:

I met Hans years ago when I resumed my Hebrew classes, and we both ended up in the same online study group with students from different parts of the world.

Despite Hans living in Copenhagen and me in Uruguay, over time and with the trust that comes with years, we shared family stories that brought us closer to enriching our human connection.

Hans told me that he felt a deep connection to the Jewish people, having spent some years in Israel during his youth, and that his paternal grandfather had participated in the Danish resistance, saving Jews from deportation ordered by the Nazis.

The Danish people set an exceptional example of solidarity, protection, and rescue of Jews from Nazi persecution. In this context, Hans's grandfather, Axel Jens Vilhelm Hansen, as a member of the resistance, actively played a role by offering his home as a hiding place and meeting point for Jews in their clandestine escape to Sweden.

In October 1943, upon learning of the Nazis' intentions to deport the Jews, the organized Danish resistance managed to save over 7200 Jews and 700 non-Jews from death, providing them with the means to find refuge in safe lands.

Here, I share part of Hans's story and the family memories preserved from Axel's history. His legacy, showcases the altruism and courage displayed by numerous anonymous heroes who defended and honored the paramount principle of the value of life.

In times of such darkness, may the festival of Hanukkah illuminate us with the light of hope and the longing for peace.

  • Hans, tell us about Denmark during the Second World War and the role of its citizens in the face of Nazi occupation, along with its policy of persecution against the Jews.

In 1940, the Germans occupied Denmark through land, air, and sea attacks, prompting sporadic resistance from the Danish army. The German Wehrmacht threatened severe consequences unless Denmark ceased its resistance, as their primary interest lay in using Denmark as a strategic foothold to facilitate the takeover of Norway.

Despite the occupation, Denmark maintained relative peace as the government functioned and negotiated specific terms with the Germans. Notably, the Danes secured an agreement that Jews would be treated like any other Danish citizens.

In the summer of 1943, as Germany faced defeats in the war, Danish resistance intensified due to frustration with German oppression. Sabotage and confrontations ensued, prompting Hitler to summon his commander, Werner Best, to Berlin. The Danish government distanced itself from German retaliation, dissolving after the Danish army faced riots and sabotage, plunging Denmark into unrest.

Fearing repercussions, Werner Best, in September, proposed an action against the Jews to please Hitler. The proposal was well-received in Berlin, sparking extensive planning. The SS was reinforced, and additional German police and soldiers were mobilized. A ship capable of accommodating 6000 individuals was commissioned to sail to Copenhagen.

The Jewish community in Denmark was seamlessly integrated, regarded as Danish citizens alongside their fellow countrymen. Recognizing the potential for public outrage and a surge in sabotage, even Werner Best advocated for postponing the planned action. The German ambassador in Copenhagen, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, tipped off the Danish authorities about the impending operation scheduled for the night between October 1st and 2nd, coinciding with Rosh Hashaná.

Within three days, all Jews in Denmark were warned, largely residing in Copenhagen. The resistance movement orchestrated a massive rescue operation, guiding Jews to the safety of Danish citizens' homes and organizing their escape to Sweden.

From these safe locations, they were discreetly guided in small groups to fishing boats or other vessels in the harbor. The daring fishermen, risking both their vessels and lives, asserted a fee for the crossings. Collaboratively, the Jewish community banded together, assisting one another in meeting the financial requirements. Under the cover of night, these boats sailed towards Sweden, located ten to twenty kilometers away, depending on the chosen route. Sweden, a neutral nation, provided care and refuge once the Jews safely crossed its borders.

Jewish on the way to Sweden
Jewish on the way to Sweden

On the day of the planned action, German soldiers blocked roads, silenced the telephone network, and knocked on doors of empty houses and flats. However, only 202 Jews were apprehended along with 200 non-Jewish communists, sent to Theresienstadt. reaction was severe, but with little results. The Danish public became aware, and the organized resistance, with the aid of fishermen, continued the successful rescue operation.

  • There is a very strong family history that ties back to your grandparents and their commitment to risk their lives to safeguard Danish Jews from deportation. But first of all, tell us about your connection to the Jewish people.

The connection to the Jewish people stems from my grandparents and their commitment in the resistance during the second world war. These facts had a great influence on my father and later on me. He became a member of "The Friends of Israel," a society that no longer exists. Our family always held great respect for the Jewish community, though regrettably, we didn't personally know any Jewish individuals.

In the 1970s and 80s, a considerable number of young people, including myself, traveled to Israel to volunteer in the Kibbutzim through a program organized by the Danish company Danida. This journey marked a significant chapter in my life, but to delve into the full narrative, I'd need to recount my life's story in more detail.

Hans Welin in israel, 1982
Hans in Israel, 1982

  • Hans, tell us about your grandparents.

My grandfather Axel Jens Vilhelm Hansen, was born on the 4th of August 1891 and passed away on the 17th of June 1957 when I was just 5 years old.

His father, a relatively affluent man, held a prominent position as the leader of the weapon workshop in the central army buildings in Copenhagen, (a position that later it will be taken by my grandfather).  During his youth, he resided with his family in a spacious apartment in the heart of Copenhagen and in this well -being atmosphere was where my grandfather spent his formative years.

He was a very meticulous individual, always impeccably dressed, possessing excellent manners, good looks, and popularity. Despite his own aspirations to become an actor, his father, a man of influence, directed him to follow in his footsteps, and dissent was not tolerated. Undeterred, he engaged with the Royal Theatre, where his mother worked during his free time, taking on extra roles and minor parts. Additionally, he participated in an amateur theatre, where his comedic talent shone, endearing him to the audience and was deeply involved in the Boy Scout movement.

He had a lot of interest in sailing that even had his own boat. It’s likely that my grandfather's extensive network in the sailing community played a role in his assistance to Jews seeking refuge in Sweden. I'm not certain whether he sailed himself; it's entirely possible that he did. However, I am confident that he would never have charged money for it. Later on, my father followed in his footsteps, adopting many of my grandfather qualities such as acting, craftsmanship, being well-dressed, good behavior and the same pleasure of sailing.

My grandmother, Ellen Kirstine Frederikke Larsine Jensen,  was born on 24th of February 1894. She was a dedicated housewife and mother to a son and a daughter. She held a profound interest in history, a passion that my father later embraced. Specifically, she was fascinated by the history of Copenhagen and its citizens. A skilled storyteller, whenever she visited, my siblings and I eagerly gathered around her in the morning, clamoring for a captivating tale. She possessed distinctive features—brown eyes and dark hair—that were somewhat uncommon in Denmark. According to my father, her family's roots could be traced back to Poland.

Ellen and Axel Hansen
Ellen and Axel

  • What were the occupations of your grandparents?

He became a weapon specialist for the Danish Rifle Syndicate and was dispatched to Siam (Thailand) to serve as a consultant in the sales of rifles to the Prince of Siam. This endeavor marked one of his remarkable adventures, as the Orient retained a considerable mystique at that time. However, he contracted dysentery during his stay and endured a life-threatening bout.

There is a very interesting story that occurred between him and the Prince that illustrate this historical period. During a pivotal demonstration, when the Prince wished to test the rifle, Axel, along with his court, convened in the garden where various dignitaries were in attendance—generals, officers, and the like. Axel provided instructions, but when the Prince fired the weapon, the recoil proved forceful, causing him to tumble backward onto the grass.

My grandfather promptly assisted him to his feet, yet the remainder of the court and officials discreetly concealed their amusement. It was emphasized to Axel that any display of amusement, including smiling or laughter at the Prince's expense, would result in severe consequences, possibly the loss of heads. In recognition of his contributions, Axel received an ancient Buddha figurine from the Prince of Siam.

On the ship on the way to Siam
On the ship on the way to Siam

  • What role did your grandparents play in the actions to save Jews from deportation?

My grandparents were both Christians, although not devout believers, and Axel was a member of the Danish resistance against the Nazis.

As mentioned earlier, Axel, was a skilled weapon smith and the leader of the weapon workshop in the central military barracks of Copenhagen. After the events of October 2nd, the resistance mobilized its members, and Axel became involved in maintaining weapons, providing advice, and guiding individuals. He assisted in arranging for Jews to seek refuge in their private flat, conveniently located near the harbor of Copenhagen, a key point for crossings. The Jews, identified through synagogue contacts and Danish agents in the resistance, underwent a meticulously secret rescue operation. Following the German action, desperate Jews began arriving at the flat, quickly filling the space.

My grandmother, Ellen, received a substantial amount of clothing that allowed her to provide individuals with a new coat if their current one bore a yellow star or if they were not appropriately dressed for the crossing. Once twenty to thirty people had gathered, they were directed to the boat via two stairs—front and back—leading from the flat. Axel, was part in one of these groups, negotiated with the fishermen and paid them. Remarkably, Axel never charged anything for his assistance.

On the boat, the group remained in the store room until reaching Swedish waters, where they were permitted on deck. Axel returned to the flat to coordinate new arrivals, illustrating the intricacies of the covert network. Some locations north of Copenhagen experienced larger operations, and between October 4th and 16th, approximately 6,000 of the 8,000 Jews had been transferred to Sweden.

Axel Hansen during the war II days
Axel during these days

While some German units were lax in pursuing Jews, others were diligent. As the Germans faced little success, leaders in Berlin, frustrated, sent Adolf Eichmann to Copenhagen. Eichmann and Werner Best decided to intensify tracking places where Jews gathered before transfer.

One afternoon in late October, Axel and Ellen were sitting in their flat. Ellen's mother, who was over 90 years old, was there too. Suddenly, a loud knock on the door echoed, accompanied by a harsh German voice shouting, "Machen Sie sofort auf (Open now)!!" Axel swiftly got up, rushed down the back stairs typically used for discarding trash, and fled. Meanwhile, Ellen, responding in Danish, stated, "Coming!" as she didn't understand a word of German.

When she opened the door, a group of Gestapo officers entered, asking questions in German. Eventually, one of them switched to Danish and inquired about her husband. However, as they could see he was not present and she didn't know when he would return.

Surprisingly, they didn't question the old lady, who likely would have divulged all the information. Instead, they barged in, searching the entire flat. One soldier even opened the wardrobe cupboard, running his hand through the clothes to check for hidden individuals. Unfortunately for them, they failed to notice the Jewish garments with yellow patches bearing the Jewish star and the word "Jude" written on them. Eventually, they departed.

Axel and Ellen Hansen  in denmark second war
Axel and Ellen in that time

Fortunately, the day before, they had just shipped off a group, avoiding detection. Afterward, most of the Jews were rescued, and my grandfather went into hiding, spending a month in their allotment garden house.

In this story, we must not forget to mention the efficiency of the Jews themselves. In the beginning, the Danish population was not as alert as the Jews, and anyone who witnessed their bravery and actions was filled with respect. The Jews played a significant role in organizing many of the initial escapes.

470 Jews were deported, and at this point, influential Danish figures from the former government pressured Werner Best to divert them to Theresienstadt rather than an extermination camp. Subsequently, the Danish Red Cross gained permission to send food to the camp, a fact later confirmed by the surviving Jews. However, it was undoubtedly a challenging ordeal for anyone enduring their stay.

As the war concluded, the Red Cross of Sweden arrived in white buses adorned with red crosses. These buses transported all the survivors back to Denmark. From the Danish border, thousands of Danes lined the 400 km road to Copenhagen, creating a jubilant atmosphere upon arrival. The streets teemed with people expressing joy, offering food, flowers, and cheers.

The entire sequence of events can be deemed a miracle, thanks to the collaboration between the Jews and the Danes.

Only 100 individuals lost their lives—some drowned during the crossing, and around 50 perished in Theresienstadt, mainly frail and elderly individuals. While we mourn the loss of these good people, it is noteworthy that Danish Jews boasted the highest survival rate in Europe. We express our gratitude. Amen.

  • Denmark as a society rallied to protect its Jewish citizens by fighting the Nazi demands to surrender the Jews. Why do you think this exemplary behavior was not imitated in other countries? If it had been like this, the story of the jewish people during the holocaust it would probably have been different….

One of the most compelling reasons why Danish Jews received acceptance and assistance from the Danes is their complete integration into Danish society, fostering a sense of mutual respect. Today, there is no special emphasis on the Jewish community in Denmark; they are perceived just like any other citizens, making them an integral part of our society. This inclusive approach could potentially offer a solution to similar issues elsewhere in the world.

While the Danish government has faced accusations of being too lenient toward the Germans during the war, it's essential to acknowledge that the negotiations conducted during the initial years, from 1940 to 1943, played a crucial role in providing some level of protection and aid to the Jewish population.

  • How do you consider that this influenced the way you understand the history of the Jewish people?

For me, the Jewish people have overcome all their hardships through their will to survive. Up to this day, we witness that the covenant of the Jewish people with HaShem (God) remains alive. During the three years I lived in Israel, I came to know a people and a country unlike any I had experienced in Europe, having visited almost all countries.

The happiness I felt in Israel was present from the day I arrived until the day I left. I was mesmerized by its people, and being born a Christian proves that it has an extraordinary effect on anyone. No wonder the miracle that happened in Denmark would occur for our beloved Jewish people.


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