Editor’s Note: Last week, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Babs (Andersen) Jessen, whose obituary appears on page four of this edition of The Progress Review. Babs was born on December 31, 1925 in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she grew up, attended schools and worked as a pharmacist assistant. Later, she worked as an au pair in Stockholm, Sweden and Los Angeles, in the United States. After working at Schoitz Hospital in Waterloo for a year, Babs married her husband, Borge Jessen, at the American Lutheran Church in La Porte City in 1953. She and Borge, a veterinarian, made their home on Main Street and raised two sons, Claus and Casper. Babs was just 14 years of age when the Nazis invaded Denmark, bringing with them the horrors of World War II to the Danes’ everyday life. In 2009, The Progress Review published a three-part series about her experiences during that dark period of history. As we recall the life of this remarkable woman, we hope you enjoy the following excerpts from that original series, much of it in her own words. -MW
The date was April 9, 1940; the time, 6:30 AM. The place was Copenhagen, Denmark. As Babs Andersen stood looking out the 4th floor window of the building housing her family’s apartment, she witnessed a most astonishing sight:
“I saw German planes flying just above the roof tops across the street. The planes did not [display] Nazi swastika markings, [instead] the Federal German Air Force insignia called the Cross Patée [also known as the “Iron Cross].”
At that moment in time, Babs and her fellow countrymen and women could not know how this blatant act of aggression from Denmark’s neighbors to the south would impact their lives over the next five years.
It was common knowledge in 1940 that Denmark would not be able to offer up much resistance to a German attack. British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill admitted as much when he said, “I could not reproach Denmark if she surrendered to a Nazi attack. The other two Scandinavian countries, Norway and Sweden, have at least a ditch over which they can feed the tiger, but Denmark is so terribly near Germany that it would be impossible to bring help.”
Given the small size of the country and its proximity to Germany, the invasion of Denmark was swift and overwhelming:
“Troops were hidden in commercial ships [located] in the Copenhagen harbor. Some also crossed the border [as part of a land invasion]. A few Danish soldiers fought back, but were told to stop their fire. All of Denmark was occupied in just one day, [the Nazis] taking over some schools and office buildings. I went to school that morning and stores stayed open, business went on as usual. Three years later, they [the Germans] took my school,” Babs recalled.
The German occupation resulted in many immediate changes for the residents of Copenhagen.
“We had to put up black out materials [over the windows] right away. There were tiny lights on cars and streetcars and at every street crossing. The Germans didn’t want any light showing that could be used by enemy bombers.”
“The Germans flew a flag with a swastika on it over each of the buildings they occupied. The German SS (short for Schutzstaffel, the German word for “protective shield”) would spot check streets and streetcars.” The SS was an elite corps of combat troops formed originally within the German Nazi party.
“The Germans stole money from Danish banks; their soldiers used Danish money to buy food. They walked the streets loaded down with as much food as they could get. They were so hungry! Germany needed us [Denmark] for food. They couldn’t get eggs in Norway because there were no chickens there.”
Despite the occupation, Danish King Christian X, unlike his neighboring monarchs, chose not to flee from the Germans. This outward show of strength set the tone for what would later become an organized movement of resistance against the Germans:
“King Christian X and the Royal House never left Denmark. When the Germans demanded all Jews wear a star on their sleeve, the King’s answer was, ‘Everybody will wear the star!’”
Holocaust is a word of Greek origin that means “sacrifice by fire.” When the German Nazis came to power in 1933, they targeted Jews as racially inferior to Germans. Other groups, such as the Communists and Socialists were persecuted for political reasons.
During World War II, as the Germans invaded and occupied numerous European countries, they proceeded to round up and murder Jews as part of a euthanasia program known as the “Final Solution.” By 1945, nearly two-thirds of all European Jews had been killed by the Nazi regime, a total estimated to be approximately six million.
The story of Jewish persecution in Denmark, however, was altogether a different one.
“The Danish have a history of religious tolerance, and the political leaders dismissed the idea of special treatment for the Jews. ‘We have no Jewish problem. We have only Danes.’”
“On the eve of Rosh Hashanah [September 30, 1943] the Germans raided Jewish homes throughout Denmark. The Resistance Movement had obtained advance information [about the raid] and passed the word. Danish citizens hid their Jewish friends and neighbors that night. Over the next few weeks, more than 7,200 Jews escaped Denmark to Sweden. Less than 500 fell into the hands of the Gestapo [secret state police] and most of them survived the war in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.”
It’s one of the more uplifting stories of World War II. When the Danish people found out that the Jews living in Denmark were going to be systematically rounded up and deported to German concentration camps, they decided that such an injustice was not going to happen. And it didn’t.
While two German passenger ships were docked in Copenhagen’s port, awaiting the transport of 5,000 Danish Jews to German concentration camps, word was quickly passed and countless Danes found places for their Jewish countrymen and women to hide. Of the estimated 8,000 Jews living in Denmark, it is believed that fewer than 100 were ultimately killed by the Germans.
“The Jews were able to escape to Sweden by fishing boats. The fisherman really risked their lives, hiding them in secret compartments in their boats.”
The German occupation of Denmark lasted for five long years. While the Danish people made every effort to conduct business as usual, their lives were altered in ways that were felt for many years after the war ended in 1945.
“Doctors, veterinarians and the police were rationed one gallon of gas per month. Travel was mostly done by bike or walking. I rode my bike to work (as a pharmacist’s assistant). Some medicines could not be made because the ingredients that came from faraway lands could not be imported. Each day, I carried my bike up to our apartment on the 2nd floor. If left downstairs, it would have been stripped for parts.”
As time moved forward, Danish resistance to the Nazis became more organized and effective:
“We did everything we could to drive the Germans nuts, to intimidate them. We would gather in large parks for community singing. We would take 10 kilometer ‘folk walks’ in the cities. The large number of Danes all in one place together made the Germans nervous.”
“We listened every night to the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] on the radio. The radio broadcast was used to record codes that told when and where to pick up weapons that were dropped [by allied aircraft]. A few planes went down. We hid [the pilots and soldiers who were shot down] until they could get a way back to England.
“When the war ended on May 5, 1945, we turned all the lights on and put candles in the window, something my generation still does on this day each year.”
Sixty four years after the “war to end all wars,” Babs Jessen looked back at a very dark chapter of the world’s history with remarkable clarity that is void of bitterness. When asked how a young woman and her fellow Danes survived the trauma of a five year Nazi occupation, the likes of which the vast majority of those living today could not begin to imagine, she responded with a smile:
“We did the best we could.”