The faith and courage of the Danish people, both Jews and Gentiles, led to a remarkable rescue.
A few weeks ago, in my day job, I preached a sermon called Number the Stars which featured an overview of the Danish rescue of the Jews and highlights from the well-known Lois Lowry children’s book. The main point of the sermon was that, like the Biblical patriarch Abraham, God’s people need to live by faith. Though not pointing directly to Christ, I felt that Lowry’s book explored the growing faith of a child even in the most difficult of circumstances, when surrounded by faithful adults.
Here’s how I opened the sermon:
One of the extraordinary stories to come out of the Nazi domination of Europe was the incredible courage of the people of Denmark in protecting and rescuing their Jewish population. There were not many Jews in Denmark when it was invaded by the Nazis in 1941, and because King Christian X surrendered his flat, undefended country, the first years of occupation were somewhat benign. But in 1943 the Nazis did away with King Christian’s government and took direct control. By September they had made plans to round up all 7800 of Denmark’s Jews and ship them to concentration camps.
But unlike many of the countries in occupied Europe, the Danes resisted this atrocity. On September 28, 1943 German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz leaked word of the operation against Denmark’s Jews to a politician, who contacted both the Danish Resistance and the head of the small Jewish community. At the early morning services, on September 29, the day prior to Rosh Hashanah, Jews were urged to go into hiding immediately and to spread the word to all their Jewish friends and relatives. This warning spread far and wide, and within a day the majority of Danish Jews were in hiding.
With the Germans actively seeking to capture the Jews, the Resistance spirited them to the fishing villages closest to the Swedish coast, in some places as close as 20 miles. Then brave Danish fishing captains and sailors transported the Jews across to safety and freedom. In this way 7200 of the 7800 Jews in Denmark were rescued. A few were captured, a few lost at sea. Some 500 were caught and sent to the Theresienstadt camp in the Czech Republic. Even there the tiny Danish government kept such pressure on the Nazis that they finally, before the war’s end, sent the surviving Jews to Sweden. 99 percent of Denmark’s Jews survived, by far the highest survival rate of any occupied territory.
Imagine being part of a Jewish family who had lived in Copenhagen for generations. Suddenly you are told you must leave the city and endure hardship, cold and hunger, hiding from the Germans. Finally you must climb into the lower hold of a tiny fishing boat and endure rough seas to reach a new and foreign home.
That scenario reminds me of the next big step in God’s story. Today we’ll see that Abraham who was called by God to leave all that he’d known would respond in faith.
Later I used Number the Stars to illustrate the steadfastness of the Danes, and how Annemarie, the book’s heroine, learned both the cruelty of the world and the need to trust.
One of the best books on the rescue of the Danish Jews is a children’s book by Lois Lowry called Number the Stars. Lowry tells the story through eleven-year-old Annamarie, who has a Jewish friend, Ellen Rosen. When the order to round up the Jews comes, Ellen moves in with Annamarie’s family, pretending to be a sister. They take her to a village where Annamarie’s uncle is a fisherman, and before long they’re joined by Ellen’s parents and other fleeing Jews. Then comes the night when they have to make the dangerous trek to the fishing boat under the eyes of the Germans. The story does a great job of describing the fear and risk of that moment when they have to leave everything behind.
In Lois Lowry’s book, there is a moment when the Jews assemble at the fisherman’s house, and to provide an excuse for the gathering, they put a coffin in the front room and sit as if in mourning. But a German patrol comes and questions the coffin. “Why isn’t it open, as is the custom? Open it.” Anna-Marie’s mother makes up a story of Great Aunt Birte dying of typhus. The Germans leave, but no one is convinced they’re really gone, so the group pretends to be mourning. And as Lowry writes the scene you know this really is mourning, and hope:
“Peter stood and drew the dark curtains across the windows. He relit the candle and reached for the old Bible on the mantel. He opened it at random. “I will read a psalm.” “Oh praise the Lord. How good it is to sing psalms to God! How pleasant to praise him! The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem; he gathers in the scattered sons of Israel. It is he who heals the broken in spirit and binds up their wounds, he who numbers the stars one by one . . . “
Gradually they began to relax. Annemarie could see the old man across the room, moving his lips as Peter read; he knew the ancient psalm by heart. Annemarie didn’t. The words were unfamiliar, and she tried to listen, tried to understand, tried to forget the war and the Nazis, tried not to cry, tried to be brave. The night breeze moved the dark curtains at the open windows. Outside, she knew, the sky was speckled with stars. How could anyone number them one by one? There were too many. The sky was too big. Ellen had said her mother was frightened of the ocean, that it was too cold and too big. The sky was, too, thought Annemarie. The whole world was: too cold, too big. And too cruel.”
Annemarie is too young to know how God’s people cling to his promise, but the adults in the room were comforted by God even in the most difficult circumstances.
Later Annemarie is able to show the same faith.
Near the beginning of Number the Stars, Annemarie takes a Star of David necklace from her Jewish friend Ellen and hides it from the Germans. Later, when Ellen left to cross to Sweden on the fishing boat, the two girls hugged. “I’ll come back someday,” Ellen whispered fiercely, “I promise.” “I know you will,” Annemarie whispered back, holding her friend tightly. Then they were gone.
After the climax of the story, the war was over, the Germans gone. Annamarie took the necklace from its hiding place. The little Star of David still gleamed gold. “Papa?” she said, returning to the balcony, where her father was watching the rejoicing crowd. “Can you fix this? I have kept it all this long time. It was Ellen’s.” Her father took it from her and examined the broken clasp. “I can fix it,” he said. “When the Rosens come home, you can give it back to Ellen.” “Until then,” Annemarie told him, “I will wear it myself.” Like Annemarie, like Abraham, we can cling to God’s promise of blessing. Even on this side of the cross, where the heart of that promise has already been seen, we still cling by faith, trusting that all that God promised will come home.
Here’s a link to the whole sermon: Number the Stars, Genesis 12:1-5, Genesis 15:1-21