David Bruce: Holocaust



Preben Munch-Nielsen was 13 years old on April 9, 1940, when wave after wave of Nazi bombers flew over Denmark and dropped leaflets saying that German soldiers were going to occupy Denmark to protect its citizens from an Allied invasion. Of course, no one in Denmark had requested this “protection.” Preben, like other Danish students, detested the Nazi occupation of their country, and he, like other Danish students, began to distribute underground newspapers that were critical of the Nazis. In 1942, a Danish police officer named Thormod Larsen saw him secretly distributing the underground newspaper and said, “You realize that you can be arrested for having copies of an illegal newspaper and for distributing them.” Preben replied, “You can’t believe anything the regular newspapers say because they only print what the Nazis want. So we need to print the truth. Why should that be a crime?” Officer Thormod asked, “Is the truth worth you risking the wrath of the Nazis?” Preben answered, “Doing the right thing is always worth the risk, sir.” Preben was afraid that he would be arrested, but Officer Preben surprised him by smiling, taking one newspaper to read, and giving back to him the rest of the newspapers. Later, the Danes received word that the Nazis were going to start deporting all Danish Jews to concentration camps. Officer Thorson asked Preben, “Are you still delivering underground newspapers?” Preben admitted that he was, and Officer Thorson enlisted his help in saving Jews: “I have a job for you. There’s a Jewish family who needs our help. Within an hour they’ll arrive at the train station. Go there and meet them. Take them to Dr. Jorgen Gersfelt’s home.” Preben did that, and then he was ordered to the Snekkersten Inn, where he met members of the Elsinore Sewing Club. The purpose of the club was not sewing; instead, its purpose was saving Jews. Preben began delivering Jews first to safe houses and then to fishing boats that would take them to Sweden. This was dangerous work. The Nazis confiscated one Danish fishing boat because after it returned from a trip delivering Jews to Sweden, its fishing nets were dry. After that, Danish boats transferred Jews and dry nets to Swedish boats, and Swedish boats transferred fish and wet nets to Danish boats. Soon, Preben began making crossings on the fishing boat of Erling Kiaer. These heroes often paid a price for saving lives. Preben eventually had to go to Sweden to escape being arrested by the Nazis. The Nazis shot Officer Thorson, but he was taken to a hospital where he recovered. The Nazis captured Erling Kiaer on May 11, 1944, and they imprisoned and tortured him for nearly a year, but he lived to be free again. Erling Kiaer’s fishing boat is now on permanent display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. That fishing boat carried an estimated 1,400 refugees to Sweden. Why did Preben and other Danes act to save Denmark’s Jews, 99 percent of whom survived the Holocaust? Preben once said, “You can’t turn your back on people who need your help. It’s a matter of decency.”

During the Holocaust, Jews were sometimes able to escape being sent to concentration camps by hiding in the woods — and sometimes in caves. In the Ukraine, several Jews (mainly three families — the Stermers, the Dodyks, and the Kurzes) hid for months at a time in two separate caves. Some of the Jews left at night in order to get food and supplies, but some stayed underground the entire time. Esther Stermer and her family were among these Jews hiding from the Germans. She said to her oldest son, “We are not going to the ghetto. We are not going to go to the slaughterhouse. Go into the forest, find a hole, any hole, any place.” They did find a hole that led to a cave. Esther and most of the Jews survived, although they had to move from one cave to another after the Germans found them. Her strong spirit and the loyalty of her family and of the other Jewish families kept them alive in the worst times possible. After the Russian army arrived (the Russians and the Americans were among the Allies fighting the Germans), they left the cave. Pepkale Dodyk, who was one of the children in the cave, had forgotten about the sun, and because it was so bright, she asked her mother to put out the light. They entered a Displaced Persons camp. Eventually, the Stermers came to the United States, where Esther wrote a book in Yiddish about their survival. In 1973, the book, We Fight to Survive, was privately printed in English. In this book, she wrote, “The world had turned animal — or worse. Every day conditions became worse. Death stalked each step … But we were not surrendering to this fate. Our family in particular would not let the Germans have their way easily. We had vigor, ingenuity, and determination. Above all our family would stand together.”

Marion Pritchard helped save 150 Dutch Jewish adults and (mostly) children during the Holocaust. Once, she hid some children under some floorboards in her house while a Dutch police officer and three Nazis searched her house. After the men had left, she let the children out of their hiding place — and the tricky Dutch police officer returned, alone, and saw the children. She shot and killed him. Karel Poons, a Jewish ballet dancer, came to her aid. Despite the curfew, and although he might have been killed if he had been caught, he walked to the village and spoke to the baker, who agreed to come and remove the corpse of the slain Dutch police officer. Ms. Pritchard took an active role in saving Jewish children, and other people helped in smaller ways. Some people knew that other people were hiding Jewish children, but they kept quiet and did not turn them in. The man who delivered milk to her house guessed that she was hiding Jewish children, and every day he left her some extra milk.

“I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it…” — Elie Wiesel (Night)





William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose, by David Bruce


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