The story of Henny Sinding Sundø and Gerda III, the boat Henny used to save Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, is a remarkable one. At 22 years-old, Henny played a pivotal role in planning and carrying out the rescue of hundreds of Jews via Gerda III. Together with the boat’s heroic four-man crew and a university-based resistance group with which she joined forces, Henny made Gerda III one of the leading vessels – quite possibly the leading vessel – in a fleet of hundreds of fishing boats and other craft that collectively saved nearly 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population. Day after day during the month of October 1943, Gerda III made clandestine crossings to unoccupied Sweden, with ten to fifteen refugees hidden in its small cargo hold each day. Today, Gerda III is believed to be one of only three Danish rescue boats still afloat (a fourth is displayed indoors in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), having been saved from the fate of other retired work boats and brought to the United States by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Also remarkable is the story of Howard Veisz, a current volunteer who steadfastly ensures that the stories of Henny and Gerda III are remembered and kept relevant for people around the world today.
Following a career in law, in 2009 Howard was ready to do something different. Howard and his wife, Lorraine, set out on a two-year sailing voyage across the Atlantic and then through Europe and the Caribbean. He figured they’d return from their trip and get back to real life. “But that’s the kind of experience that makes it hard to go back to what you’ve been doing before,” he explained.
With three transatlantic voyages under his belt, Howard became actively involved at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum in 2011. He was, in his own words, “the apprentice to the apprentice” in the rigging shop for a massive project: restoring Mystic’s 1841 whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, and getting it under sail for the first time in 93 years.
As the whaling ship project wound down, Howard’s interest in Gerda III, also docked at Mystic Seaport Museum, arose. The connection was powerful. Howard didn’t descend from a line of whalers, he pointed out, but it was quite possible that a great-aunt and great-uncle were saved from the Nazis by a Danish rescue boat. Howard’s father was also forced to flee from the Nazis, escaping from Berlin to Bolivia in January 1939, before reaching the US and returning to Europe as part of the D-Day invasion forces.
As his work on the whaling ship decreased and work on Gerda increased, Howard found “a sense that enveloped [him]” – a lightbulb moment, of sorts: “Okay, this is where I was meant to be – and I’m here.”
Howard began years of annual work on the boat: painting, scraping, varnishing, and making minor wood repairs, the larger more complex jobs remaining the province of Mystic’s professional shipwrights. In doing so, the history – and particularly the gaps in Gerda’s history – drew Howard in.
“I remember it began with one little conflict with something that was on the Seaport website and the plaque that was there,” he explained. “One referred to Henny’s group as operating independently, and one referred to them as operating as part of a resistance group. I set out to see if I could resolve it.”
“Before it was over,” Howard continued, “I was in Denmark; tracing down her relatives, relatives of crew members; and translating volumes of records collected in various places. With Gerda, everything you learn makes you want to learn five other things.”
As a research mission, Howard’s time in Denmark was invaluable. It was also rich in personal encounters and experiences.
When planning his trip to Denmark, Howard knew that the picturesque harbor town of Dragor, where Gerda III was based, housed a local archive. He anticipated the archive holding a wealth of material; Gerda’s presence was a focal point of town life, even apart from its war service.
Howard recalled, after writing to the archivist, receiving what he thought was disappointing news: Thank you for the interest. We’ve forwarded your email to the Head of the Tourist Bureau who will be in contact. “We’re thinking, oh great, we want historic documents but we’re going to end up with a t-shirt,” Howard exclaimed.
But Howard and Lorraine ended up with far more than a t-shirt. As it turned out, the Head of the Tourist Bureau had an uncle who was a Gerda III crew member during World War II, and her great-grandfather was Gerda III’s first captain. Not only did she assist Howard and Lorraine in the archive – she took them home to look into her family albums, too. Before parting she also procured an invitation for Howard to travel on Gerda IV, successor to our Gerda III, as it headed to a Baltic lighthouse to deliver a fresh crew just as Gerda III had done for sixty years.
Howard’s research led to his book, Henny and Her Boat, Righteousness and Resistance in Nazi Occupied Denmark, which chronicles the activities of Henny and her associates as they progressed from somewhat passive resistors, to rescuers, to hard hitting members of the armed resistance. Their story speaks to the human capacity to create light in times of darkness and to the power of preserving hope – and life – in times of great despair.
Howard’s efforts help us bring these histories to life. Beyond expanding our knowledge of the group that formed around Gerda III, and presenting their story to inspire others, Howard has been donating book royalties to help maintain the vessel.
What keeps Howard motivated to keep sharing the stories of Henny and Gerda III? He is already planning his next research trip to Denmark, and continues to devote substantial time to Mystic Seaport Museum and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. What are the moments that keep him feeling that this is where he’s meant to be?
Howard draws inspiration from a belief he finds well expressed by historian and civil rights activist Howard Zinn, who wrote:
If we remember those times and places…where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this…world in a different direction.
It is this kind of energy that Howard says he can sense taking hold of visitors whether presenting the Gerda story at dockside or chatting less formally with visitors while working on the boat.
“If they leave with a bit of Henny in them,” Howard said, “with a determination to hold the line against efforts to stir up prejudice and turn Americans [against] each other, Gerda III has done its job and I feel that my own efforts have been worthwhile.”
From educating Museum members visiting Gerda III, to sharing stories dockside, to physically maintaining the ship, we are gratefully indebted to Howard for his efforts over the years to preserve and educate others on this special moment in history.