A replica of a boat that carried Danish Jews to safety in Sweden anchors an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
By James Barron
Oct. 11, 2023 Updated 9:49 a.m. ET
This article originally appeared in the New York Today newsletter.
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Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at a boat that is the centerpiece of a new exhibition, even though it’s anchored more than 130 miles away. We’ll also look at the new charges that Representative George Santos now faces.
One of the most important items in a new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan is not on display there. It is anchored 134 miles away, in Mystic, Conn.
It is the Gerda III, a 40-foot-long cargo boat that carried Danish Jews to safety in Sweden in 1943, before the Nazis could round them up and deport them to concentration camps. The museum could not moor the boat in the Hudson River, which the museum overlooks. The Hudson was “not hospitable” to a wooden vessel long accustomed to saltier water, said Jack Kliger, the president of the museum.
So it commissioned a smaller replica to tell the story, along with interactive displays and hologram-like narrators.
And the history behind the exhibition — “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark,” which opens on Sunday — shows “what whole communities can do” when they act together and make a moral choice not to be bystanders, Kliger said. The Danish fishing fleet served as a pipeline “for efforts from the Danish church, the Danish police, medical students and ordinary citizens,” he said. ”
It was clear by October 1943 that the Germans occupying Denmark intended to deport the country’s Jewish population. The Danish resistance mobilized, assembling a flotilla of everything from kayaks and rowboats to cargo vessels like the Gerda III. The destination was Sweden, which had guaranteed Jews asylum and was just across the strait known as the Øresund — about as far, Kliger said, as Connecticut is from Long Island by boat across Long Island Sound.
Kliger said the effort rescued 95 percent of the Jewish population of Denmark, sending Jews to Sweden in groups of 10 and 15 at a time aboard fishing boats like the Gerda III. By some counts, he said, 50 Danes were involved for every Jewish person who was ferried out — more than 7,000 in all. The Gerda III alone carried 300.
“It was a working boat, part of the Danish Lighthouse and Buoy Service, servicing lighthouses,” he said. The crew “would come out with the cargo, go to the lighthouse between Copenhagen and Sweden, and instead of returning to Copenhagen, continue onward on the dash to Sweden, which was not what they had charted.”
The Gerda III, with a top speed of eight knots, could make the lighthouse run in a couple of hours. It could manage to go on to Sweden and return before the Germans realized it had been gone a little longer than it should have been gone. The crew worked fast: Kliger said that Jews who had disembarked in Sweden sometimes turned around to thank the crew, “and the boat was already gone, to make it back and not be discovered.”
The Gerda III had been on the water since the 1920s, carrying supplies, mail and lighthouse keepers to an installation at the entrance to the Øresund. It was one of 300 boats used to evacuate Jews to Sweden; Kliger said that only two others are known to still exist. Denmark donated the Gerda III to the museum in 1989, and it was restored in a Danish shipyard before making the trip across the Atlantic.
Kliger said that when he went to Denmark a couple of years ago to retrace the route across the Øresund, he met a man who had been evacuated when he was 9 years old. “He remembered being herded into the hold under nets and tarps and being told to be very quiet,” Kliger said.
“The first half of the trip was in Danish waters that were German-patrolled,” he continued. The crew told the stowaways, “When you hear the boat slow down, when you hear boots on the deck, you have to be absolutely silent.” The sound of the boots receded, and the boat went on.
After a while, Kliger said, “The hold opened up, the flashlight came in, the boots came down the steps. They thought they were done. But they heard a soldier say, in Swedish, ‘Welcome to Sweden.’”