By Noa Gutow-Ellis and Howard Veisz
When Henny Sinding Sundø was 22 years old and working at the Danish Lighthouse and Buoy Service, four crew members of Gerda III, a lighthouse supply vessel, approached her. They needed help – and fast. It was the beginning of October 1943, and the Nazi’s mass murder of Jews in Europe was well underway. Suddenly, after three years of occupation, the Nazis devised a plan to capture all of Denmark’s Jews during a single night and deport them to concentration camps. With only 72 hours to go the plan was leaked to a prominent Dane, setting in motion a nationwide effort to warn the Jews, provide temporary hiding places in Denmark, and then evacuate them by sea to Sweden – the only unoccupied country within reach.
Gerda III’s crew – Captain Einer Tønnesen, engineer John Hansen, Otto Andersen, and Gerhardt Steffensen – wanted to use Gerda III to rescue Jews. But, as Gerda III expert Howard Veisz wrote, “They couldn’t do it without Henny’s help.” The crew needed Henny to obtain the tacit approval of her father, a Danish Navy Officer in charge of the Lighthouse and Buoy Service, to put the boat and crew at risk. Among other vital tasks, they needed Henny’s help to make contact with Jews who were already in hiding. Henny, furious that the Nazis would attack people she regarded simply as fellow citizens, threw herself into the operation and met every need.
Henny recalls entering her father’s office, asking, “Could you please…close your eyes and pretend not to notice if Gerda III doesn’t sail its usual route at its usual time?” Without questioning her, he understood Henny’s underlying ask and gave his approval.
Soon after, Henny and the crew set out to find and rescue Jews. A Danish navy cadet who Henny had just met, and who quickly became her soulmate, united Henny with a university-based resistance group led by Jørgen Kieler. The group made perfect partners for Henny. Mostly medical students, they had close ties to a hospital complex that sheltered Jews and found passage for them on rescue boats. As members of the underground press they had close ties to a Copenhagen bookstore whose owners turned their back room into an operations center for the press, and then the rescue and then the armed resistance. Each morning, Kieler’s group gave Henny got a list of Jews to meet and places to meet, a list she learned by heart because it was too dangerous to keep written records.
One by one, Henny worked her way through the list and picked up families, completing the task in the middle of the night. Doing so “was absolutely stupid because there was a curfew on,” she explained in later testimony, and if German soldiers saw Henny with a Jewish family in the streets they would have been “taken, simply.”
Still, she persisted.
Henny and the crew arranged safe houses near Gerda III where Jews could await their passage for several days and a loft in a dockside warehouse where refugees who could be transported the next day waited to take the last perilous steps onto Gerda III. The loft was filled with food, drinks, and sedatives for the children, to keep them quiet during the risky mission, provided by Henny and the crew.
An especially harrowing part of the mission was just before each departure. Henny brought the Jews to the ground floor of the warehouse and arranged them in a line just inside a gate that faced Gerda III. The boat was just meters away across a cobblestone path – a path patrolled by two German soldiers who marched back and forth before their eyes. When the crew signaled that the chances were as good as they would get Henny sent the next person running across the path toward the arms of a crew member who quickly lifted each person on board and deposited them below deck. Henny followed, carrying children too young to make it across themselves. Finally, as soon as the engine was started, the German soldiers came on board to check the boat’s papers. Wisely making this a “friendly” encounter, the crew established a routine: they offered beers, toasted the soldiers, and talked about the weather while the soldiers sat on hatch covers with their boots inches above the heads of the refugees. After a seeming eternity the Germans left and the boat set sail for Sweden.
The routine went like this: gather the Jewish families in the middle of the night, depart on Gerda III at dawn, deliver the Jews to safety in Sweden, make the daily supply run to the lighthouse, go back to the Danish dock, and repeat – every day and night for multiple weeks. Henny estimates they saved at least 300 Jews this way during October 1943. Gerda III and its crew went on to save another 600 to700 people – mainly resistance fighters and allied air crews whose bombers were too badly damaged to make it back to their bases in England – during the rest of the war.
Henny and the Gerda III crew risked their life night after night and day after day to ensure hundreds of people became Holocaust survivors instead of Holocaust victims.
When the October 1943 Jewish rescue mission was concluded Henny and the other members of her rescue group joined the armed resistance, blowing up factories and other facilities that aided the Nazi war machine. Week by week their missions grew larger and more daring until they undertook a mission that resulted in the deaths of some members, the capture of others, and orders to evacuate the remainder – including Henny – to Sweden. Following fifteen months in exile, Lenny returned to her native Denmark when the Nazis surrendered. As Veisz aptly wrote, “When Henny died in 2009 she was remembered as a person who had been full of life. Hundreds of others remember her as a person who willingly risked her life to save theirs.”
Click here to hear Henny deliver her testimony.
Plan your visit to the Gerda III at Mystic Seaport Museum.
Noa Gutow-Ellis is Collections and Exhibitions Assistant at the Museum. Howard Veisz is a longtime volunteer at Mystic Seaport working with Gerda III, and the author of Henny and Her Boat: Righteousness and Resistance in Nazi Occupied Denmark.