The power of good . . . learning in Gilleleje, Denmark

Today, six of us travelled from Copenhagen to Gilleleje, a picturesque, tranquil and beautiful fishing town in Denmark. The fishing is famous. The people are kind and the harbor is colorful. It was another beautiful sunny day. We met new friends and connected with those who have helped Holocaust Museum Houston acquire and learn about our Danish fishing/rescue boat.

Geographically, Gilleleje is significant in Holocaust history. Facing Sweden across the open sound, many Danish Jews were carried from Gilleleje to safety in neutral Sweden, hidden in the holds of fishing vessels. Ordinary people did this, inspired by the need of others. In some cases fisherman were paid, in others they did not receive compensation. Each of the captains, whether paid or not, would have suffered grievously under the Gestapo had they been discovered.

One of the fishing vessels resides now at Holocaust Museum Houston, standing alongside our Holocaust era railcar, as a juxtaposition of evil and good, as a reminder that people can make decisions, even in times of horror and conflict, to help others. Over and over again today, I was struck by the power of good and the need to understand this town’s story and share it even more widely than I now do.

Our experiences today were made possible by two very special human beings, Lars  and Lotte Starck, who arranged visits and accompanied us throughout our time in Gilleleje. We have new friends and we admire them for their work and compassion. Already tonight, they have sent us a link to the online newspaper,

Follow this link and you can see pictures of us with Lars and Lotte; Ulla Skorstengaard (pastor of the Gilleleje Church where Jews were hidden in the attic); Tove Udsholt (a hidden child whose mother escaped to Sweden);  and Jan Ferdinandsen (who arranged for HMH to receive the Hanne Frank – a fishing vessel). Jan leads Gilleleje now as the town’s mayor.

Ulla, pastor of the Gilleleje Church, spoke to us of the “crack in the evil system,” a crack that allowed news of the expected Nazi and Gestapo actions to spread, a rescue network to form. With support from this network, Jews found probable escape routes and hiding places along these routes. I am struck by the power of Ulla’s description.

I am struck by the power of nature I have seen at so many Holocaust sites, where cracks in solid stone allow plants to grow in areas that were once built by the Nazis to perpetrate horror and anguish. Ulla connected me to the idea that when a small opening is created for a different way of thinking, there is always possibility.

There will always be upstanders, and by telling more people the powerful story of Gilleleje, we will certainly encourage good actions, new growth in and through the “cracks” that are necessary for change.


About Holocaust Museum Houston

Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors' legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, we teach the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.
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1 Response to The power of good . . . learning in Gilleleje, Denmark

  1. Jerry Rochman says:

    Saturday, 3/26/11 Gilleleje, Denmark

    Learning about the Holocaust is learning of despair and hope, hatred and love, courage and cowardice, beauty and ugliness, old and new, good and evil, of bystanders and upstanders and of life and death. Today in an appropriate ending to our journey of discovery and learning, we were treated to a day filled with joy and happiness and life.

    The six of us who traveled to Denmark today ventured from Copenhagen to Gilleleje in a rented van, on a day that dawned chilly and bright. It’s funny how sometimes weather is very appropriate for setting a scene. In Buchenwald it was cold, damp and foggy; weather that fit the place. Today as we embarked on a journey of life and courage the day was bright and sunny, befitting our mood.

    Gilleleje is a small, restful, beautiful fishing village where life is essentially unchanged from hundreds of years ago, except for those few years 1942-44, when these fisherman became beacons of hope and life for thousands of Jews who they ferried to safety in Sweden, in their small fishing vessels. These were ordinary people who did extraordinary things, acts of selfless courage, putting temslves in harms way.

    Gilleleje is a special place to HMH, as that is where our Danish fishing vessel came from. We were fortunate to meet the people responsible for acquiring the boat for us. We met Lars and Lotte Starck, our guides through Gilleleje, Jan Ferdinandsen, now mayor of the municipality and owner of the boat brokerage company that helped secure our boat, Ulla Skorstengaard, pastor of the local church, and Tove Udsholt, daughter of a Jewish mother. Tove was a hidden child during the war and her mother was ferried to safety in Sweden.

    At the church, Ulla, the pastor, treated us to a tour of the sanctuary that is graced by two Menorot (candleabras) given to the church by the State of Israel as thanks to the church for sheltering and hiding the Jews until they could board boats to safety. Ulla than took us to the church attic, where the Jews were hidden and regaled us with the story of courage and heroism. Even though as docents we knew the story, Ulla held us in the palm of her hand as she spoke of the good people who did the right thing. We were moved and uplifted and as we gazed out the small window in the attic we, too, saw Sweden across the sparkling waters, that haven of safety.

    Leaving Gilleleje we traveled to the Danish town of Helsingor, where we boarded a ferry and crossed 3 miles of water to the Swedish town of Helsingborg. Our journey to Sweden was a journey of remembrance as we honored those who survived because of courageous Danes. As the sun set we sailed back across the waters to Denmark, the sky ablaze with pink and purple, I thought of all we have seen and learned on this trip. On a fitting, uplifting ending I thought of the beauty of the lives of all who perished and of the beauty of life for those who survived and as the sun passed below the horizon I thought of the beauty of the world God has given us. It is up to us, all of us, to make this world a better place for all.

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