Danish rescuer of Jews tells story of simple humanity

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Preben Munch-Nielsen has been telling his story for 10 years, and he still doesn't understand why people make such a fuss over it.

"Frankly, I'm embarrassed at the responses," he said in a phone interview from New York. "I don't understand that to act in a decent way is so unique."

Munch-Nielsen, 69, is a Danish businessman. He lives about three miles from the home where he grew up in the fishing village of Snekkersten. As a member of the Danish resistance in his youth, he helped save nearly 7,000 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

He'll tell that story in the Bay Area between Oct. 25 and Oct. 27, starting with a talk Oct. 25 at the Jewish Community Federation Building.

Knud Dyby of Marin, another member of the Danish resistance, will join him in the series, sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers/Anti-Defamation League and the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

Like many Danish teens living in war-torn Europe during the 1940s, Munch-Nielsen "did what we had to do. We couldn't do anything else."

During the early years of World War II, Denmark remained mostly unscathed. However, when Germany interned the Danish Army and Navy personnel, in 1943, the Danish Resistance quickly took action.

Young men and women like Munch-Nielsen published underground newsletters "to tell the real truth," he said. Using stencils and a print rolling machine, they issued warnings of Nazi intentions that were often disclosed by disloyal Germans.

Such dispatches came at a time when the Nazis censored the official newspapers and scrambled radio signals so British broadcasts could not be heard, he said.

And so, the Resistance mobilized its rescue of Danish Jews.

Jews traveled by train to Snekkersten, where Munch-Nielsen and others were waiting to hide them in churches and homes until they could ferry them across the North Sea straits to Sweden.

At night, 12 at a time, the Jews would sail in 21-foot boats to freedom. The nearly 30- minute boat ride could take hours, as Munch-Nielsen and other Resistance members had to evade German ships at sea.

Of the country's 7,200 Jews, only 60 were not saved. The resistance also saved 700 non-Jewish relatives of Jews.

There were no passenger lists. In fact, Munch-Nielsen doesn't know the names of any of the people he helped save.

"Why should I? They don't know my name. This was all done in secrecy." Besides, he added, "Some people talk too much."

Munch-Nielsen did not speak publicly about the rescue until 10 years ago, when a friend asked him to share his story with a group of Jewish travelers in Denmark.

At 59, his speaking career began.

Now he talks about the rescue at least once a month to groups in Denmark, Israel and the United States.

He tells audiences of his childhood home near the beach, the first boat he owned at age 10 and a life spent sailing. He speaks of a government with a history of making necessary reforms without the pressure of revolution or uprising.

He emphasizes that Danish Jews were considered neighbors, friends, schoolmates and nothing else.

"This is our history. We have no scapegoats. No pogroms. No Holocaust. It's so simple," Munch-Nielsen said.

"We didn't recognize Jews as Jews, but as Danes," he added. So when word got out that the Germans were planning to round up the Danish Jews to take them to concentration camps, Danes actively resisted what they saw as wrongdoing.

"The Jews were not criminals. For the most part they weren't members of the Danish Resistance movement. They were victims of an insane movement created by lunatics," Munch-Nielsen said. "If you wanted to retain your self-respect, you did what you could.

"That your fellow citizens should be doomed because their human value was considered nothing [by Nazis] because of their race is an impossible thought."

Following the war many Danish Jews returned to Denmark. Munch-Nielsen is uncertain how many came back because, as he stresses, he doesn't think about who is a Jew or non-Jew.

But now that Jews have returned, he added, "Denmark is complete again."

Munch-Nielsen and Dyby will speak at noon, Wednesday, Oct. 25 at the Jewish Community Federation Building, 121 Steuart St., S.F. and that night at 7:30 p.m. at Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Drive, Burlingame. They also will appear at noon, Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Albert L. Schultz JCC, 655 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto; and at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 27, at Congregation Rodef Sholom, 170 North San Pedro Road, San Rafael.