The little ships of Gilleleje

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Seventy years ago, this serene seaside town saw hundreds of Danish Jews escape the Nazis, says Chris Leadbeater

Gilleleje harbour is becalmed. The fishing boats are in, seven of them wedged tightly against the jetty; catches unloaded, nets stowed, crews long since disembarked. The only noise comes from a carelessly secured rope, one of its clasps banging repeatedly on the metal of the mast in the playful breeze, causing a mournful clanging to ring out.

Here is a picture of small-town Scandinavia at its prettiest. Doubly so. Looking beyond the Danish flags that flutter on this mini fleet, I can see across the Oresund strait. At this point Sweden is only 15 miles away, wholly visible, though the firm line of its west coast is turning hazy in the late afternoon – the tinge of the fading sun on the sea gives it the appearance of a golden Avalon, a promised land that travellers might aspire to reach.

It would have seemed similarly inviting 70 years ago, though the longing to cross the narrow channel that separates Denmark and Sweden would have been borne more out of desperate need than merry daydream. And the mood on the Gilleleje dockside would have been one not of relaxed tranquillity, but of raw panic: people scrambling on to the nearest available ship, jostling, pushing, losing their footing; luggage and possessions hastily abandoned on the wharf; families huddled together; children crying. And fear. Terrible, visceral fear.

On 6 October 1943, Gilleleje witnessed the final flight of wartime Denmark's Jewish population from home soil, running ahead of the Gestapo which – in this country, at least – had been unusually slow in imposing Nazi Germany's abhorrent will. Six days earlier, the dreaded deportation order had been issued – and had sparked a chain of events that would prove to be among the most compelling to emerge from the darkness of 1939-45.

Denmark had seen a different version of the war to that endured by the likes of Poland and Holland. Invaded in April 1940, it had been allowed to keep its government in situ, and was considered by its occupiers to be a "model protectorate" – an example of how post-war Europe might function under German rule. In this atmosphere, its 7,800-strong Jewish populace – mostly based in Copenhagen – had been permitted to remain. But a spate of sabotage attacks conducted by the Danish Resistance in the summer of 1943 snapped German patience. On 29 August, the government was forced to resign, leaving Denmark entirely under the Nazi yoke. The call for the Jews would come on 1 October.

The hero of the hour was a dove in wolf's clothing. Prior to the war, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz had been a German businessman who had made a living from trading coffee, working primarily with Scandinavia. Now he was a diplomat attached to the German embassy in Copenhagen. Firmly opposed to the Final Solution and aware of the coming storm, he sent word to his Danish political contacts on 28 September. The message, filtered down through the Resistance, was announced in the synagogues: go, and go now.

The exodus headed out through Zealand (the Danish island on whose eastern edge Copenhagen sits), south to such ports as Dragor, north to Helsingor – frightened travellers slipping out of safe-houses, moving by night, on foot, in the backs of cars, ducked down in railway freight wagons. On 2 October there was hope, neutral Sweden confirming it would accept the refugees. Across the Oresund's choppy waves they went, in any vessel to hand, assisted by friends and sympathisers, some struggling east in rowing boats. It is remarkable that so few died: 23 people are thought to have drowned.

Gilleleje, 40 miles north of Copenhagen at the upper tip of Zealand, was the last exit. On 6 October, 600 frantic souls were gathered here. By now, the Gestapo knew that they had been outmanoeuvred. The captains of the boats who scurried away from port on that Wednesday afternoon did so in the certainty that they could not return without reprisals. And the chaos came at a cost. Eighty fugitives were left marooned when this makeshift armada sailed. With no other option, they were concealed in the church – and they were still there when German troops arrived that night and extracted them from the gloom within.

Seventy years on, Gilleleje does not exactly shout about its contribution to this formidable effort. But peer closely, and you can find quiet echoes of what happened. The church, of course, is still here. Whitewashed and stocky, it nestles two blocks from the water, framed by clipped hedges and sighing trees. The gate creaks as I push it open, stepping into a graveyard that remembers generations of Lunds and Olsens. But the Star of David on the headstone of Valdemar Lendorf and his wife Holga – both dead before the war – underlines the area's Jewish ties. Inside, all is still – as if recalling the sad silence that must have swathed those hiding here on that day.

Elsewhere, Gilleleje Museum looks back at 1943, but does so without self-congratulation, slotting the rescue mission into details on Zealand's Ice Age story and Viking heritage. An unfussy exhibit recreates the attic space in which the church refugees were found. Outside, a fishing boat with a hollow side shows passengers cocooned below deck.

It is not, perhaps, that Gilleleje does not want to celebrate its stand against tyranny. It is more that it is busy as a seaside hotspot popular with Copenhageners keen to swap the city for fresh air, lovely beaches and shoreline views.

It is a slow evening as I walk about, but every seat is taken on the veranda at Adamsen's Fisk, the menu board advertising a for-two sharing portion of fish soup for 89 Krone (£10). Adjacent, on the far side of a little green, Restaurant Gilleleje Havn serves the sort of piscine comfort food that you would expect of such a town, with hearty portions of hjemmelavede (home-made) fish and chips for Dkr165 (£19). And the main drag of Vesterbrogade does a solid job of luring visiting shoppers, Choff dealing in quirky nuggets of Scandinavian design; delicatessen Mad Med Mere full of olives, cheeses and wine.

West of the centre, Gilleleje Badehotel is the essence of Danish hospitality: crisp white décor; rooms of unfussy cosiness; a rear terrace gazing towards the Oresund; a log fire in the reception area – the weather just cold enough to demand it.

Behind, a pedestrian footpath traces the clifftop. After a night of peaceful slumber, I follow it towards the harbour, passing the back gardens of summer holiday homes, their tables laid for breakfast, children's toys strewn on the lawns. And there, suddenly, halfway down, is something that I have missed.

Pitched in the corner of a grassy clearing, a bronze sculpture rears up. It depicts a lone bugler, back arched, instrument placed to his lips and pointing at the sky, chest swollen in exertion. A panel on the base, in Danish and Hebrew, reads: "Let the great shofar [a Jewish ceremonial horn] declare our liberation."

The work of British-Jewish artist Georges Weil, it was presented to the town in 1997 by Israeli shipping magnate Yuli Ofer. Its triumphant note is more than justified.

Denmark's stance against Nazi persecution was determined and dogged. As a result "only" 500 Danish Jews, including the Gilleleje 80, were deported, mainly to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Even then, their country campaigned tirelessly on their behalf, pressurising the Germans until, in April 1945, the majority were released to the Swedish Red Cross. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, records 102 Danish deaths.

One fifth of the survivors escaped via Gilleleje – which explains why Yad Vashem also guards one of the boats used in those fitful days. There are few Jewish tales with any positive aspects to be salvaged from the wreckage of 1939-45. But here, maybe, on a gentle flank of Scandinavia, is one.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Chris Leadbeater travelled with Scandinavian Airlines (0871 226 7760; flysas.co.uk), which flies to Copenhagen from Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Aberdeen. Gilleleje can be reached by train from Copenhagen (00 45 7013 1415; dsb.dk).

Staying there

Gilleleje Badehotel: Hulsovej 15 (00 45 48 301 347; gillelejebadehotel.dk). Double rooms from DKK1490 (£168), including breakfast.

Visiting there

Gilleleje Museum: Vesterbrogade 56 (00 45 72 499 950; hhkc.dk). Open Wednesday to Friday 1 to 4pm and Saturday 10am to 2pm; DKK35 (£4).

Gilleleje Kirke: Gilleleje Hovedgade 45 (00 45 23 201 051; gillelejekirke.dk). Sunday service at 10.30am.

Eating there

Adamsen's Fisk: Havnen 2 (00 45 48 300 927; adamsens-fisk.dk).

More information

visitnordsjaelland.com; visitdenmark.co.uk

The palaces and paintings of Zealand

Spreading out above Copenhagen, the northern part of Zealand is dotted with intriguing sites and historic landmarks.

The best known of these is surely Kronborg Slot, the imposing castle in Helsingor that Shakespeare used as the primary setting for Hamlet (00 45 49 213 078; kronborg .dk; daily 11am to 4pm; DKK75/£8.50). It was hugely expanded in the 16th century and was designed to protect the Oresund while also extracting taxes from those seeking to sail past. Performances of Hamlet are staged every August (hamlet scenen.dk).

A kindred spirit, Frederiksborg Slot, in Hillerod, was largely built in the 17th century as a grand residence for Christian IV (00 45 48 260 439; dnm.dk; daily 10am to 5pm; DKK75/£8.50). Its church is a cherished place of Danish coronation. Elsewhere, in coastal Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art has works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore (00 45 49 190 719; louisiana.dk; Tuesday to Friday 11am to 10pm, weekends 11am to 6pm; DKK110/£12.50).

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