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Despite the fear or indifference of most Europeans, a brave minority risked their lives to help Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Rescue took many forms. In the fall of 1943 the Danish resistance movement ferried almost all of Denmark’s Jewish population to safety in neutral Sweden. In other countries, churches, orphanages, and families hid Jews or aided those already in hiding. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and other individuals acted courageously to rescue Jews. These acts of conscience and courage, however, saved only a tiny percentage of those targeted for destruction.


During the Holocaust, thousands of ordinary people put themselves at risk to help Jews in German-occupied territory.

In August 1943, the Danish government resigned rather than yield to German demands. German police began arresting Jews on the night of October 1, 1943.

Popular protests came from quarters such as churches, the Danish royal family, and social and economic organizations.

Throughout October, the Danish resistance, assisted by many civilians, hid Jews and covertly transported them to coastal towns.

Using small boats, fishermen then ferried 7,200 Jews, almost all of Denmark’s Jewish population, to safety in neutral Sweden.

In southern France, the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and nearby towns provided refuge to several thousand Jews, including many children.

Residents opened their homes to shelter Jews and smuggled many to safety in neutral countries.

The overwhelmingly Protestant Huguenot population was motivated by religious conviction and empathy for the persecuted.

The scope of this extraordinary rescue effort reflects the solidarity of neighbors, despite the threat of informants in their midst.

Other rescuers facilitated escape routes out of occupied Europe.

From his base in Marseille, American journalist Varian Fry rescued Jewish refugees trapped in France following the German invasion.

Fry's network of accomplices forged documents and devised clandestine escape routes. He aided antifascist refugees, both Jews and non-Jews, including artists and intellectuals such as painter Marc Chagall, Catholic philosopher Alfredo Mendizabel, and writer Hannah Arendt.

Under constant surveillance, Fry was repeatedly questioned and detained.

His covert activities angered officials of both the U.S. State Department and Vichy France and in September 1941 he was expelled from France.

Although in France only 13 months, Fry assisted in the escape of some 2,000 people.

Other non-Jews sought to draw attention to Nazi plans for genocide in order to spur the Allies to action.

Roman Catholic Jan Karski was a member of the Polish underground.

As a courier with a near photographic memory, he conveyed secret information between the underground movement and the Polish government-in-exile.

Smuggled in and out of the Warsaw ghetto and the transit camp at Izbica, he witnessed the horrors suffered by Jews.

In 1942, he warned the Polish government-in-exile in London and senior British authorities of Nazi Germany’s plans to murder European Jews.

In 1943, he delivered the same message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His warnings were uniformly greeted with disbelief, apathy, and indifference.

In Budapest, Hungary, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg led an extensive rescue effort.

Wallenberg began distributing Swedish protective passports in July 1944 and set up more than 30 safe houses.

In November 1944, during the death march of Jews from Budapest to labor camps in Austria, Wallenberg secured the release of those with protective passports or forged papers.

He and his associates rescued tens of thousands of Jews.

In January 1945, Wallenberg disappeared while on his way to meet Soviet officials. He is presumed to have died, or been murdered, in a Soviet prison.

These and other acts of rescue, despite the profound courage, conviction, and charity that they represent, did little to stop the Nazi implementation of mass murder.

Only a tiny percentage of the targeted populations was rescued. Most Europeans neither aided nor hindered the "Final Solution."

They remained bystanders to the deaths of millions.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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