Five years ago I traveled to Copenhagen to meet my mother’s cousin, Pinius Bergmann, his wife, their children, and my Danish relatives.
Late one afternoon Pinius said, “Come with me, “I have something I want to show you.”
Glorie and I got in his car. He drove us to the picturesque, fishing village of Gilleleje where homes with thatched roofs sat juxtaposed to more contemporary abodes.
We pulled up to the village’s museum, a small, modern building. Behind it was an old, worn-out fishing boat, the sea and a 20 foot high statue of Gideon blowing his horn, a gift thanking the people of Gilleleje for their WWII heroism.
It was nearing twilight and so quiet you could hear the waves lapping the shore. “See that boat,” Pinius began. “I have a story I want to share with you.”
“During the war the Nazis occupied Denmark. But, we were a neutral country so we (jewish people) were not being arrested as we were in other European countries. Every day the Danish King would ride his horse through Copenhagen to assure us that we were safe.”
All of that changed in early October, 1943, when the Germans began rounding up Denmark’s Jews for deportation to concentration camps and certain death.
Pinius continued, “One night my father (Hirsch Barosin) came to me and said,’ it’s time to leave.’ He told me go to the harbor where his friend, a fisherman, had a boat. He didn’t say why. But I did as I was told. I put on my best clothes because you get dressed up to travel. Little did I know what lay store for me.”
“When I got to the harbor, I was told me to get in the boat, a vessel just like the one you are looking at. He motioned to a hole. It was covered by a hatch, leading into the boat’s hull. The boat was filled with fish guts. We climbed down into the fish guts which rose around our necks. The hatch closed behind us.”
“It smelled so bad”, Pinius said tapping his nose. “I can still smell it today.”
Pinius’ father hoped that the rancid smell of fish guts would deter the German soldiers from searching for the hideaways. And the German soldiers came. But when they opened the hatch the smell was so bad, so putrid, they slammed it down, gagging. assuming no human being could possibly stand the stench. . .
The little boat with its lights turned off crossed the channel carrying Pinius and three others to freedom. “I took three baths a day for a year to get rid of that smell,” he told us.
Six percent of Danish Jews were captured. But with the assistance of Denmark’s citizens, 7,200 Jews, including my uncle Pinius and his future wife Gyda, made it safely to Sweden along with 700 non-Jewish relatives.
Gilleleje’s five hundred households cared for hundreds of refugees, hiding them in a local church attic before ferrying them across to Höganäs, Sweden. Pinius reunited with his family in Sweden. Following the war he returned to Copenhagen. Later he married Gyda with whom he had three daughters.
Pinius died last month in Copenhagen, Denmark, his adopted city, the city whose people had embraced and saved him and thousands of its Jewish residents during the Holocaust.