The Courage of Elsebet Kieler, Holocaust Resistance FighterNovember 05, 2014
Editor’s note: The members of the AAUW Archives Corps gather once a month in Washington, D.C., to go through boxes of documents that haven’t seen the light of day in decades to reveal and preserve our great history. The following is a story from an Archives Corps member who opened one of the boxes and found more than she bargained for — a fascinating story of an AAUW alumna who was part of a huge resistance movement in Denmark during World War II.
A large part of my enjoyment of membership in AAUW is the opportunity to volunteer at our headquarters and work with AAUW Archivist Suzanne Gould. Our group, the Archives Corps, has been reviewing and organizing historical files of applications from women around the world for financial support to come to the United States to continue their educations. Although the grants have been awarded since 1888, they were especially important during and after World War II to the women studying and living in occupied European countries, such as France, Holland, Luxembourg, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Denmark. The war interrupted the studies of so many of these women. Colleges and universities were closed, libraries were shut down, and any kind of intellectual discussions were restricted or prohibited. Their stories are remarkable.
One of the files I found was for a Danish woman named Elsebet Kieler, whose graduate studies had been interrupted by the war. She applied for a grant in 1946. Along with her formal application, she included a personal statement that especially piqued my interest, because she mentioned that she and her family were part of a resistance movement against the Nazis. I decided to do further research, so I went to the library at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which had more information on the Kieler family and the response of the Danish people to the Nazi occupation.
Elsebet was the oldest of four children, two boys (Joergen and Flemming) and two girls (Elsebet and Bente). Their father was a medical doctor. The family placed a high value on education. The children had traveled and studied in both England and Germany and spoke English, German, and French. After the Nazis invaded Denmark in the spring of 1940, the siblings all worked together in one of the Danish resistance organizations, Holger Danske, publishing an illegal newspaper, Frit Danmark. According to a book that Joergen wrote about their experience, Resistance Fighter, the brothers decided to take their resistance to a higher level: They began sabotaging Gestapo activities.
Elsebet was reluctant to help them. She was a political and social pacifist, completely against violence of any kind. The turning point for her, however, came in August of 1943, when she found out that the Gestapo were starting to round up Danish Jews and deport them to concentration camps. She explained her change of heart in a short documentary film, Rescuers.
“If you want to remain a human being and take care of your own human dignity, you have to take care of your neighbor. It’s the same thing. You have to protect everyone.”
She decided she had to do something more active in the resistance.
At the time, Denmark was a very homogenous country. But Christian Danes didn’t tend to consider their Jewish neighbors different. In 1943, there were about 8,000 Jews living in Denmark. Many Danish people, regardless of age or occupation, banded together to hide Jews and transport them to safety in Sweden. The main hospital in Copenhagen admitted Jews under Christian names. Neighbors cared for and maintained property of Jewish neighbors who had to flee.
It is a remarkable history, and Elsebet played a part. She traveled secretly (in a taxi, would you believe!) all over Denmark to collect monetary donations. In one weekend, she collected more than 1 million kroner (that would be about $168,000 today)! The money was needed to pay bribes to Danish and German soldiers and to pay the fishermen who faced great danger as they ferried hidden Jewish families the short but treacherous distance across the sea to safety in Sweden.
Ultimately, Elsebet and her family were betrayed by a member of their resistance organization who had been turned by the Gestapo. Her two brothers were arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Germany; Elsebet, her sister, and her father were arrested and imprisoned in Denmark for several months. But their goal had been accomplished. Holger Danske alone was responsible for arranging for the safe transportation of almost 1,000 Jews. Other groups across Denmark risked arrest and death to hide, help, feed, and clothe their Jewish neighbors and also to keep them safe. Tragically, by the end of the war, about 500 Danish Jews lost their lives, but other European countries lost many more.
Elsebet and her family were reunited in May 1945. Although the war left the family changed and left some of them ill, they felt fortunate that their family was still intact. After the ordeal, with the help of an AAUW International Study Grant, Elsebet came to the United States to finish her graduate degree in comparative literature at Radcliffe College. She went on to write several books about Roman Catholicism. She died in 2006.
This post was written by Laura Reilly, a member of the AAUW Vienna (VA) Area Branch and the Archives Corps.