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Florida Holocaust Museum obtains a boat that rescued Danish Jews from Nazis

The wooden fishing boat is now in a Largo warehouse, where it will be restored before it goes on display, possibly in a year.
 
Helen Levine, former Florida Holocaust Museum board member, and Debbie Sembler, of Pinellas Park, middle, give each other a hug, with Scooter Bontly, former facilities director and his dog Cleo, watch a Danish boat that helped Jewish families escape the Holocaust, gets transported into a warehouse for restoration, at Elite Exterior Restoration in Largo.
Helen Levine, former Florida Holocaust Museum board member, and Debbie Sembler, of Pinellas Park, middle, give each other a hug, with Scooter Bontly, former facilities director and his dog Cleo, watch a Danish boat that helped Jewish families escape the Holocaust, gets transported into a warehouse for restoration, at Elite Exterior Restoration in Largo. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2022

LARGO — Since 1992, when the Florida Holocaust Museum put on display a boxcar used by the Nazis to transport Jewish prisoners to concentration camps, Irene Weiss has wanted to obtain one of the Danish fishing boats that transported more than 90% of that nation’s Jews to safety in Sweden.

“It shows there are two sides, two choices,” said Weiss, former chair of the St. Petersburg museum. “One is a vehicle to kill people. The other is a vehicle to save people.”

Those saved included Weiss’ parents.

On Wednesday, Weiss accomplished her goal when one of those fishing boats was delivered to a Largo warehouse, where it will be restored and then put on display, possibly within a year.

Helen Levine, former Florida Holocaust Museum board member, left, and Irene Weiss, former Florida Holocaust Museum board chair, walk past a Danish boat that helped Jewish families escape the Holocaust.
Helen Levine, former Florida Holocaust Museum board member, left, and Irene Weiss, former Florida Holocaust Museum board chair, walk past a Danish boat that helped Jewish families escape the Holocaust. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The 34-foot, 10-ton wooden vessel named “Thor” was purchased from a boat broker who obtained it from the family of the fisherman who used it to smuggle Jews out of Denmark.

Wrapped in a protective cover, the boat was taken by freighter to South Florida and by truck to Largo, where a crane lifted it onto rollers that enabled it to be wheeled into the warehouse.

Related: St. Petersburg woman thought best friend was lost in Holocaust. Now, they Zoom.

Weiss’ partner in the endeavor was Margot Benstock, whose parents were also among those ferried from Denmark on a fishing boat.

Germany invaded Denmark in 1940. Three years later, the Nazis began preparations to exterminate Denmark’s Jewish population.

Alerted to the pending genocide, the nation worked together to save as many of their citizens as possible.

“In a period of three weeks, 300 fishing boats rescued more 7,200 Jews and 500 family members who were not Jewish,” Weiss said.

Those fleeing typically hid in the boat hatches where the fish were stored.

“Sometimes the fishermen would put fish down on top of them to hide them in case Nazis were in the water,” said Erin Blankenship, the museum’s interim executive director. “The journey was a few hours but could have been longer if they were trying to evade boats that were on patrol.”

Weiss said her mother first traveled to an island and then to Sweden.

“We always hear the stories of the victims who went to concentration camps, which should obviously be told,” Weiss said. “But we also need to know the stories of those who were rescued and those who rescued them. That is a story of humanity.”