ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Holocaust Museum is a place that largely reminds visitors of the inhumanity of which mankind is capable. Two Pinellas County women who lost grandparents to the Holocaust are helping to bring a message of humanity to the museum.
They also have parents who escaped the Nazis due to the heroism of people in Denmark. When the Nazis prepared to round up that nation’s Jewish population, Danish fishermen ferried them to safety in their boats to Sweden.
“This story can give people hope,” said Irene Weiss.
It’s why she and Margot Benstock worked to acquire one of the escape vessels for the museum. The museum financed the purchase and the fishing boat is now in a Largo warehouse being restored for display.
They didn’t know it when they acquired the boat, but it might be the one that saved Benstock’s father.
“I am not 100% sure yet,” Benstock said. “But it is very possible. The boat went the same route as the boat that took my father.”
Benstock’s father, Max Fisch, was born in Berlin and raised there until 1936 when he was 16 and the Nazis had risen to power. His parents were contacted by the Hechalutz, an international organization recruiting Jewish youth to relocate to Palestine.
“My grandparents said, ‘Please take my son,’” Benstock said. “They took him and others to farms in Denmark to learn trades so that they could work when they got to Palestine. In 1938, a selection did go to Palestine, but my father remained in Denmark” with plans to later go to the Middle East.
That same year, her paternal grandfather was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Her paternal grandmother was later taken to Auschwitz. None survived.
“My dad was an orphan and didn’t even know it yet,” Benstock said.
In late 1938, as a teenager, Weiss’ father, Werner Cohn, was sent from Chemnitz, Germany, to boarding school in Denmark for safety from the Nazis. Her mother, Rosa Cohn, was 14 when she was sent from Austria to Denmark in 1939.
“It was a time when Austria had been invaded and children 14 and older were being taken to work camps,” Weiss said. “She stayed with a family in Denmark who was very good to her. Her parents and brother were later taken to Auschwitz and killed, and she was orphaned.”
Germany invaded Denmark in 1940. Three years later, the Nazis began preparations to round up Denmark’s Jewish population. Warned of the pending imprisonments, the nation worked to save as many of their citizens as possible. In September 1943, rabbis informed their congregations of what to do.
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“From the pulpit, they would say, ‘The Germans are coming. Go home, alert your friends, alert your family, and get to whatever harbor you can,’” Benstock said. “They were told that fishing boats would be waiting to take them to Sweden.”
During a three-week period in October 1943, 300 fishing boats smuggled out more than 7,200 Jews and 500 family members who were not Jewish. That was more than 90% of Denmark’s Jews.
Often, the passengers were hidden below deck and underneath fish. Benstock’s father sailed from Køge, Denmark, to Skanör, Sweden.
Her mother, Ester Fisch, who was born in Denmark, was ferried from Gilleleje to Höganäs. Her maternal grandparents escaped on a different boat to Sweden, but Benstock does not know the details.
Weiss’ father was taken from Copenhagen to Sweden. Her mother almost did not make it out of Denmark.
“She was warned to pack only a couple of things for the trip from Copenhagen,” said Weiss, a former Florida Holocaust Museum board chairperson. “When she was going to the boat, she saw a woman lugging heavy suitcases, so helped her bring the bags to the boat.”
There were two boats set to depart. Weiss’ mother was scheduled for the second and the woman she helped for the first.
“That woman arranged for my mom to go with her,” Weiss said. “It turned out that she was the wife of the chief rabbi of Copenhagen. My mom’s boat made it to the Swedish island of Ven and then to the city of Malmö.”
The second boat was captured by the Nazis.
Weiss’ divorced paternal grandparents escaped Germany, with her grandfather going to Norway and then Sweden and grandmother to New York by way of France.
Those are the only details the women know of their families’ escapes.
“It’s just something they rarely talked about,” Benstock said.
It was enough to inspire them to want to better highlight the tale at the museum, which already tells the story through a miniature model of one of the fishing boats.
Weiss began the search for one of the real escape vessels in 1992, when the museum displayed a boxcar that was used by the Nazis to transport Jewish prisoners to concentration camps.
“I wanted to tell the other side of the story,” she said. “Every few years, someone would make calls to Denmark and not find anything. I was beginning to lose hope.”
Then, last March, she turned to Benstock.
“We had never spoken to each other about Denmark and what happened to our families,” Benstock said. “Like my parents, I was closed up about it.”
Benstock still has family and friends in Denmark. They reached out to boat brokers and, a few weeks later, found one of the escape vessels.
Called “Thor” after the mythological Norse god of thunder, the broker had purchased the 34-foot, 10-ton wooden boat from the son of the eel fisherman who used it to smuggle Jews from Denmark. The broker set up a Zoom call between Weiss, Benstock and the son.
“Like our parents, his father rarely spoke of what he did,” Benstock said. “But he knew the route his father took. It was the same as my father’s.”
She is now working with historians in Denmark to learn if other boats sailed that route or if Thor was the only one.
The boat arrived here in December. There is no timeline for when it will be put on display.
Overall, the museum will spend a few hundred thousand dollars on the display, according to its interim executive director Erin Blankenship. That includes the purchase, shipping it to the United States, restoration, storage, moving it into the facility and creating the exhibit.
Weiss hopes that it is placed near the exit, so that it is the last lesson that visitors learn.
“It is a symbol of hope,” she said. “It is a symbol of man’s humanity.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Swedish port of Skanör and Erin Blankenship’s title. The story has been updated.