Agnes Ruben was a young girl of 12 in late 1943, living in Copenhagen, when the Nazis made plans to round up and deport the country’s 7,800 Jews. Agnes’s countrymen saved the girl and her family by ferrying them to Sweden, where they spent the rest of the war years in safety, and then were able to return home and rebuild their lives. But Agnes, who raised three daughters alone after her husband died, was not able to build a financial cushion during her decades of work. However, a one-time payment from the Claims Conference’s Hardship Fund has eased her burden.
In late September 1943, leaders of the Danish Jewish community learned that the Nazis, who had invaded the country three years earlier, were planning to deport all of Denmark’s Jews. Danish citizens then rushed to the aid of their Jewish countrymen, ferrying them across the narrow Oresund Strait to safety in Sweden. In a two-week period, local fishermen helped to save about 7,200 Danish Jews, and their non-Jewish family members, from the Nazis.
It took two attempts for Agnes, her parents, and her brothers and sister to reach safety. In their first attempt, the family reached the Copenhagen harbor only to have to hide as the German patrol boats scoured the waters for escaping Jews. But all of a sudden the family heard cars, Agnes recalls, and because of the evening curfew and the lack of petrol, it was a very unusual thing. “This could only mean one thing; a snitch from the café had tipped the Nazis,” she said.
Somehow, they managed to reach the nearest tram stop as the last tram just taking off before curfew. Her father was the first to arrive and he shouted as loud he could, “Stop in the name of humanity!” and the conductor stopped! They were saved once again.
Several days later the family tried again. Agnes’s father had paid a fisherman 12,000 Danish kroner, a significant amount then. Agnes recalled, “We did not know the people with whom we were going to stay, nor the fisherman who was taking us to Sweden. The next morning we were off in a taxi to the harbor. One by one, we walked to the waterfront and climbed into a small motorized fishing boat. At 8 a.m., we sat in a small cabin below deck and the skipper was fishing up on deck. It looked very innocent, but we knew the German patrol boats knew all the tricks.”
The crossing took four hours, filled with anxiety and seasickness, which for young Agnes overshadowed her fear. When they arrived at the harbor in Sweden, Agnes’s mother became very frightened, believing the fisherman had taken them to Germany, because both the Swedish military and German soldiers wore green uniforms. Within three weeks, Agnes’s family was living safely in an apartment and her father found work as a butcher.
Because of the bravery of Danish citizens and its government leaders, more than 99 percent of Denmark’s Jews survived the Shoah. Says Agnes: “We were saved on Friday Oct. 8, 1943. Therefore, this date is the most crucial milestone in my life.”
Agnes brought up her three daughters alone after her husband died after just 13 years of marriage. She says she wasn’t able to save a lot of money for her retirement, even with working until she was 70. Along with the Hardship Fund payment, Agnes receives medicine and dental care through funds allocated by the Claims Conference.
“All the years I had the children, and it wasn’t possible for me to save money. For my daughters, there was enough, but there was not more than enough. So therefore I am very happy that I got this amount” from the Claims Conference, Agnes says of the Hardship Fund.