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Denmark's German refugees remember forgotten WWII chapter

In a largely forgotten chapter of the dying days of World War II, some 250,000 German refugees were interned in refugee camps across Denmark -- still then occupied by the Nazis -- where they were not made to feel welcome
In a largely forgotten chapter of the dying days of World War II, some 250,000 German refugees were interned in refugee camps across Denmark -- still then occupied by the Nazis -- where they were not made to feel welcome Erik PETERSEN Ritzau Scanpix/AFP
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Copenhagen (AFP)

Barbed wire and tunneling beneath it to go and pick flowers outside his refugee camp in Denmark are what Jorg Baden remembers most clearly 75 years on from World War II.

Baden's experience -- a largely forgotten chapter of history -- was one shared by some 250,000 fellow Germans interned in neighbouring Denmark following the conflict.

Between the ages of five and eight, Baden -- now a cheerful German pensioner -- was a refugee in Denmark, after his family and tens of thousands of his compatriots fled Germany as the Red Army advanced towards Berlin.

From February 1945 Denmark, then occupied by the Nazis, was forced to take those refugees, the majority consisting of old people, women and children, as well as wounded soldiers.

Mostly spared the fighting, the Scandinavian nation was Berlin's favoured destination for exiles.

The lion's share of the refugees arrived by boat, some of which were torpedoed by the Allies, across the Baltic Sea. They initially ended up in makeshift camps around the country.

After the May 5 "liberation of Denmark by the Allies, the Danish resistance realised that there were about 250.000 German refugees all over Denmark," accounting for five percent of the population, John Jensen, historian at Varde Museum, told AFP.

Fearing the establishment of a German minority with too much influence, the refugees were gathered up into new larger camps or re-purposed military camps.

- Curtailed Hippocratic oath -

Exhausted from the journey and plagued by various illnesses, many refugees died shortly after arriving.

Some never received medical assistance as the Danish Medical Association recommended that its members should refrain from intervening.

"The common thought was if Danish doctors helped a refugee they were indirectly helping the German war machine," Sine Vinther, historian at Roskilde University, said.

Between 1945 and 1949, when the last refugees left the country, 17,000 died, with 13,000 of those in 1945 alone -- 60 percent of whom were children under the age of five.

According to Vinther that is more than the number of Danes killed during the occupation.

But even after the end of the occupation, Danish doctors remained hesitant to offer help.

"They could not get rid of their enemy image of Germans... Danish doctors failed their oaths in this period of Danish history," Vinther told AFP at the Vestre Kierkegaard cemetery in Copenhagen, where more than 5,000 German refugees were laid to rest.

Jorg Baden was one of the lucky ones to receive help. At five years old he came down with diphtheria, but was hospitalised and treated.

"It was a critical time for many children, but I made it through," the former English and history teacher said.

He recalled his family's hasty escape from Warnemunde in north Germany and the perilous journey across the Baltic to Haderslev in Denmark.

- Not welcome -

At the end of September 1945, they were transferred the Oksbol camp -- which would come to house up to 37,000 people, becoming the de facto sixth largest town in Denmark.

"We were first accommodated in horse stables which was very primitive... we had very little privacy," Baden said.

"But my father was asked to teach mathematics... because of that we were allowed to move to a stone house where we had a room for ourselves, running water and flushing toilets which was a great step forward," Baden, who is now 80, explained.

That was a luxury at the camp which allowed the family to live a "quite unspectacular and normal" life.

The camps were set up on the fringes of Danish society with the authorities aiming to "de-Nazify" the refugees.

"The general idea was to re-educate them to a more democratic way of thinking," Jensen noted.

According to Vinther, the "refugees were almost prisoners."

"Danes were not allowed to interact with German refugees, the German refugees were not allowed to learn Danish or to talk to Danes because they were not supposed to get the feeling that they were wanted," she said.

However, leaving Denmark took longer than expected.

"The Germans wanted to go back but they weren't welcome in the areas they came from, so the Danes had to negotiate with the Allied powers to repatriate them," Jensen explained.

Jorg Baden and his family left Denmark for his father's hometown of Duisburg, where he had found work with the British army, in September 1947.

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