The Gerda III

Original content by: Emily Russell

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

In times of need, ordinary individuals are often able to find the means to rise to the occasion in order to achieve greatness. The Gerda III, a small Danish lighthouse tender, is a symbol of this very potential. The Gerda III was built in 1926 by the Danish Lighthouse and Buoy Service to carry supplies and men to and from the Drogden Lighthouse. While this small oak and pine vessel could easily be mistaken for a simple fishing boat, it actually helped perform one of the greatest acts of resistance to the Holocaust during World War II.  

The story of heroism and bravery surrounding the Gerda III begins with the German occupation of Denmark. In 1943 Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German businessman in charge of naval matters in Denmark, was told of the Nazi’s plan to deport the Jewish population of the country. He decided to tell the Danish public and spurred an effort by Danish officials, ordinary citizens, and Jewish community leaders to rescue the 7,500 Jews living in Denmark.  In a time when much of German-occupied Europe had watched the Nazis send millions of Jews to their imprisonment and death, the Danish people saved thousands lives by taking a stand against intolerance and hatred.

A key aspect of this operation was the transportation of the Jewish population of Denmark across the Oresund Strait to safety in neutral Sweden.  It was at this time that the Gerda III became a part of history and a symbol of heroism.  The four-man crew of the vessel made many trips over the course of October 1943 to bring Jewish refugees to safety. The Gerda III was able to rescue about 300 people in this manner. To avoid raising suspicions, the crew went about their normal duties tending to the lighthouse, waiting for the right moment to drop Gerda III's secret human cargo on the Swedish coast.  

Luckily for the refugees hiding in the vessel’s hold, the German guards that checked the Gerda III every morning before she departed for her daily routine never asked the crew to show them what was hidden below the deck. Whether these guards chose to overlook what was occurring, or whether they were too tired from their nightly patrol to notice, we will never know. The guards were always happy, however, to receive the beer offered to them by the Gerda’s crew each morning. It should be mentioned that the Gerda III’s mission could not have been so successful without the help of the daughter of the boat’s owner—a brave girl by the name of Henny Sinding who helped organize the transportation of refugees.

The Government of Denmark donated the Gerda III to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City as a gift in 1989.  She is currently cared for and exhibited at Mystic Seaport Museum.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why do you think the people of Denmark reacted differently to the Nazi deportation of Jews than other European nations?
  2. What is heroism? What makes an act heroic?
  3. Do you have a responsibility to act, and even risk your own safety, when you see that others are in danger or being oppressed?