It was 1943 when the headmistress came to her classroom, calling her into the hall...
She trembled with each step questioning what she could have done wrong. Didn't I wash the hallways to her satisfaction? Were the toilets dirty? What did I do?
In her office sat a young man, unfamiliar to Hana. He already knew her name and asked if she had a bicycle.
"Ya, Ya," she answered, her heart pounding, unsure whether or not she gave the right answer.
Upon his suggestion, she gathered a few items, including a toothbrush which she always had on hand, and then told her to follow him. Like the obedient child she still was, she went, pedaling as fast as she could in order to keep up.
For kilometers upon kilometers they kept moving, never speaking, just breathing. Soon enough they arrived in front of a tall, white church. The door creaked open and the pastor appeared, his shadow grand and mysterious to Hana who still did not know what the day was to bring. Her chaperone bid her adieu as she was gestured inside.
For three days Hana, along with fellow Danish Jews, slept in the bell tower, hidden from the Nazi raid.
When the signal was sent, she ran into the darkness of an October night.
First she ran to a rowboat, quickly slipping underneath its frame to make herself unseen. Then, with another signal, she ran to the shore. Her body, which had become heavy from all of the milk, cream and bacon she consumed on the farm, slowed her down. Her blossoming chest was kept hidden by a safety pin hooked to her blouse.
She looked at the fisherman, "Jeg har inge penge" (I have no money). She turned her pockets inside out.
Looking her in the eyes he said, "I didn't ask you, did I? Hop on board."
It took something like 19 hours for the boat to get from Denmark to Sweden. Nineteen hours of hiding underneath herring. Nineteen hours of no food or fresh water. Nineteen hours of seasickness. The sun rose and then the sun set, once again blanketing the vast waters with a layer of protection.
She was only 18.
It was a grey, damp afternoon when they neared the shore. Seven-year old Per-Arne Perrson, spotted their boat from a distance and ran to tell his father, who was a local fisherman. Although boats had been regularly arriving in Sweden for the past couple of weeks with Danish refugees, it was an unfamiliar site for this community.
They stopped the boat about 500 meters from the shore, fearful of what land they were close to. If they had reached Poland or Germany, they would have been guaranteed an ill-fate. But, the words Welcome to Sweden resonated like sweet music to their ears, sung by the good-hearted fisherman who came to greet them. It took him four trips and nearly two hours to bring all of the refugees to shore. Many were terrified to come out from hiding and afterwards, all of the remaining evidence had to be expunged.
Bent Melchior, the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark, a man in his eighties who still resides in Copenhagen, was on the boat with Hana. He was 14 when his father, who was the Chief Rabbi at the time, was forced to flee with his family.
As Rabbi Melchior recounted his memories to me on a Monday afternoon, he shared that he was still in touch with Per-Arne. Their families had maintained a friendship over the years and when they were younger in age, they would often visit each other. Per-Arne, now 77, lives with his wife in the same home as he did as a child. And just a few weeks after learning about this connection, I found myself in Southern Sweden, standing on the same sand that Hana had once stepped on. I thought about what Rabbi Melchior had said to me, "to stand there and realize that had it not been, had we not at that time, reached this place, we would have ended up at the bottom of the sea."
What Per-Arne's father and mother did was a courageous act, and partly inspired by his mother's Danish background and knowledge of the language. Although Sweden was neutral and had granted asylum to the Danish Jews, it didn't mean that everyone was accepting of this policy. Despite knowing the community's disapproval, the pair stood their ground and made a choice to follow their own ethical guidelines. They saved nineteen lives that day.