League City resident and award-winning boat builder Walter Hansen recently finished a four-year restoration of Holocaust Museum Houston’s Danish Rescue Boat, a vessel of freedom used to smuggle 7,200 Danish Jews out of Denmark and into Sweden in October 1943. Danes saved 94 percent of their Jewish population, under cover of night and right under the noses of Nazis rounding up Jews for transport to death camps.
The boat was rededicated on Sunday (Oct. 4) at a ceremony hosted by The Honorable Anna Thomsen Holliday, Consul of the Kingdom of Denmark. The Honorable Ole Philipson, former ambassador of the Kingdom of Denmark and a survivor who fled Denmark with his family in a similar boat on Oct. 6 1943, joined Holliday.
Hansen, a retired FBI agent who once ran the Houston division office, put his heart and soul into this amazing vessel with its heroic heritage. He has worked thousands of hours repairing, rebuilding and restoring the boat from the inside out to bring it back to its original 1940s splendor. The Museum is very excited to have the exhibit reopen October 5 to the public, as this anchor exhibit is a symbol of how hope can overcome hate.
“The history this boat represents is fascinating, and the more I researched the boat so it can be restored to its original appearance, the more fascinated I got,” said Hansen. “No one knew what it looked like! I found a guy who fished as a kid on this boat, and the Museum in Denmark sent pictures. I got to know the original builder, Aaga Andersen. I feel like I’ve been his apprentice for the four years I’ve been working on the boat.”
Andersen built two of these boats, called Classical Danish Coastal Fishing Trawlers, each year from 1940 – 1960.
“I want to be as close to the facts as possible in all aspects. This boat was built by hand using hand tools. A powered band saw mill was used to mill logs into lumber. I can still see original band saw cut marks on the planks,” Hansen added.
“This boat is of iconic significance. It was built in 1947 and wasn’t around in 1943 during the Holocaust,” Hansen said. “It represents other boats that were actually used. It looks exactly like the boats that were used, which were of traditional construction of Danish boats of the era.
Hansen began this project with the frames (skeleton of the boat), the hull planks, the rudder, the keel (bottom), stem and sternpost from the original boat. The Houston climate had not been kind to the vessel.
“The worst rot was in the center of the boat. We replaced 19 hull planks,” said Hansen. “Being in water keeps the boat together via pressure, and keeps it leak-proof because the wood swells. When it’s taken out of the water and put on display, the humidity and heat break it down.”
At first, Hansen recruited 18 volunteers from the Woodworkers Club of Houston and the Gulf Coast Historic Shipmodeling Guild. Over time, volunteers moved on. Hansen ended up finishing the project with four shipbuilding enthusiasts that, “Just walked up and asked if I needed help. They have been fantastic,” he said.
Hansen worked on his first boat at age 17 with his now-wife’s father. “He could fix anything and loved to work with his hands. I spent six summers helping him. He always had a boat of some kind to work on,” Hansen, now 68, said.
“After I retired, I wanted to do something serious to ‘prove my mettle.’ I entered my first boat, a dingy, in the Keels N Wheels competition. I won the Corinthian Award for entering a locally constructed, handmade boat. Everyone else did restorations. That success told me that I could do this. I met a lot of people, including Jamie White, who worked on the Elissa Project in Galveston, who encouraged me,” Hansen said.
Many of the services required, such as building the boat’s cradle and providing a crane to set the ship on the cradle, were donated. “Folks hear the story of what this boat represents, and they’ll do anything for you,” Hansen said. “As TNT Antique Crane said, ‘this boat has everybody.’
“It represents two different ways of thinking: hatred/discrimination vs. humanism/acceptance/support/life. Are you going to think about bad guys or the people who were helped by this boat? Every once in a while, you’ll see a facial expression on a kid that tells you that you’ve sparked an interest. It’s very fulfilling to see someone who gets it,” Hansen said.
The Honorable Ole Philipson is another person who “gets it.” He lived it. The former ambassador of the Kingdom of Denmark fled the country with his family in a boat similar to the Museum’s on Oct. 6 1943, which was also his twelfth birthday.
Born in 1931 in Denmark to a Jewish family, Philipson said, “It never mattered that we were Jewish. We were integrated 100 percent into Danish society. Back then, differences didn’t matter; we were all Danish.”
In 1940, Germany invaded Denmark. “Germany was this huge war machine in a tiny country with no war machine. The country was occupied within hours,” Philipson recalled. “I remember the planes overhead, which were really just to scare us, and the men in their boots doing that march in the streets. There were weeks where Jewish Danes didn’t know what to do.”
The Jewish community came to a consensus to stay where they were. “We thought nothing would happen to us. And nothing did happen for about three years,” Philipson said.
“In September of 1943, a rumor started that the Germans were coming for us,” said Philipson. “The information came from high-ranking German officials. I still don’t know why they said anything. Needless to say, everyone left.
“Our non-Jewish population was not accepting that we were being arrested for being Jewish. It was absurd to them. They helped save many, many lives,” Philipson said.
Philipson and his mother, father and brother were moved from one safe house to the next for about a week. They ended up at a house that faced the coast of Sweden.
“My father had contracted with a fisherman to take us on one of these boats to Sweden. We went to the beach that night, but no one showed up. We did the same the next night, but still no one came. We went back to the safe house where the owners and some of our non-Jewish friends were. They came just to take care of us!” Philipson said, emphasizing the united front of Denmark.
“In the end, my father paid for us to go on a boat with 12 other people. The ship sent a rowboat to the beach. A few old ladies got in it and sank! The second rowboat came, and we had no choice but to go. We made it to the ship, spread out on the deck and didn’t speak or move,” Philipson recalled.
“I’ll never forget the man that was lying next to me. He was a schoolteacher and a ‘Freedom Fighter.’ He spoke to me in such a calm voice that it helped everyone relax. I remember just being in the moment. I wasn’t worried about what was going to happen. I was worried that I’d get seasick,” Philipson said.
The trip to Sweden, which was only three or four miles, took two hours instead of 30 minutes because the boat was constantly stopping to scan for danger.
“We arrived at Hven, which is a small island between Denmark and Sweden. There were women there that said, ‘Welcome to Sweden!’ and gave us chocolates. I hadn’t had chocolate in three years. That was the happiest moment of my life,” Philipson said with a tear in his eye.
The family lived and prospered in Sweden until the Jews were liberated in June of 1945. They returned to Denmark, free of German oppression.
“This boat means a lot,” Philipson said. “I’m deeply impressed that Houston, so far from Denmark, has taken this initiative. It’s tangible proof that people were not acting like heroes. They didn’t consider themselves heroes. They helped us because that’s just what you do,” he concluded, smiling.
To learn more about the Houston Holocaust Museum, visit HMH.org.