Sometimes the hardest thing to find is the person you want to thank.

What began as a casual hallway conversation between two Minneapolis lawyers has turned into a small-scale international search for Danish fishermen who helped rescue Jews during World War II. The obstacles include the passage of time -- 67 years to be exact -- and a well-deserved cultural reputation for stoicism and modesty.

In October 1943, in German-occupied Denmark, Danish Jews were about to be rounded up and deported to concentration camps. But, in one of the few upbeat chapters of the Holocaust story, an underground network rallied to coordinate a massive boat lift of 7,200 Jews from Denmark across the Oresund Strait to nearby neutral Sweden.

Danish fishermen risked their lives by cramming Jewish families into the holds of hundreds of small fishing boats. It's estimated that all but about 450 Jews found freedom.

The legend of the Danish boat lift has resonated with Jews. Children in Hebrew school learn that they should appreciate the Danes, even if they are not clear why. One of the most famous boats used in the rescue -- the "02" -- is part of the permanent exhibition of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

It's also a reason Mark Savin had a Danish flag in his garage in St. Paul. He read about the boat lift in an article in the New Yorker magazine and decided to hold a party to commemorate the event, a celebration and acknowledgement of the Danes' sacrifices.

"It was a way to say, 'Thank you,' to the Danes as one Jew," said Savin, 64, an attorney with Faegre and Benson.

He got to talking with fellow lawyer Rikke Dierssen-Morice, 47, who has been working as the co-chair of the fundraising committee for the local Danish American Community Center. Built in 1924, the former retirement home nestled along River Road in Minneapolis is the subject of ambitious plans to expand into a Danish cultural center for the Upper Midwest. They decided to use the boat lift as a dual event for the Twin Cities' Danish and Jewish communities, with a fundraiser celebration planned for May 16 to honor the Danish rescue.

The fishy odor of freedom

Now they need to find some Danish rescuers.

Two boat-lift survivors are already scheduled to speak, including Gustav Goldberger, who was a 9-year-old boy when he fled in the darkness with his parents and three brothers, wading out into the frigid October waters to stow away in the hold of a tiny boat. A trip that normally took an hour lasted three times as long as the fisherman masked his actions to appear that he was going about his daily business. They never learned his name and never saw him again.

To this day, freedom smells like fish for Goldberger.

"We were helped from that hole and my father, being a cantor, started to sing a prayer of thankfulness for being in Sweden," said Goldberger, now 75 and a retired Maryland attorney. "We didn't know it then, but it was very well planned by the local Gentiles in the community. Here's a country where they could have treated the Jews like they did in Poland and elsewhere, with total disrespect.

"But in Denmark it was just the reverse. This was Denmark's way of telling the Germans to go to hell. 'The Danish Jews are Danes and we're going to take care of them,' and that's exactly what they did."

Now, the search is on for a fisherman or a relative to tell their side of the boat-lift story -- and to accept the gratitude from a receptive audience.

The Danish center has a small amount of funding to bring someone to Minneapolis. They've made attempts to locate a participant, hoping that the longevity of the Danes might mean a young fisherman in 1943 might still be alive.

Even in the age of the Internet, their attempts so far have proved fruitless. They've published requests for survivors and participants in the Danish Pioneer, a U.S. newspaper published for Danish immigrants. They've met with the curators of museums in Denmark who have agreed to provide materials for the celebration but have been unable to locate rescuers.

"Finding people who actually participated in 1943 has been really tough," Dierssen-Morice said. "Obviously, the age of those who participated is a huge challenge for us."

For many years, the Danes appeared reticent to discuss their role in the boat lift, even as organizations such as Thanks to Scandinavia (with entertainer Victor Borge, a Danish Jew, as one of the founders) emerged to piece together and tell the tale.

In 1993, the Washington Hebrew Congregation feted Frode Jakobsen, a Danish author and politician who was remembered for his work with the Danish resistance during World War II. Jakobsen reflected the sentiment of Danish homogeneity in an interview with the Washington Post:

"When we are praised by the Jews from Israel or America, I protested," he said. "Some Danes helped some other Danes who were in danger."

Anelise Sawkins, honorary Danish consul in Minneapolis, was a young girl in Denmark during World War II and remembers the sentiment.

"No one saw anyone as a Jew or not a Jew," she said. "We were all Danes."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434