Microbiologist and Holocaust hero David Sompolinsky dies at 100

Sompolinsky worked to smuggle hundreds of Danish Jews to safety in Sweden in 1943 before embarking on a remarkable career in Israel

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

David Sompolinsky in 2018. (Screenshot/YouTube)
David Sompolinsky in 2018. (Screenshot/YouTube)

David Sompolinsky, a prominent microbiologist who helped rescue hundreds of Jews in Denmark during the Holocaust, died last week at age 100 in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak, where he lived.

Sompolinsky, a native of Copenhagen, died on October 13 and was buried in Rishon Lezion.

When World War II broke out in Denmark, Sompolinsky was a veterinary medicine student in Copenhagen. Together with a local non-Jewish teacher, he helped found the Lyngby Group, which worked to hide Jews in the city from the Nazis and smuggle hundreds of them to safety in Sweden.

In a video interview recorded in 2018 for Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, Sompolinsky spoke of his childhood in Denmark and his wartime experiences.

By his own account, Sompolinsky encountered numerous Danish non-Jews who were active in aiding the Jews of Denmark to hide and escape from Nazi forces. More than 7,000 Jews in Denmark successfully escaped to Sweden, and more than 90 percent of the country’s Jews survived the Holocaust.

In the book “October ‘43” by Aage Bertelsen, the non-Jewish teacher who worked with Sompolinsky to smuggle Jews out of Denmark, he recounted his experiences with the young man.

A certificate of appreciation awarded to David Sompolinsky for his efforts in saving the Jews of Denmark in 1943. (Courtesy)

“I knew that any attempt to persuade him to escape was doomed to fail,” wrote Bertelsen of Sompolinsky, “for he had decided that he would not leave Denmark until all Jews who needed his assistance had been brought to safety.”

Those Jews who could pay their way to escape via fishing boats to Sweden, said Sompolinsky in his video testimony, began to flee, and the others relied on the kindness and donations of other Danes. “There were some Jews who had the money, and started to flee,” he said. “For the rest, they collected donations, and there were many people who donated, so many simple people.”

Sompolinsky said the Jews of Copenhagen began to receive warnings of imminent Nazi roundups of Jews ahead of Rosh Hashanah 1943. Prayers in the main synagogue were shut down on orders of the rabbi, and after a warning from a local non-Jewish friend, he recalled, his parents fled to the outskirts of the city, while he remained behind.

On the eve of the holiday, Sompolinsky hopped on a bicycle “and went from house to house and warned the Jews to go into hiding,” his daughter-in-law Elisheva Sompolinsky told The Times of Israel.

Over the next few days and weeks, Sompolinsky assisted those in the Danish resistance movement with facilitating the smuggling of thousands of Danish Jews to Sweden. But one woman in Copenhagen was nine months pregnant and unable to board the ship, said Elisheva Sompolinsky.

She said that he also made sure, through his medical contacts, that Jews who were hospitalized were kept safe from Nazi forces. “He put a sign ‘quarantine’ on all the doors of Jewish patients, and wrote that they were contagious so the Germans wouldn’t go in there,” Elisheva Sompolinsky recounted of the pregnant woman and other Jewish patients. When the woman gave birth, “he hid her in the attic of his English teacher, and then a week later he put her on a boat to Sweden.” That woman’s baby, said Sompolinksy’s daughter-in-law, today lives in Petah Tikva.

According to various records and recollections, Sompolinsky also helped free Jewish prisoners, as well as aided those living in old age homes, and children and orphans living in an asylum, to escape. “He took the last few children with him on the fishing boat to Malmo,” said Elisheva Sompolinsky.

David Sompolinsky (Courtesy)

In his video testimony, Sompolinsky recalled wondering how he would flee to Sweden after most of his family had already left. But a woman approached him and asked what to do about a dozen children who were hiding out in an orphanage.

“They suggested that I would travel to a hospital not far from Copenhagen, and they will send the children there, and find a solution,” he said. He arrived at the hospital and found the children were being cared for secretly by nursing students.

“We were there for a few days until [the Jewish holiday of] Sukkot, and then a woman came and said, ‘Today you and the children are traveling south, and it will be okay,’” Sompolinsky recalled. The group traveled together to the south of Denmark, where they boarded a fishing boat headed for Sweden. “The children hid in the place where they kept the fish,” he said. Though the journey should have been a short one, the boat captain had to work to avoid detection by Nazi ships in the area, and they spent around eight hours at sea before arriving safely in Sweden, he recalled.

Sompolinsky remained in Sweden for the rest of the war, later returning to Copenhagen and completing his doctorate of veterinary medicine in 1946, and serving as a senior research fellow at the Veterinary Serum Institute in Copenhagen until 1950, when he, his wife and their three children moved to Israel.

“He was such a modest person, he never talked about it… he talked here and there and I learned [his stories] from books and everything,” said Sompolinsky’s daughter-in-law.

After arriving in Israel in 1951, Sompolinsky went on to have a distinguished career in microbiology, serving as a professor at Bar-Ilan University and as the head of its microbiology department until 1970. In 1960, he took part in an IDF medical mission to Kinshasa to provide humanitarian aid to those in the Congo during the country’s bloody civil war. He later served as the university’s Efraim Rapoport chair in medical microbiology, before becoming director of the microbiology lab at the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak in 1991, at age 70.

Sompolinsky worked at the hospital until he was 94 years old. “They wanted him to stay, but the Health Ministry wouldn’t give him a license anymore,” recalled his daughter-in-law.

Sompolinsky is survived by 10 children, 83 grandchildren, hundreds of great-grandchildren and at least 30 great-great-grandchildren, according to his daughter-in-law. His wife, Ilona Malik Sompolinsky, pre-deceased him.

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