Them and Us: Mitzvahs and The Danish Jewish Museum of Copenhagen

Danish Jewish Museum Copenhagen photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a small space, consisting of three oddly shaped rooms, starkly modern and contrasting sharply with the building in which they are housed on the ground floor of the seventeenth-century, ivy-covered, brick building that was once the Denmark Royal Boat House.  The walls are not square, the floor is not flat and the severe angles and planes of the geometric spaces, passageways and vaulted ceilings have you tilting slightly as you move about the museum.  The design, by Polish-American architect David Libeskind, is based upon the four Hebrew letters spelling Mitzvah. Translated into “A good deed” or “The duty to do the right thing ” the museum has an inspiring story to tell: the rescue of the Danish Jews in October of 1943.Danish Jewish Museum Copenhagen photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

Although a lot of the focus of the museum is on World War II, this is not a museum that emphasizes the horror of the Holocaust.  Instead, this museum begins its story in the seventeenth century when the Danish King hit upon an idea to improve the country’s economy and extended an invitation to wealthy Jews in many countries to settle in Denmark. (We couldn’t help but notice a parallel to many countries today who extend “Golden Visas” to wealthy applicants willing to buy property or invest in the economy in exchange for a visa.)  Many Jews, seeking more opportunities or fleeing pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism, accepted the offer.  In Denmark, they were allowed to practice their religion and were able to move about freely rather than live in designated areas (ghettos) common elsewhere in Europe.  In exchange for these autonomies and for agreeing not to compete with the established professions, the selected Jews were granted entry. The immigrants were encouraged to engage in other trades, such as textiles and tobacco production, marketing coffee and tea and trading fur and hides as well as financial activities like collecting fees for the national lottery.  Over the centuries, and with the occasional influx of new Jewish immigrants, the Jews assimilated into the country, interweaving their culture and traditions, intermarrying and living peacefully and prosperously as respected Danish citizens.

German troops parade in Copenhagen. Source

German troops parade in Copenhagen. Source

All that was threatened with the German invasion of Denmark on April 9th, 1940. In the space of a few hours the Danes conceded to the inevitability of Germany’s superior force and, hoping for a peaceful occupation, entered into a period of cooperation with the enemy.  The King retained his throne while many sectors of the government were still allowed to operate.  But, right from the beginning, Denmark asserted repeatedly that “special measures” and attacks against her Jewish citizens would not be tolerated and time after time denied any “Jewish problems.”  Incredibly, the Germans, who valued the meat and agricultural products that were shipped from their “model protectorate” back to Germany and didn’t want to jeopardize the precarious balance, backed down.  While deportations of Jews from the rest of occupied Europe to the concentration and death camps began in March of 1942, the Danish Jews were unbelievably free to continue a more-or-less normal life under the German occupation for a while longer.

Danish and Nazi Germany flags fly side by side Source

Danish and Nazi Germany flags fly side by side Source

By the summer of 1943, however the cooperation between Denmark and its occupiers was wearing thin as most Danes believed that an Allied victory was imminent.  The Danish resistance gained momentum, labor unrest and strikes spread throughout the country. Several German military targets and businesses cooperating with the Germans were sabotaged by the underground resistance movement. The Germans clamped down, arrested several prominent Danes and, by the end of August, martial law and a curfew were in effect.  The period of cooperation was over and, for the first time since the German invasion, Denmark’s 7,800 Jews were at great risk for deportation.

But here’s where Denmark’s story becomes unique when compared to much of the rest of Europe and the Mitzvahs deserve to be counted and remembered.

  • Several anonymous Germans warned their Danish contacts of an impending roundup of the Jews, scheduled for October 2nd, 1943.  When word of the imminent arrest and deportation of this vulnerable segment of the population reached the Danish Resistance Movement on September 28th, they warned the head of the Jewish community, C.B. Henriques who began spreading the news.  At early morning worship services the following day, the general alarm began to circulate throughout the Jewish population urging all to go into hiding immediately.
  •  Neutral Sweden, realizing that the Danish Jews were in immediate danger, announced that they were prepared to accept all of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden.  With this timely offer of asylum towards its neighbor, Sweden threw open it’s safe-haven doors (that most other countries had slammed shut) in an exceptional act of humanity and generosity.
  •  Passage to Sweden, by whatever means and transport available, became the goal for most of the Danish Jews who began to make their way to the fishing harbors along the coast.  They hid in the rural cottages of friends and in the woods, in the homes of their Danish neighbors and in village churches while awaiting their rescue out of Denmark.  In a massive group effort between the Danish Resistance and a substantial number of ordinary Danish citizens, almost all of Denmark’s Jews (7,200) were smuggled out of the country over the course of the next few weeks.  They navigated the Øresund strait from Denmark to Sweden in rowboats, kayaks, small boats and large fishing vessels.  The Danish Resistance smuggled those refugees deemed too young or too old and weak to withstand the rough sea passage through choppy waters inside freight railcars that had previously been sealed by the Germans which were then resealed for passage across the strait on regular ferries.

    Source

    Boat headed for Sweden in October 1943 Source

# 6 Source

Fishermen sailing refugees to Sweden  Source

At the end of this extraordinary endeavor there were about 580 Danish Jews who remained in the country and some of these stayed in hiding until the end of the war, died in accidents or committed suicide.  The majority however (464 people) were captured by the Germans and deported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in German occupied Czechoslovakia.

  • The Danish Government, far from forgetting its unfortunate citizens, persuaded the Germans to allow the Danish Red Cross to monitor the welfare of the Jews and accept and distribute packages of food and medicine to the prisoners.  Lastly, they exerted political pressure on the Germans not to deport the Danish Jews to the extermination camps.
  • At the end of the war, Europe was in shambles and the great majority of the European Jews were refugees, neither wanted nor welcome in their home countries.  The homecoming for the Danish Jews from Sweden and from the concentration camps was different however, as many returned to Denmark to find, in a final Mitzvah, their homes, possessions and even pets had been cared for by their neighbors during their absence.  (A separate exhibition called “Home” at the museum gives some valuable insight about their homecoming and the difficulties of resuming a normal life after experiencing the trauma of persecution and exile.)

    Celebrating the liberation of Denmark May 5, 1945 Source

    Celebrating the liberation of Denmark May 5, 1945 Source

In the news, we hear and see devastating examples of the hatefest called THEM versus US daily.  It was heartwarming as well as inspiring to learn about a small country that displayed formidable courage and performed multiple Mitzvahs: a country that remembered its duty to do the right thing in small kindnesses and large deeds and stand up for its most vulnerable citizens.

Note: In the end, the Jews of Denmark had the highest survival rates in Europe following the war (greater than 99%) and Yad Vashem, the international organization which researches, documents and commemorates the Holocaust, records the remarkably low number of 102 Danish Jews who lost their lives to the Germans during the war.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

66 comments

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  • Great story and interesting to see the Danes sticking up for the Jews they had invited in. Also interesting that the Germans went along with it.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Denmark’s experience in WWII was a lot different than other European countries and we couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to Europe’s Jewish population if more countries had refused to give up this vulnerable segment. And you’re right in questioning why Germany also agreed not to target, persecute or deport the Jews of Denmark for two plus years. We couldn’t help but guess that the Germans may have been a classic case of a bully wilting when challenged. Germany was proud of its model protectorate, Denmark, and didn’t want to jeopardize that relationship so that may also have played an important part in the question of why the Jews were left unmolested.

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  • A great read and uplifting in how the Danes treated and helped fellow Danes. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I’ve made it a point to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington DC each time I have made it to that town (I’ve often said everyone should be required to visit it before being allowed to vote- even before this year’s election). A great post and as a fellow history enthusiast now do want to read those books mentioned above and should I find myself in this city, visit this museum as well.

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    • We’re heading back to the US this week for a visit with friends and family via plane and Amtrak as well as a road trip and one of the places we’ll be visiting is DC (our favorite US city) where Richard’s brother lives nearby. We missed out on the usual tourist places last year (except for Embassy “Row” for our Portuguese residence application) and look forward to revisiting some of the Smithsonian museums and a return to the Holocaust Museum. You’re right that a visit to the museum might educate some of those swayed by the political rhetoric this election but, sadly, Jackie, those people spouting hatred and intolerance seem to be more comfortable at “rallies” rather than museums. 😦

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  • What a fascinating story – and riveting. I had no idea about this history, and the Danish Jews.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I did not know about the Danish Jews and I have found your post so heartwarming and fascinating. I think Brazil received many Jews refugees from Europe during the WWII and many prospered there. I would definitely like to visit this museum 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • We found the Danish Jewish Museum to be uplifting and the story of how the Danes worked together to save this portion of their population despite the religious persecution and intolerance that was sweeping Europe and so many countries around the world was really inspiring! We’ll have to do some more reading and see what Brazil’s story was. Sounds completely different from Argentina and Venezuela which harbored some of Nazi’s as Germany was falling …

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  • What a wonderful story! I’m so glad you wrote it.

    Liked by 1 person

  • As an unashamed fellow history geek, your post is very compelling. It also hits somewhat close to home. My husband’s family are Sephardic Jews from Bulgaria. His parents emigrated to the United States in 1940, sailing from France, literally one step ahead of the Nazis. They were “sponsored” by a business associate of his grandfather. During WW II, Bulgaria was an ally of Germany. However, the Bulgarian king managed to “save” Bulgarian Jews. Every time the Germans asked Bulgaria to deport its Jews to the camps, they would say they couldn’t spare the trains or come up with another excuse.

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    • We’re so glad you enjoyed this post Suzanne. Your husband’s family was so fortunate to be given a visa to the US at a time when the government began tightening its “quotas” and shutting it’s borders to desperate European refugees. Thanks for sharing this fascinating story of your in-laws and now you’ve motivated me/us to do more reading on the Bulgarian experience in WWII!

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  • I really enjoyed reading this. Being a history buff, I never knew this about the Danish Jews during WWII or how they first settled in Denmark. And to read about the generosity of their neighbours during WWII is one of the wonderful things about humanity—-that there is still good in the world. The museum sounds so unique especially when you wrote that even the floor isn’t flat. Thanks for sharing a really interesting part of history.

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    • The architecture of the museum is amazing and it can be a bit disorienting as there aren’t any reference points to “balance” yourself. We read that the architect had chosen these angles and the slightly tilted floor to symbolize the uncertainty of Jewish life in that time period. We loved watching the sunlight shoot in and reflect from all the angles and the whole, modernistic feel contributed to a very positive feeling. Definitely worth visiting Janice should you find yourself in the city!

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  • That’s a great story. It’s a pity we don’t hear more about the positive things that happened during WWII.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you enjoyed this story Karen and we were really excited to share it because it was so inspiring. And there were many acts of valor and courage that small groups and individuals performed at great risk to help vulnerable populations during WWII. I think the what makes this story so unique is that the country worked together against the overwhelming force of the Germans and displayed incredible courage. There are so many lessons we could learn today …

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  • Carolina Colborn

    What a heartwarming story. My husband’s mentor came from Denmark and I have heard this story handed down to him. I have not been to any Holocaust Museum as I am afraid to feel the horrors left in them. But this one would be nice to visit!

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    • The Danish Jewish Museum was, as you said, totally different from what we expected and our take-away was an inspiring story of courage as well as decency that we would hope to draw inspiration from if ever tested. Definitely a museum worth visiting, Carol, that will make you a little more hopeful of what people can and could accomplish when they do what’s right.

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  • Thanks for sharing this inspiring piece of history. It’s wonderful also how Sweden opened it’s border to accept the fleeing refugees. The world does seem to be walking a tight line now, and it’s good to reflect on past experiences and ask what stories we would want to have passed on about our response to a situation like this.

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    • All the timing worked together as the Danes smuggled their Jewish neighbors out and the Swedes opened their doors to welcome them. There are so many parallel story lines to what’s happening around the world (and in the US) today as race and religion continues to be an excuse to violate basic human rights. And I find it extremely sad that so many countries have not displayed the generosity, compassion and empathy that I once would have expected…

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  • When I was in Stockholm recently I went to the Jewish museum there. I was very surprised at the historically very high level of anti-semitism and how long it took for the anti-Semitic laws in Sweden to change (Jews only got equal rights early in the 20th century.). Your post shows the stark contrast in how each country has dealt with Jews in its history. The Swedish acceptance of the Danish Jews fleeing the Holocaust was an exception to the generally anti-Semitic pattern up to that point. The Danish can be extremely proud of their accomplishment, especially compared to most other nations!

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    • That really is surprising, Rachel. I guess we assumed, based on their welcoming of the Danish refugees, that the Swedes had more of a tradition of acceptance rather than the prejudice so prevalent throughout Europe (and the US too) at that time. One thing we’d also assumed was that each country acquiesced uniformly to the German demands to deport their Jewish populations but it’s heartening to learn that there were a few, very notable exceptions.

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  • Heard about this museum while we were in Copenhagen last month but didn’t have time to visit. Looks great, we will have to make time if we are back someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a small museum and easy to miss (actually, even with a good map we bumbled about for a bit before we bumped into it) but we found our learning experience to be one of the highlights of our visit to Copenhagen. Like you, we hope to return again someday because there’s a lot more to see and do in this beautiful city!

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  • This is such a wonderful story. There are two great books on how everything unfolded with lots of detail: Darkness Over Denmark and A Conspiracy of Decency. Also worthy of note is the anecdote that the Danish King wore the yellow star, which some scholars dispute but encapsulate the prevailing attitudes and political policy. Excellent write-up, guys!

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    • Thanks Betsy! We had both heard the story of the Danish King wearing the Star of David, which historians concur never happened but, as you said, it’s a great story showing that the Danish considered their Jewish neighbors Danes, regardless of their religion. As one more piece of trivia we picked up during our research, we learned that the yellow star was never worn anywhere in occupied Denmark. For us, the important take away after our visit was, “Why exactly was Denmark so unique in all of Europe?” We’ve picked up the book, “A Conspiracy of Decency” already but thanks for your other recommendation. Isn’t it amazing what you learn as you travel? 🙂

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  • ME BE in Panama

    Incredibly inspiring story, and a very timely post. A relevant Jewish saying is this, “if we do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?” It’s only when we protect and defend the most vulnerable that we reveal our true humanity. The powerful need no protection; the weak demand the best of us. Thanks for a good read, and another bucket list travel opportunity!

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    • Thanks for sharing such a great saying about good and bad times and you’re right that our humanity is revealed by how we act towards those who are less fortunate than ourselves. And far from being a museum about only the Danish experience of WWII museum, we’ve spent a lot of time pondering what we learned there and how it’s message still resonates more than 70 years later.

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  • This is a part of history that I knew nothing about. In the face of what is happening in the world today, this is uplifting. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Despite our extensive reading about WWII we hadn’t run across the story of how the Danes helped their Jewish citizens survive through the war and then welcome them home to pick up their lives when the conflict ended. And you’re right LuAnn, there are a lot of lessons we could take to heart today about extending small and large kindnesses to people from different backgrounds as well as stepping up and doing the right thing!

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  • I’m not a history buff so thanks for sharing this wonderful survival story. You told it beautifully! ☺

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  • This is indeed a part of history that l never knew. What an amazing story about a country and people as a whole. This is so heart warming. Thanks for telling it. I feel so proud of human beings. Maybe there is still hope for us yet. I so wish this had been more of what happened back then instead of the us versus them mentality. Makes me like Denmark even more than l did. I wish we had visited this museum! Next time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is an amazing story Kemi, and it does make you feel proud to learn about a country that acted to protect a segment of its most vulnerable population against persecution, deportation and mass extermination. And it would be nice to think that maybe there’s hope for us humans yet … We have some learning to do though!

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  • An inspiring story well told. So many positive lessons that resonate today. Thanks for bringing it to light to many of us who had not heard of this piece of WW II. Tim & Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve both done quite a bit of reading about WWII and had read about many of the individual and group acts of personal courage and heroism that occurred in each country throughout the occupation but this story just blew us away. Seems like it should be much better known because it shows that a small nation can accomplish great things against an overwhelming foe simply by acting with moral courage and decency.

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  • Fascinating history that you never knew! Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, so much to learn Maida! We appreciate how fortunate we are to travel and constantly see and learn new things. Such a rich world we live in and delving in to the past makes us appreciate and try to understand current events with a richer perspective. And how great to be able to share such an inspiring story!

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  • Fascinating story. I have never heard of what happened to Danish Jews. Obviously the history here, in Poland, went much differently. Thank You for this insight!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Reading this I wish it is a common tale rather than a unique story. The ‘Them and Us’ mentality is alive and well, alas and here in Australia we are treating traditional owners and asylum seekers as Them and handing out ‘golden visas’ and even ownership of large areas of land to the highest bidder.

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    • Sadly Mary, I think many countries in the world (not only Australia) currently have similar examples of a “Them versus Us” attitude and have no time for kindness and acting in a decent and humane manner or charity to extend to those less fortunate. These are desperate times for so many refugees and, once again, there are few countries willing to do the right thing.

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      • I must say that there are many Australians who are decent and are doing what they can to help but the majority voted for politicians who are power hungry, self serving and callous.

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        • Likewise, the majority of people from the US are decent too. I think the example of the Danes is something to aspire to and hope that, in times of crisis, people will step forward to show their decency and empathy rather than standing on the sidelines allowing those in power to behave with utter disregard for people’s rights or even worse…

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  • It’s an up-lifting story and a perfect time to re-tell it. How wonderful that your travels are bringing back through this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right Susan, about this being a perfect opportunity to share an inspiring story about how one small nation displayed a stunning amount of moral fortitude and worked together to protect its beseiged minority against a hugely formidable opponent. And how lucky we are to find such great stories to learn more about when we travel and then have the opportunity to retell!

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  • Well done! You always share such a wealth of historical details in your travels. Me? Though I love learning about the history, the art, the traditions, etc. in my travels, I’m afraid I rarely have the patience for either researching the details nor the telling. Stories like this inspire me to try harder. Indeed, you inspired me to head straight to Amazon to search for “Danish Jews” and… I just downloaded “A Conspiracy of Decency” by Emmy Werner to my Kindle.

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    • Thanks Dyanne. We are self-admitted history nerds and nothing interests us more that finding a new story or place and then digging for more details and facts. It’s such a luxury to have the wealth of online information at our fingertips with the internet or, like you, to go searching for a book when you want to find out more about a story. And, thanks to you, I’ve gone ahead and loaded “A Conspiracy of Decency” to our Kindles for a good read!

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  • What a wonderful story. It gave me goosebumps – in the midst of the worst of humanity we see the best emerge. Thanks for sharing this.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re so glad you enjoyed this Alison, as our visit to the Danish Jewish Museum turned out to be(surprisingly) one of the high points of our time in Copenhagen. It’s hard sometimes to understand why some people find history dull as it provides some riveting stories, the rise and fall of nations, family dramas and several relevant lessons that many countries could certainly benefit from. And it wasn’t hard to draw some parallels between the religious intolerance occurring in WWII and what we read and hear on the news today …

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  • Thanks for the post. I read of this many years ago. You helped flesh out the story in a wonderful way. A mitzvah indeed, inside the ultimate Us vs Them horror story. A great reminder of how it can be.

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    • We’re thinking we need more and more reminders of “how it can be” and found Denmark’s story to be amazing. We’re fairly well read about history and World War II but were surprised that we hadn’t run into the story of Denmark’s rescue of its Jewish citizens before. This story is so inspiring and shows what can happen when people extend a hand to their neighbors and behave with kindness and decency.

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  • Thank you for sharing this. I hope you don’t mind but I reblogged it. It’s an inspiring story that needs to be heard, especially today.

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  • I did not know this bit of history about Danish Jews and the Holocaust. Very interesting and inspiring. We should all remember our “duty to do the right thing”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve been to a few Holocaust museums Donna, most notably the one in Washington DC which left us with a deep sadness, and were initially disappointed with how small and modern the Danish Jewish museum was. However, our time there was well spent as it turned out to be a huge learning experience and an inspiration for what can be achieved when people act to protect their neighbors regardless of religion or race.

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