On a recent trip to Denmark, I visited the Jewish Museum, located in the former Royal Boat House in Copenhagen. It is small but architecturally significant, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, and presents a picture of Jewish Life in Denmark, including during World War II. In 1940, the German Nazi army invaded Denmark, and King Christian X signed a peace treaty, which left great autonomy for the Danish government, and included protection for Danish Jews from deportation to concentration camps. In August 1943, with concern about resistance in Denmark, the Nazis pushed the Danish government, which resigned; the Nazis then decided to move forward with solving the “Jewish Question”. Their plans leaked by a German official to the Danish parliament, thousands of Danes worked on transporting almost all of Denmark’s nearly 8,000 Jews across the Oresund to Sweden, a neutral country which accepted them. There is a popular story that, when the Danish Jews were told to put on yellow stars, King Christian appeared in public with one himself. According the US Holocaust Museum, that story is fictional, and in fact Jews in Denmark were never forced to wear yellow stars. However, they also note that
“In the end, the Germans arrested and deported 476 Jews to Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp in German-occupied Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic), where 52 of them died. Even then, the Danish people sent parcels of food and provisions to their Jewish countrymen. The intense public focus generated by constant demands from the Danish Red Cross to visit the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt may well have prevented the Germans from deporting them to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.”
99% of Denmark’s Jews thus survived, unmatched anywhere else in Europe. In the US Holocaust Museum, there are panels and panels of lists of people known to have saved the life of at least one Jew during the Holocaust. There are several panels of people from Italy, and from France, and many, many from the Netherlands many of whose people were heroic in the effort (including the ultimately unsuccessful effort to hide Anne Frank and her family). But as I kept looking for Denmark when I visited there, looking for a long list, I kept missing it. Then I found it. Very short. One entry only: “The Danish People”.
This still brings tears to my eyes; I can barely say it without sobbing, but here in Denmark it is more real. And I ask the question: Why? Why here? Well, there are many reasons. Sweden was one; it was a short distance away across a strait so narrow that it is now crossed by a bridge, and was willing to accept the Jews. Indeed, in answering my question, a Danish friend says “well, it was Sweden”. Undoubtedly, this is a big part of the truth. But it was not the Swedes who took thousands of Jews across the Oresund in fishing boats in the dead of night (the fishing boat has become a symbol of this effort; several Holocaust museums have acquired them, in Jersusalem and in Houston , and this one pictured in DC), it was Danes. Why them, so much more than the French, or Italians, or Poles, or Belgians or even the Dutch? Danish people say that it is just the way that Danes are; that the Jews were seen as Danes, as their countrymen, and that there is great social cohesion here; they point to the current social welfare state, the high taxes that ensure that the basic social needs of all Danish people are met, as evidenced of the national character. Undoubtedly, this too is part of the truth. In addition, there were not so many Jews in Denmark, so the Germans were less fixated on them, and it also seems to be the case that the fact that the Danes (and Swedes) were Nordic, blond, blue-eyed Aryans that Hitler admired made him deal less harshly with these countries.
There were Danish Nazis; we have seen their armbands in the city museum of Odense. But, still, it is a remarkable thing. And I don’t really know why; why the Nazi sympathizers were never as able to gain clout in Denmark as in other countries, including England and the US. There was no Quisling government as in Norway. I don’t know how it would have been if there had been 10 or 100 times more Jews, if they had been more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. I don’t know what the French would have done if there had been a Sweden available. But I have a hard time believing that the people of any other country would have matched what was done by the Danes.
And I am grateful, and in awe.