At Copenhagen’s Jewish Museum, I climbed into a wooden rowboat, put virtual reality goggles over my eyes and was suddenly in a boat with Joseph, a Danish Jew rowing through his memories of escape and his feelings of sadness and loss. I was, for the first time, feeling the trauma that my family must have felt as they ran. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is soon upon us. On January 27, we will commemorate the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism.
In remembering the Holocaust, there is light amid the darkness. Many individuals rose up to save Jews. And then there was Denmark. In 1943, the country rallied to save its entire Jewish community from an expected Nazi roundup. Historians have called it the only example of effective nationwide resistance to the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The story is personal for me.
My uncle, Max Friedmann, and his wife, Anna Barbara, were stateless refugees when they fled Nazi Germany and reached Denmark in the 1930s. They were saved again in 1943 when, after the Germans planned a roundup, the unfathomable occurred: A German naval attaché leaked information about Hitler’s plan, and the news spread quickly. At Jewish New Year services in the Great Synagogue, Rabbi Marcus Melchior (grandfather of the current rabbi) told the congregants to go home, pack and find a place to hide.
Danes from all walks of life stepped up. Within hours, Jews were hidden with friends and neighbors, with members of the resistance, in churches and in hospitals. When the German police came knocking, almost none were at home. In the following weeks, 95 percent of Denmark’s Jews—including my relatives—were ferried to Sweden in small boats over choppy waters under cover of darkness.
The Swedes, whose neutrality was guaranteed because Germany wanted its iron ore, took care of the refugees for the duration of the war. All 7,200 survived and, like my uncle and aunt, returned to Denmark after the German surrender in May 1945 to find that their homes and property had been protected on their behalf, unlike Jews in Poland who survived the concentration camps to find that their neighbors had seized their properties.
Denmark’s “is a remarkable story in the dark history of the Holocaust,” wrote Janus Møller Jensen, director of the country’s Jewish Museum. “It shines like a bright light that reminds us how courage and personal choices are important and relevant even today.”
Recently, the country held nationwide observances to commemorate that rescue. As the descendant of survivors, I traveled to Copenhagen in late September to visit their graves, participate in the commemorations and honor the Danes for their courage.
Copenhagen was awash in commemorations.
In addition to the virtual reality exhibit in the Jewish Museum, the gift shop contained many new books about the rescue, for children as well as adults, including the foreign ministry’s new book, October 1943, by Dr. Therkel Straede, the country’s most authoritative historian on the period. Other commemorations include a traveling exhibit about the 400-year history of Jewish life in Denmark that will be making stops in Danish towns and cities over the next two years. The goal, director Jensen told me, is to “inform about the Jewish community and minority as an integral part of Danish society” not as “the Other.”
Why was it necessary? In over four hundred years of Jewish life in the country, Denmark has always protected its Jewish population, and that hasn’t changed. On October 7, the government wasted no time in condemning the slaughter by Hamas in southern Israel.
The following week, then-Queen Margrethe (who has since abdicated), Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen attended a Sabbath service at the city’s Great Synagogue to show support for Denmark’s Jews after the Hamas attack. In November, to commemorate Kristallnacht (when in 1938 Germans sacked Jewish businesses and terrorized Jews), Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior and Prime Minister Frederiksen led a torchlight procession starting at the synagogue and ending at Parliament, seat of the Danish government.
The next day, the chief rabbi was spat at in Copenhagen’s Metro. He then publicly called for the perpetrator to meet with him to discuss the issues. Normally, you’d say that was chutzpah, but it shows how safe the rabbi feels in Copenhagen, despite large pro-Palestinian protests against the Israeli-Hamas war.
Over the last few years, the Jewish community has faced an uptick in antisemitism.
Denmark’s population includes about 200,000 Muslim immigrants. They and left-wing Danes opposed to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank have fueled antisemitism according to Danish officials. In 2015, an Arab gunman assaulted the Great Synagogue, killing a young guard. Dr. Straede, the historian, says that “Jews who were worried about antisemitism before October 7 are more worried now,” and that there have been verbal confrontations that have offended Jews in very polite Denmark.
Two years ago, the country passed an antisemitism action plan, whereby Danish police and soldiers now protect all Jewish institutions in the country. And it’s rigorous. I arrived at the Great Synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur and was grilled by a soldier who wanted to know why I was coming to the synagogue and where I usually pray. When I was finally allowed to enter, I walked through two iron gates, the first one clanging shut behind me before the second one opened. There is also no vehicular traffic allowed on the street.
Security is only one element of the plan. Danish schools must now teach the Holocaust and the 1943 Rescue. Working with the Ghetto Fighters Museum in Israel, the country has drawn up a new interactive Holocaust curriculum for highschoolers. At teachers’ colleges, future teachers learn how to teach the new curriculum.
Officials say keeping the Danish rescue story alive through education—rather than trying to control online speech—is key to combating antisemitism. Teaching about the choices Danes made in the past, officials feel, will help young people make informed choices today, should they need to.
But historians and experts are in an open debate about what that history actually is. Jewish Museum director Jensen is promoting an increased focus on the darker side of the Danish story: the 7,000 Danes, for instance, who enlisted for the Waffen SS and fought on the Eastern Front for the Germans. “There was a tendency to say they were social outcasts and not very bright people,” Jensen says. “But they were simply ordinary humans with different beliefs.”
“The vast majority of Danish society chose to help the Jews,” he stresses. “If we focus on the shadows, they emphasize the light.” And the Danish resistors, during the Nazi occupation, are a bright light that has often been overlooked.
Now, a huge memorial to the resistance is being built on the periphery of Copenhagen, in the very place where the Germans tied resistors to poles and shot them. I was awed by the hundreds of tombstones lining the area, memorializing resistors whose bodies were never found. Many were in their twenties and early thirties, barely starting their adult lives. Danish children are learning about the resistors too.
A fundamental disagreement among Danish historians these days is whether, in the future, the country would behave courageously in protecting minorities. Bent Bludnikow, a historian whose father was saved in 1943, says no, “The world has changed. Moral strength is not appreciated.”
Others, such as historian Therkel Straede, say the country would save Jews, but perhaps not resident Muslims, if they faced persecution. [Muslims] are seen as too foreign, he says. “I do believe in people willing to help, especially in Denmark,” Jensen counters. “But you can’t lean back and say it’s going to happen. It’s up to us.”
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, amid dark times, the moral strength the Danes showed 80 years ago and their ongoing commitment to standing up for persecuted people gives me hope.
Top image: Jewish siblings in a row boat during their escape to Sweden in October 1943. It was taken after they arrived in Sweden. Also In the boat were their aunt and a Danish fisherman. Not long before arriving in Sweden, one of the oars broke. Photo credit: National Museum of Denmark.