The Danes are the most homogeneous national group in Europe. For the most part the Danes of today are descendants of the people who inhabited the Danish islands in the Stone Age. The Kimbric peninsula, Jutland, is the cradle of the Teutons: the Gottons. If a Nordic race exists, this is it. Yet no other of the occupied countries stood out more strongly against the racist doctrines of the Nazis.
This was in line with Danish tradition. For centuries, Denmark offered a haven to the persecuted and the outcast, Jews included—and Denmark never knew the meaning of a “Jewish problem.”
There is no record of when the first Jews arrived in Denmark. But there must have been Jews there in 1657, when a law was passed allowing them to trade, though each was required to obtain a special permit. In 1676, we find the first Jew paying taxes: Israel Solomon Lewi, a tobacco manufacturer. In 1682, Jews are mentioned for the first time in the census: eleven heads of families, occupied with tobacco and jewels. The first Jewish holy services took place in 1684, but no sermons were permitted.
Although the customs and looks of Orthodox Jews were surely strange and alien to the blond and blue-eyed natives, they were welcomed as an existing element in the country’s life. The Danes accepted them freely, and in the course of time the Danish state admitted them to full legal equality. In 1814 the Jews were granted full trading rights and complete freedom of religion. Full political rights followed in 1849, when King Frederik VII gave Denmark a free constitution. And the Jews were able to live as secure and respected citizens of Denmark—until Hitler.
The greater part of the Jewish community was always Ashkenazic, but until 1850 some Portuguese Jews performed their own holy services and even had their own cemeteries. After 1850 the dividing line began to disappear.
Religious freedom works both ways: if it is good for the cause of man, it is sometimes harmful to the cause of God. The Jews were absorbed by the Danes to such an extent that they were partly extinguished. Like any other people or race, the Jews do not always have the strength to survive kindness; it is persecution that favors isolation. In Denmark many Petersens, Jensens, and Hansens—typical Danish names—have “Jewish blood” in their veins.
Assimilation began in the last part of the 18th century. The first assimilated were Sephardim belonging to the upper classes of Jews. No doubt the ideas of the Encyclopedists and the French Revolution stimulated assimilation in Denmark, though a special royal license was still required for marriages between Jews and Gentiles.
The proportion of Jews in Scandinavia was always greater than in Germany. But there has never been a real pogrom in Scandinavia—only occasional minor incidents. In the time of King Frederik VI (1800-1839), a Jew was roughly handled by a crowd and some helpful people protected him to his house. The king immediately struck down the anti-Semitic disturbers of the peace, and citizens and officials followed him without faltering. Meir Aaron Goldschmidt (1819-1887) in his book A Jew—it is a Danish classic—describes the forms of Jewish assimilation in Denmark: how the Jews were occupied mainly in banking, the jewelry trade, commerce, and the garment trade, and later in the professions and the arts. Typical for the position of the Danish Jew at the time is an episode from Goldschmidt’s own life. At a national meeting, Goldschmidt gets up and asks from the platform, rather tragically: “What do I want among you? Why am I here?” And the Danes reply, puzzled but kindhearted: “O—yes-yes.” One sees the Jew, a little comedian-like, angling for applause, and listening happily to the slightly doltish Danish “Jo-jo.” Today, of a population of 4,000,000, around 8,000 are Jews, 3.000 being old Danish Jews (Sephardim) and another 3,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim); about 2,000 are German immigrants who came after 1933. Virtually all of them live in Copenhagen. Danish provincial Jews are to be considered lost for Jewry—in many cases, they have forgotten their origin.
The list of Jewish names in Danish culture, science, and art comprises not only men of international fame like the critic Georg Brandes or the half-Jewish physicist Niels Bohr, but also men of Jewish or part-Jewish origin who have helped to create Danish culture in its most typically national manifestations.
The Danish commander-in-chief in 1864, General de Meza, who defended our frontier against Bismarck, was of Jewish-Portuguese origin. An extremely colorful and courageous man, but no lover of military smartness, he exposed himself recklessly in battle, but always with a heavy woolen scarf wrapped around his head and neck—he was mortally afraid of catching cold. The greatest actress of the Danish romantic “golden age” was Marie Louise Heiberg, daughter of a Jewish innkeeper and his Gentile wife. No Danish book may be described as more genuinely national than the famous En Rekrut fra 64 (“Enlisted Man of 1864”), which depicted the German-Danish war; it was written by the army colonel Peter Frederik Rist, a half-Jew. The books and plays of Peter Nansen (Nathan) constitute a clear embodiment of the light Danish wit. Meir Aaron Goldschmidt and the playwright Henri Nathansen have dealt penetratingly with the amalgamation of Jews into the Danish nation.
Particularly striking is the truly Danish character of the Jewish painters Albert Gotschalk and Theodor Philipsen. The latter is today considered one of Denmark’s greatest painters; his landscapes and scenes of peasant life are marked with the same stamp as our butter and bacon: “Made in Denmark.”
The older Jewish families continued their affiliation with the Jewish faith society, “Mosaisk Trossamfund,” and simultaneously assimilated with the Danish population. By the time Hitler appeared, the Danes had almost forgotten that Jews lived among them. So had many Jews. To be called “Jode” at school was no more insulting than to be nicknamed “Jyde” (Jutlander), or “Plok” (peg) if the boy happened to be the son of a shoemaker. If there still existed a kind of literary-religious tradition of anti-Semitism—the Lutheran religious books, compulsory in the schools, still taught that vicious Jews killed Jesus—the individual Jew did not feel himself directly threatened by it.
When Hitler came to power in Germany, the word “Jew” lost its humorous sound in Danish ears. Nazi Germany was so near and so big, Denmark so small. A certain awareness of the Danish Jews began to develop. In Copenhagen the synagogue celebrated its centennial in April 1933. The King and his suite attended the ceremonies. This was just after the German boycott of Jews, when the sign “Jude” was pasted on all Jewish shops and warehouses in Berlin. But the Danish newspapers made much of the King’s attendance at the synagogue celebration and the newspaper boys shouted, “What says Adolf?” In 1938, when the synagogues in Germany were burnt, the Danish Christian Daily collected thousands of kroner for distressed Jews. The Danes abandoned that characteristic “mental chastity” which refused to recognize any difference among Danish citizens, and now they went out of the way to express sympathy and solidarity. Meeting their fellow citizens of Jewish origin, they would cross the street and silently shake hands with them. This meant more than mere sympathy. It meant a pledge of full support, should ever disaster fall upon the Danish Jews. And the Danes kept their pledge.
When the Germans occupied Denmark on the 9th of April 1940, they proclaimed that they came only to protect the country against the British; Danish life and independence would not be interfered with. There were then about 7,900 Jews in the country, including about 1,400 who had come as refugees after 1933. Not until late in 1943 did they feel the heavy hand of Nazism.
In August of that year the Germans, in an effort to control increasing waves of sabotage, began to put Danish saboteurs on trial before German military courts. This was a breach of the Danish constitution, and the government resigned in protest. Denmark remained without a government until May 4, 1945, when Germany surrendered.
Hitler’s representative in Denmark, Dr. Best, was known as a violent anti-Semite. “History tells us,” he said, “that it is compatible with the law of life to exterminate a people if it is only done completely.”
In August 1943, when the Danish government resigned, some prominent Jews were arrested, including the president of the Mosaic Faith Society, the well-known lawyer C. B. Henriques, and the rabbi Dr. Friedieger. Most of them were quickly released. The Nazis appeared to be in some confusion about how they were to treat Danish Jews. But a month later the persecution began. To frighten Denmark into submission and to avenge the constant sabotage, Hitler decreed a terror against Danish Jews.
When the king was informed that the Jews were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David, he said, “We have no Jewish problem, for we Danes do not consider ourselves inferior to the Jews.” But in this case, he added, he and his family would all wear the star “as a sign of the highest distinction.”
Danish Jews were helped in every possible way to flee to Sweden. The police called on Jews in their homes and took them in ambulances to waiting fishing boats. Many Danes risked their lives to help. Some Jews who refused to leave the country were hidden in the hospitals under false names: overnight about 400 sudden cases of serious illness augmented the hospital rolls. One old and highly esteemed Jewish citizen said’ to his rescuers: “I am an old man and my heart is not too good. _ Furthermore, I prefer to die in my own nest. I don’t put up with that kind of thing, anyway.” When told that he had to flee for the sake of his wife and those nearest to him, he answered: “It seems to me, under the circumstances, that my shirt is near, but nearer is my skin.” Nevertheless, he was carried away and so well hidden during the whole Nazi occupation that he and his inseparable wife together bade the broken Nazi armies good-by from Copenhagen.
About 17,000 Danes escaped to Sweden during the war, of whom about 7,000 were Jews; 490 Jews were taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Germany; 51 of these died, most of them of old age. Four hundred Jews stayed in hiding in Denmark with false identity cards and passports.
The treatment of Danish Jews in concentration camps remains a mystery. At The-resienstadt, where all others were sent on to the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz, the Danish Jews were relatively well treated, and just before the end of the war were allowed to go to Sweden. Those in the Jewish concentration camp in Horserod, Denmark, were also leniently treated and finally got out and fled to Sweden. A great deal was done by bribing the German guards. But why was Hitler on the whole so lenient towards Denmark? Perhaps Churchill was right when he called Denmark “Hitler’s canary,” referring to the fact that even the worst criminal may have a weak spot and might care sentimentally for a canary. Norway was no canary of Hitler’s: only 40 of its 1,100 Jews survived.
Valdemar Koppel, former editor of one of the biggest dailies, Politiken, describes life in Horserod, where he was taken after trying to escape from the country. (A German patrol asked what he was doing on a dark road, and Koppel was so taken by surprise that he replied, “I am escaping.”) A great many of the internees at the camp were poor stateless emigrants from Germany, who had come to live in Copenhagen during the years after Hitler’s accession to power. But many were well-known Danes—for example, Hanna Adler, the 84-year-old aunt of Niels and Harald Bohr, and founder of a modem school. There were also many well-known scientists, lawyers, doctors, and artists. The king’s doctor, Professor Warburg, was there. Koppel writes of him that he enjoyed not only the attachment of the Danish internees whom he helped with sleeping pills and medical care, but also the respect of the Germans: soldiers stood at attention when he gave his orders, and when he walked beside the commander of the camp one felt that he was the superior.
The salvation of the Danish Jews was an unselfish and widely branching job performed by virtually the whole nation. Young people sacrificed their time, their energy, their sleep, risking severe punishment, sometimes their health and lives. Money to bribe Germans and pay for the expensive transports poured in from all sides. The Danish authorities, political parties, and public institutions participated. Fishermen, merchant and naval seamen, private people who owned boats—all joined in the task of transporting the Jews across the Sound to Sweden. Doctors, nurses, and students in the hospitals, as well as Lutheran church people, worked tirelessly in organizing the mass escape.
Many who did not take an active part demonstrated their solidarity in other ways. They would stop a Jew on the street and say: “You don’t know me, but I know you. I am so-and-so. Here is the key to my apartment in case you should need it.” Some Jews got to Sweden with four or five different latch-keys in their pockets.
With but few exceptions, the Danish people showed an unfailing warmheartedness, a natural and selfless helpfulness. The Danish Jews who experienced the terrible threats of October 1943 can never forget it.
Paul Robeson, asked where he would prefer to live, said, “In Russia; you don’t feel you are a Negro there.” “Yes—but in the Scandinavian countries we don’t have race prejudice either.” “True,” he said, “but the difference is that people in Scandinavia are so civilized that they set race differences aside; in Russia you don’t even think of them.”
That may be. But Russia is a compound of many races. Without the Mongolian, Slavic, Baltic, and all the other races, there would be no Russia. The wonder in Denmark is that the most homogeneous group of people in the world has shown most friendliness towards another race.
This is not to say that Denmark today is so ideal a state that anti-Semitism may not appear in times of economic depression and unemployment, or that it does not already exist in certain areas. But the fact remains that the Danish people, in spite of the grave hardships they themselves had to cope with, rose almost en masse to help the Jews escape the Nazis.
One important factor in determining their attitude was a simple revulsion against the bestiality of the Germans. They displayed a traditionally Danish attitude of mind in wishing to show good manners in opposition to German “bad manners.” And it remains to Denmark’s eternal credit that the Danish Jews suffered less than any other Jews of Europe during the Hitler disaster.
Now that the war is over, and the Jews have returned to Denmark, the Mosaic Faith Society has been re-established. Most Jewish children are pupils in the Danish state and community schools, but the Faith Society conducts a Jewish school where immigrant children are acclimatized. In the cities we have no special districts where Jews live—no ghettos. The Faith Society consists of a small circle of well-to-do Jews belonging to the old Sephardic families and a majority of less prosperous newcomers. The latter have in the past had some difficulties in procuring working permits, since the trade unions fear the competition of immigrants, but the situation has been eased since the war by the extreme need for manpower in all fields. Denmark is one of the world’s finest agricultural countries. The Faith Society provides agricultural education and training for Jews wishing to proceed to Palestine.
Today Denmark’s Jews are reassuming their places in the Danish community. But as elsewhere, the poison of Hitlerism has not failed to leave its traces. There is a certain new awareness of the Jews, and a new tendency to discuss the “Jewish problem” when Jews are not present. Liberal-minded men with the best intentions are today publicly discussing it in the newspapers. Before the war this would have been considered unforgivably tactless. Many Jews would still prefer to hush-hush the subject. But after the millions killed in Europe during these years it is naive to deny the existence of the problem, and it is best not to allow it to grow in silence. When one hears innuendoes on the behavior of the Danish Jews—their escape, their stay in Sweden, their return—one has to admit the existence of a mild form of anti-Semitism. A number of Jews had money to bring with them on their flight to Sweden. Less fortunate Gentiles do not always reflect that many Gentiles also made this wise and important provision for the maintenance of life. Gentiles and Jews alike got good positions in the Danish refugee organizations in Sweden; nevertheless, a one-sided jealousy has been unavoidable. Textiles have for years been unobtainable in Denmark, and the refugees from Sweden returned dressed in strikingly new clothes. Many non-Jewish women returned after the capitulation dressed, like some of their Jewish sisters, in Swedish corduroy trousers, which were greatly in demand in Denmark. But the trousers are now called “Jewpants.” This kind of generalizing is an old story in Jewish history, but new for Denmark.
Other small examples of current anti-Semitism: It is asked why, in an agricultural state, so few Jews work the soil, and in this peaceful nation they even ask why few Jews become military men. I lately overheard some fishermen and fish dealers in a barber shop discussing the fight against the British in Palestine. One of them spoke of the trouble that Jews are “always stirring up.” Said he: “I am a fool. I risked my life to bring some of those people to Sweden. I should have taken their money and drowned them three miles from land.” But many others admire the courage of the Jewish underground in Palestine. “It is good to see Jews fighting for their rights instead of letting others fight for them.” It is significant that Danish soldiers who volunteered for the sixth British army parachute division and were sent to Palestine have asked to be exempted from the fight against the Jewish people.
Zionism has no adherents among the old Jewish families in Denmark, but many of the Ashkenazim and some second-generation Danes are Zionists. But Danish Sephardim have joined with other Jews all over the world in protesting against the British White Paper, and have contributed financially to the upbuilding of Palestine.
The complete assimilation of the older Jewish families now appears to have a certain disadvantage. Danes in general are not aware that such military men as General de Meza and Colonel Rist were part-Jewish, or that many Danish farmers with names like Hansen, Petersen, Jensen, are of Jewish origin. Perhaps Jews should be reminded that fate has placed on every Jew the duty to be a living witness for his people. Perhaps the Danish Jews and their friends should speak up—for Denmark has every reason to be proud of its Jews, and proud of its own courage and humanity in standing by them so firmly in the worst hour of their history.