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By Ken Chitwood

This article originally appeared in Religion Unplugged.

For Rabbi Jair Melchior, the rescue of Danish Jews during the Holocaust is more than a story, it’s an everyday reminder.  

Eighty years ago this month, the Danish people helped rescue their Jewish neighbors, secretly providing transport by sea to Sweden over the course of three weeks. Ordinary Danes saved nearly 95% of the country’s 7,800 Jews. Marcus Melchior, Jair’s great-grandfather, played an instrumental role in the rescue. 

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City will open a new exhibit on Oct. 15 that explores the rescue called  “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark.” Intended particularly for children and adolescents, the interactive exhibit not only commemorates the event, but asks visitors to confront the question: How would you respond if you heard a cry for help today? 

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And that, said Melchior, puts demands not only on museum goers, but the community he serves in Denmark today. 

“It’s demanding,” the 32 year old rabbi said, “not only of our gratitude — three of my grandparents were on those boats — but also of our lives. We have to do the same for others who are in need. If we don’t, the historical lessons have not been learned.”  

Conditions for rescue 

The story of the Danish rescue, perhaps not widely known in the U.S., is one of the rare exceptions in World War II, when locals and government officials were able to resist Nazi oppression and protect the local Jewish population — at least to a degree.

In many ways, the conditions were perfect for rescue. Early on in Germany’s occupation of Denmark, little to no anti-Jewish legislation was enacted. The Germans viewed Danes as fellow “Aryans” and Adolf Hitler spoke of it as his model protectorate. 

For three years, Danes supplied the Nazis with agricultural goods and economic assistance. In return, they enjoyed a greater amount of political autonomy than other occupied countries.

From April 1940 until the fall of 1943, the Danish government and king remained in power, promising to quell resistance to Nazi rule. During this time, Danish Jews were largely left alone. 

However, due to the increased intensity of strikes and sabotage by Danish resistance in summer 1943, the Germans placed Denmark under direct military occupation in August of that year. As part of this takeover, preparations were made to rid the country of its nearly 8,000 Jews. As news of the plan filtered through Danish society, Jews were warned and plans were made to help get them out. 

Despite enormous risks, Danes of all ages and from all walks of life — professors and priests, doctors and dock workers — mobilized to move Jewish neighbors and friends to hiding places and fishing ports, from where they would be transported to Sweden across the Øresund Strait. Estimates suggest that 50 Danes were involved for every Jew rescued. 

Together, these ordinary citizens saved nearly 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population in October 1943. 

Not all were rescued: 481 Danish Jews were caught and deported to Theresienstadt, a ghetto-labor camp outside modern-day Terezín, Czech Republic. Roughly 30,000 Jews died there, mostly from disease or starvation. Another 90,000 were deported to concentration camps farther east, such as Auschwitz in Poland, where they faced almost certain death.

Compared to others in the camp, the Danes in Thereisenstadt experienced far better conditions. Nor were they transferred to death camps. Until the end of the war, representatives from Denmark sent packages with food, clothing and vitamins to those interned. The result? The death toll for Danes in the camp was far lower than average.

The Polish-American historian Nechama Tec, who wrote extensively on the Holocaust and resistance to it, emphasized that Denmark represents a special case, where the conditions were favorable in almost every way. Making up only 0.2% of Denmark’s total population, the logistics were simpler than in countries like the Netherlands, where there were over 140,000 Jews or three million in Poland. Not to mention, escape to neutral Sweden was relatively easy across the 2.5-mile stretch of water between the countries. 

Tec further proposed that a low degree of anti-Semitism in Denmark, paired with “a strong adherence to democratic principles” provided a driving impetus for Danes to protect their neighbors.

Altogether, wrote Tec, the Danes took “full advantage” of these conditions, saving thousands of lives as a result.

Interactive and immersive

New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust opens an exhibit to share this story with young and old alike. 

Designed for visitors age nine and up, the exhibition uses interactive displays, archival materials, photographs, recordings, testimonials, and other artifacts to not only commemorate the rescue, but encourage visitors to make a connection to their own lives. 

The invitation, and challenge, said Ellen Bari, the exhibit’s project director, is to reflect on the dangers of prejudice, as well as their own potential for moral and courageous action. Key to that process is sharing an inspiring story. 

“Eighty years since, we now have the opportunity to focus on a positive story,” Bari said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage a younger generation with themes they can identify with,” she said, “inviting them to consider what choices they would make in difficult circumstances.” 

Themes in the exhibit include separation and cultural identity, prejudice and courage, what’s right and what’s wrong, fair and unfair. 

Bari said the museum team was excited to bring the story and these key themes to life through a state-of-the-art, immersive experience. Working with the award-winning firm Local Projects, the exhibit includes dynamic hologram-like figures, allowing visitors to hear directly from the past through the stories of people who engaged in the rescue and whose lives were saved. 

One of the key artifacts in the exhibition is the boat, Gerda III. In 1943, the boat was used by 19-year-old Henny Sinding to smuggle approximately 300 Jews out of Denmark. With the original housed at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, there will be a 75% replica of the boat on display as part of the exhibit, along with a personalized storyline about Sinding and her journey to being one of the rescue’s unlikely leaders. 

“We wanted to focus on individuals,” said Jack Kliger, Museum President and CEO, “especially as the number of Holocaust survivors decreases and we confront resurgent antisemitism, we must proactively engage new generations in the fight for a better world.

“Sharing peoples’ stories is one way to do that,” he added.  

Alongside Henning, visitors will also get to know composite characters created using a wide variety of testimonies from the events surrounding the rescue — a 10 -year-old Jewish girl, a non-Jewish boy who gets involved in the resistance and a young woman from Czechoslovakia whose family was sent to Denmark to study agriculture on the way to what is now Israel. 

Another story will be that of Bent Melchior, Jair’s grandfather, who was just 14 when the rescue occurred. 

Together, Kliger said, he hopes stories like Melchior’s and Henning’s will “inspire and equip young people to be compassionate citizens and leaders.”

Rendering of the Gerda III boat in Denmark

Ongoing re-evaluation

But museumgoers will also have to wrestle with some of the rescue’s ambiguities as well. 

Although popular retellings paint an extremely favorable image of Denmark as a kind of safe haven for Jews, recent discussions have put forward a less flattering portrait of the country’s history during the occupation. 

Danish historian Bo Lidegaard, author of a book about the Danish rescue, has questioned whether or not the actors involved should be considered “heroic.” While he admits there were individual acts of courage and bravery, he said Swedish neutrality and the Danish deal with Nazi Germany were far from valiant. 

Building on the work of historians like Lidegaard, Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, wrote that amid the ongoing re-evaluation of Denmark’s history during the Holocaust and place within European politics past and present, it could be said that “Denmark followed a very restrictive refugee policy towards German Jewish refugees during the 1930s.” 

Though some Danes were pro-Nazi and even joined the Waffen SS and participated in war crimes, Banke wrote there was no widespread anti-Semitism in the Danish government or society at the time nor were they simply trying to please the Germans. Instead, Danish policy makers and social-liberal politicians were working to sow the seeds that would later become Denmark’s national welfare state.

Still others have pointed out that in addition to the banal bureaucracy that both hindered and helped Danish Jews during Nazi occupation, there were additional factors at play as well. It has been well-documented that some Danes took bribes worth large sums of money to transport Jews across the strait. And, researches have pointed out that the German overseers just wanted to get rid of Jews in Denmark. They were cognizant of the planned rescues but did not try to prevent it. 

Still, Lidegaard admitted, it was precisely these unheroic circumstances that allowed individual Danes to behave decently and transport their neighbors to safety. 

In the end, he wrote, working in secret, a wide swathe of Danes implemented a unique rescue of their fellow “countrymen.” For many of these individuals, it wasn’t about bribes or benevolence, but resisting oppression and acting on core democratic and humanistic values to help neighbors in need.  

Kliger said the museum exhibit will acknowledge this ambiguity but focus on the overall message that every act of courage, no matter how small, can make a difference. 

This message, and the museum’s focus on the good, is inspired by the Holocaust victims he has gotten to know over the years. For those who survived thanks to the Danish rescue, he said not one of them damned their fellow Danes, even if their motivations and methods weren’t perfect. 

“We know this isn’t the full story about the Holocaust, but we hope our visitors become witnesses who have a special responsibility in the world,” Bari said. “We hope the exhibition will empower kids to use their voices for good. To make the world a more humane and just place.”

Letting the story define us 

That point might be the most important one of all, according to Rabbi Jair Melchior back in Copenhagen. For Denmark’s estimated 7,000 Jews, most of whom live in the Copenhagen metro area, Melchior said the rescue continues to play a significant role in their self-understanding. 

“We wish it never had to happen, but of course we are thankful that the people were saved,” he said, “and that shapes the way the Jewish community today thinks about who we are.” 

He is happy to see people like his great-grandfather and grandfather featured in the New York exhibit, linking their stories to that of his father, former member of Israel’s parliament (known as the Knesset), Rabbi Michael Melchior, who also served as chief rabbi of Norway, and his own community in Copenhagen today. 

“The question is how much we let this story define us,” he said. 

Far more important for Rabbi Melchior is that Danes — Jew and non-Jew alike — learn to do the same for others today. 

“The issues are not exactly the same, but we have migrants and minorities in contemporary Danish society — what are we doing to raise our voices or help these refugees?” he said. 

Melchior said his grandfather, Bent, would often see images of the boats carrying immigrants from Africa across the Mediterranean and connect them to his own flight to refuge across the sea. “He would share how he, as one of fourteen on a boat to Sweden hoping for a better future, he related to people who are coming to Europe today,” said Melchior. 

“I am not naive, it’s complicated,” Melchior added, “but the story of the Danish rescue should move us to do whatever we can to help as many as we can. This should be our goal. The time of need is again here, we continue to see tragedies at sea, these are things we should do more about,” he said, “if not, we haven’t learned the lessons of the past.”

Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar and journalist based in Germany. He is a Senior Research Fellow with the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative and Journalist Fellow with the University of Southern California’s Engaged Spirituality Project.