Written by Tom Teicholz.
This article original appeared in Forbes.
During the Holocaust, Jews mostly had to rely on themselves for their own for survival in a world hostile to their very existence. This is perhaps why when we learn of Righteous Gentiles such as Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, Irena Sendler, and Chiune Sugihara, we want to trumpet their actions to the world. Relative to the actual murders, they saved very few Jewish lives, but what is important is that they saved as many as they could. Even if they had only saved one Jew, that in of itself would be noteworthy. And imagine if there had been a million Righteous Gentiles….
In this light, how much more remarkable is how Denmark saved around 7500 of their Jewish citizens (out of a population of 8000), ferrying them by boat to safety in neutral Sweden. This is the subject of a new exhibition, Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
The multimedia exhibition is meant for children older than nine and is innovative in several aspects. As explained in the press materials, the Museum and Local Projects, the award-winning experience and exhibit designer behind memorial sites such as the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, wanted to both create an experience of the Danish rescue that would engage children in meaningful and impactful ways and not have the exhibition rely exclusively on the testimony of Holocaust survivors (of which there are few, and fewer all the time). They also decided to focus on a story of resilience, resistance, and survival rather than of victimization.
In the press materials, Jack Kliger, Museum President and CEO, said. “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. Our charge is to inspire and equip young people to be compassionate citizens and leaders.”
The creative team for the exhibition includes curator Ellen Bari who has worked creating program and exhibits for clients such as Sesame Workshop, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Professor Therkel Straede, one of the leading experts on the Danish rescue; illustrator Sveta Dorosheva whose grandmother was a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor; writer Steve Sheinkin; as well as various consultants including survivors, local teachers, and students.
The exhibition designers decided to create three fictional characters, played by actors, who become our touchpoints and guides for the exhibition and on the journey from Nazi occupation to freedom. The characters are Rebekka (played by Imogen Williams), a 16-year-old Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, Max (played by Ari Naznitski) a 10-year-old Danish Jewish boy, and Erik (played by Charlie Lockwood), a teenager who is active in the Danish Resistance. They appear Hologram-like in exhibition environments or vitrines that also include photographs, drawings, animations, and testimonies of actual survivors and witnesses.
Each of the characters, at various points in the exhibition, speaks personally about their lives, their hopes, their fears. Each is on an emotional, personal, and, eventually, literal journey as they escape Denmark or aid in the escape of Denmark’s Jews. The Museum and the exhibition’s creative team believes children will relate more to these figures and find the story of the Danish rescue even more personal and impactful.
The exhibition begins by giving background to the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and to the history of the Jews of Denmark. We learn that in 1933, the Danish King was scheduled to visit Copenhagen’s main synagogue as it celebrated its centennial. When Hitler came to power in Germany that same year, it was suggested that the King postpone his visit. Instead, he attended becoming the first Nordic King to enter a synagogue.
By 1940, Denmark had managed to negotiate limited autonomy from Nazi Germany and refused to enforce anti-Jewish antisemitic policies enacted in other European countries (However, the story that the King of Denmark wore the Yellow Star so Danish Jews would not have to is not true – Denmark never required Danish Jews to wear the yellow star).
However, by September 1943, the Nazis announced that they intended to round up all of Denmark’s 8000 Jews for deportation on October 1, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In a series of panels with a variety of exhibits and media including photos, drawings, illustration, and the accompaniment of the actors, we learn each step in this treacherous history.
Spontaneously, an improvised rescue plan was hatched by the Danish resistance, Danish citizens, local businessmen and Jewish community leaders and, in short order, more than 7,000 Jews were ferried to Sweden which agreed to accept them as refugees. Five hundred Jews, some of whom had already been arrested by the Nazis, and others who were rounded up after, were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp (50 died in transit).
One of the highlights of the exhibition is a multimedia experience involving the Gerda III, one of the Danish fishing boats which saved an estimated three hundred jews, fifteen at a time in ferry crossings. The actual boat is owned by the Museum and can be seen at the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Henry Sunding Sundo, who as a 22-year-old led the Gerda III’s rescue operation, is among the voices of the exhibition.
It is also worth mentioning that after war’s end, when the Danish Jews returned from Sweden, they were surprised and delighted that their Danish countrymen had protected and maintained their homes, businesses, and property.
When you exit the exhibition, you find yourself in a large room that looks out over the New York Harbor, where there in the distance you see the Statue of Liberty, affirming the connection between those Jewish emigrants who fled pogroms at the turn of the 20th Century, as well as those who found refuge in the US following the Holocaust, and the Jews of this exhibition, all ferried to safety.
In these times of trouble, I recommend taking your children and grandchildren to see Courage to Act. They (and you) will appreciate arriving at a safe harbor.