This article originally appeared in The Broadsheet.
A deeply moving new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (MJH), “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark,” opens Sunday, October 15. The exhibit chronicles the heroic defiance by the Danish people in October, 1943, when faced with orders from their Nazi occupiers to hand over the entire Jewish population of the country for deportation to death camps. In a hastily improvised secret operation, the Danes whisked more than 90 percent of the country’s roughly 7,800 Jews into temporary hiding, and then onto a fleet of small boats that ferried them to neutral Sweden, beyond the reach of the Final Solution.
“Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark” is also unusual in that its narrative is calibrated toward children. Much of the story is told (by gifted juvenile actors, appearing in holograms and videos) from the perspective of young Jews living in Denmark under German rule, and the presentation is carefully attuned to the sensibilities of a pre-teen audience.
Regina Skyer, a member of the MJH board of trustees, told the Broadsheet, “it is incredibly important to begin Holocaust education earlier than high school, because anti-Semitism begins in playgrounds.”
“We decided we wanted to do an exhibit for ages nine and above,” added MJH president and board chair Jack Kliger, “rather than the 13-and-above level that is more typical. And our collection already included one of the fishing boats used in the rescue of Denmark’s Jews.”
This led MJH to recruit Ellen Bari, a professional curator with a long track record of creating award-winning multimedia exhibits and programs for children and adults. Her previous clients have included Sesame Workshop, PBS, Nickelodeon, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We focused on characters children could identify with,” she said. The affecting insights and anecdotes shared by these children come from archives and historical testimonies. “It is so fortunate that these stories were recorded and preserved,” Ms. Bari added, “because without those authentic memories, we could not have created this exhibit.”
In addition to the technical wizardry that enables child actors to speak directly to MJH visitors from a different era and a distant world, the exhibit culminates with a short, animated film that recounts the voyage of one group of a dozen refugees, hidden below decks in a small fishing vessel, the Gerda III, as the captain evades Nazi patrol boats while navigating in the dark toward the Swedish coast. “Every word of that narration and dialog is verbatim,” Ms. Bari notes, “coming directly from the recollections of those who lived it.”
Beyond the redemptive uplift that is tragically rare in the body of scholarship about genocide, this also exhibit evokes themes that are both timeless and all too timely. “As the number of Holocaust survivors decreases and we confront resurgent antisemitism,” Mr. Kliger said, “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.”
“Eighty years later it seems almost impossible that the people of Denmark acted with such courage,” Ms. Bari said. “Yet those who risked their lives to save their neighbors saw it as simply ‘the right thing to do.’ As the Talmud says, ‘to save a life, is to save the entire world.’ We all have that potential.”
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is located at 36 Battery Place.