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Mar 13, 2023

In response to “The Myth Behind the Rescue of Denmark’s Jews From the Holocaust,” David Stavrou, February 3.

I appreciated David Stavrou’s piece on the Danish Rescue ahead of its 80th anniversary this year because it reminds us to resist the temptation to oversimplify or romanticize history, which, like human nature, is nuanced.

This consideration has informed our museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark,” opening in New York this fall. The exhibition presents this chapter in history not as a story of heroes and villains, but as one of moral choices – made by governments, communities, and, crucially, by individuals.

Moral choices can be selfless or not – the moral nature of them remains. There were certainly many Jewish and non-Jewish Danish citizens who took great risks for themselves and their families to save the lives of others. We must uplift the actions of doctors, boat crews and underground resisters as we teach the next generation. An examination of what motivated the Danish government’s arrangement with Germany should not detract from the courageous actions taken by ordinary Danish citizens, each of their small actions coming together to become one of the most effective – and exceptional – examples of mass resistance and escape in modern history.

Often, though, moral choices require complex negotiations and compromise – with others in our community, with more powerful entities, and with our own fears, values, self-interest and conflicting responsibilities. We study the Danish Rescue to learn how the people of that time and place wrestled with these choices to then take actions, at both the individual and collective level, because they saved thousands of lives.

I’ve had occasion to speak with many survivors on this topic, and they always agree on this point: It is better to have acted to save a life, even when financially motivated or compensated for the undertaking, as was the case for some Danes, than to have not acted.

Surely we can recognize that not all who partook in the hiding and rescuing of Jews had much wealth with which to cover the cost of food and travel. Nor should we declare it immoral for individuals to weigh the tangible and intangible “costs” of risky undertakings; we all make such calculations throughout the course of our lives.

It is better to have saved Jews than to have collaborated, be it proactively or by inaction, in their demise. For as Jews believe, “when you save one life, you save the world.”

Jack Kliger, president and CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage

New York, New York

Read this article on Haaretz >