This article originally appeared in The Gothamist.
Written by Jessica Gould.
A new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Manhattan introduces young visitors to a dark chapter of history by zeroing in on one of the more inspiring, and lesser known, stories of the period.
The exhibit – Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark – highlights the heroism of the Danish resistance, which helped more than seven thousand Jews survive the Nazis eight decades ago.
While the exhibition was planned long before the Israel-Hamas war broke out last month, organizers said its message about our shared humanity – and resistance to hate – is more important than ever.
“This really is a story of hope,” said curator Ellen Bari.
In October 1943 Denmark was under German occupation as the Nazis prepared to round up Jews and deport them to concentration camps. But members of the Danish resistance hid them in basements, hospitals and churches, and then smuggled them on fishing boats to Sweden. Nearly 95% of Jews living in Denmark at the time survived because of the Danish resistance efforts.
“One of the things that’s truly unique about this story is that most people are unaware of the incredible rescue and escape that happened,” said Bari. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to share it with young people.”
“If the Danes did not help my family escape I would not be here today.”
Imogen Williams, an actor who took part in the exhibit’s production.
The new exhibition is geared to younger children, ages 9-12, and steers away from the kinds of graphic images that are often associated with the Holocaust. The story is told through illustrations, maps, and photographs, with young actors playing characters via holograms who serve as guides.
Children learn about the heroic actions of young people not much older than they are. Henny Sinding Sundø was just 22 at the time; her father was an official with the Danish Lighthouse Service. She coordinated hundreds of rescues, memorizing lists of names and addresses of Jews in need so that there was no paper trail, and helped them board the Gerda III, where they hid below deck and sailed to safety. The exhibit includes a replica of the wooden fishing boat that ferried so many Jews and resistance fighters to safety.
The museum also worked with kids from local New York City schools to write text – located on walls throughout the exhibit – to make sure it is accessible and clear to children.
“The exhibition was designed specifically for 9 to 12 year olds,” Bari said, “but we really think that 9 to 99 year olds will get a lot out of [it].”
The exhibit opened just a week after Hamas attacked Israel, killing some 1,400 civilians, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, and amid Israel’s attacks on Gaza, which have killed more than 10,000 civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Globally, many countries have witnessed an increase in hate crimes targeting both Muslims and Jews.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage increased security following the attack. Some school groups canceled their visits. But Bari said the students and adults who have come are seizing on the positive message of the story. “They’re coming out uplifted,” she said. “I think for kids who might be struggling with what’s going on it’s a wonderful opportunity to see that even in the darkest times it’s possible to make moral decisions and do the right thing,” she added.
Imogen Williams, who plays Rebekka, a teenager in one of the holograms, said she hopes the exhibit will encourage empathy between people of all backgrounds. She’s 18 and a senior at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens. Her grandfather was one of the young Jews rescued from Denmark by boat to Sweden. She grew up hearing the story from her mother, and considers it a tremendous stroke of luck that, in her first professional job as an actor, she gets to tell it to a broader audience.
“If the Danes did not help my family escape I would not be here today,” Williams said. “If we all learn about each other a little bit more we will all learn to understand each other better.”
Editor’s note: The Museum of Jewish Heritage is a sponsor of WNYC