Denmark revisited: Hatred and violence in the ‘Righteous among the Nations’

“One of the world’s most attractive nations for immigrants and tourists alike has become a very dangerous place for the Jews.” Giulio Meotti, “Expose: Denmark Unsafe for Jews.” Arutz Sheva, Israeli National News, May 2013
February 17, 2015

“One of the world’s most attractive nations for immigrants and tourists alike has become a very dangerous place for the Jews.” Giulio Meotti, “Expose: Denmark Unsafe for Jews.” Arutz Sheva, Israeli National News, May 2013

Did Shakespeare get it all wrong?

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” declares an officer in Hamlet, and this is where I thought the Bard was gravely mistaken.  In May 2014, my husband and I visited Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.  Everything we encountered there looked beautiful, and in spite of the cold and rain, this beauty seemed almost surreal.  In the Nyhavn part of Copenhagen, brightly painted houses along the canal sparkled like jewels in the rare moments of sunlight. In Elsinore, the brooding Kronborg castle, the fictional home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was an image of somber beauty and overwhelming power as if still threatening Sweden across the narrow gulf.

In the magnificent Copenhagen, we did not see many cars: a sky-high tax of almost 180% on cars made bicycles, buses and ferries much more attractive. The Danes are highly conscious of their environment: over half of their garbage is recycled and more than 20 percent of their energy needs are provided by windmills.  “Copenhagen to be the World’s First Carbon-Neutral capital,” Newsweek declared in August 2014. Indeed, this part of Europe is arguably one of the most sophisticated on the continent, and Scandinavians are among the most educated and prosperous Europeans, with the least income disparity. Denmark, like other Scandinavian countries, is also the most highly taxed and socialistic, but their people, the happiest we ever met, think it works: They consider their home countries the best places in the world.  All three nations – Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – regularly top every survey of wealth and quality of life. However, as we discovered during our visit, this highly sophisticated, perfectly organized, everything-for-the-people civilization has its dark sides.  Perhaps Shakespeare did know what he was talking about. 

In retrospect, reflecting on our May 2014 visit, our meetings and our conversations that took place in all three Scandinavian capitals, it seems that the February 2015 violence in Copenhagen was not as unexpected and shocking.

Painful Journey: Collecting Jewish stories of Scandinavia

A few weeks prior to our May 2014 trip, I came across a December 2012 issue of Standpoint. Norway, I learned from that British magazine, could soon top one shocking ranking: the first country in Europe to become “Judenfrei,” the Nazi term for the ethnic cleansing of Jews.  Then a friend emailed me intriguing 2013 documents:  “Anti-Semitism in Norway? – The Attitudes of the Norwegian Population towards Jews and Other Minorities” and “FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) Survey: Discrimination and Hate Crimes against Jews in EU Member States. “ The Jews of Scandinavia seemed to be talking to me daily from my computer screen. “How to Survive as a Jew in Sweden: Shut up and Fade into the Woods,” wrote Annika Hernroth-Rothstein in the Mosaic Journal. “Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen,” Michael Moynihan corroborated in an article in Tablet.  I knew that our trip would contain another facet: a painful journey into the past and present of Scandinavian Jewry.

In our attempt to understand the complex realities of the Scandinavian Jewish story, Denmark was at the center of our visit.  After all, this was the only country in the world that defied Hitler and saved its Jewish community almost in its entirety.

Denmark – past

Denmark became the first of the Scandinavian countries where Jews were permitted to settle.  In 1622, the Renaissance Danish King Christian IV, ever a pragmatist, sent a message to the Sephardic (or as they were called in Denmark, “Portuguese”) Jews of Amsterdam and Hamburg inviting them to come to his kingdom and settle, not in his capital of course, but in the newly-established town of Glukstadt. The king had his mint there, but no mintmaster.  The Jews came, and quickly succeeded in everything they were permitted to do, from running the royal mint to trading and manufacturing, to finance and jewelry making. As documented in the royal archives, Benjamin Mussafa was a physician to the royal family in 1646. His son-in-law rose to become a governor of the Danish West Indies in 1684 (alas, arrested and convicted few years later for misappropriation of funds). In Denmark, unlike any other European country, rabbis were permitted to openly practice and teach Judaism to their communities.  Following the costly Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Frederik III encouraged a larger Jewish immigration into his realm to improve his international trade status.  By 1780, there were approximately 1,600 Jews in Denmark, though all were admitted on the basis of personal wealth. But the Jews of Denmark were not required to live in ghettos and had a significant degree of self-governance.  In the late 18th century, the king instituted a number of reforms. Jews were allowed to join guilds, study at the university, buy real estate, and establish schools. The Napoleonic Wars brought about a complete emancipation of Danish Jews.

The 19th century saw a flourishing of Danish-Jewish cultural life. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen was built, designed by the renowned architect G. F. Hetsch. A number of Jewish cultural personalities rose to prominence.  Among them were art benefactor and collector Mendel Levin Nathanson, popular writer Meir Aron Goldschmidt, and literary critic Georg Brandes, who had a strong influence on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.  In the outbreak of World War I, the great Jewish Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and his family found a refuge in Copenhagen fleeing from violent anti-Semitism in Russia and Ukraine.  There, Sholem Aleichem began writing his tragicomedy “It’s Hard to be a Jew.” While enjoying an open and inclusive atmosphere in the Danish capital city, the Jewish writer, with his typical sardonic irony, placed the action of this play in “a city in Czarist Russia where Jews were not permitted to reside.” Denmark proved to be a different story.

Denmark during World War II: Rescue of the Danish Jews

In 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany, Christian X of Denmark became the first Scandinavian monarch to visit a synagogue. He wanted to honor the centennial anniversary of the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen. This king became the subject of a persistent legend: Christian X had the yellow Star of David sewn to his clothes and had gone to the city streets during the Nazi occupation. That never really happened, and the Danish Jews were not required to wear yellow stars.  But this is how Christian X, who personally financed the secret transport of his kingdom’s Jews to safety into a neutral Sweden, is forever remembered in history.  

Nazi occupation in Denmark was relatively mild for the first three years (1940-43), at least compared to other European countries. The Germans even referred to Denmark as “the model protectorate.” The King retained his throne and the Rigsdag (parliament) continued to function. The Danish government persistently stated that there was no “Jewish problem” in their country.

However, by the end of the summer in 1943, the tide of war turned. The Nazi lost under Stalingrad, their attack at Kursk failed, the Allies landed in Sicily, and Hamburg was bombed by the U.S. and the British. The Danish Resistance forces, anticipating the war end, increased their activities. The German policies in Denmark sharply changed. In August 1943, the Nazi arrested 100 prominent Danes.  In response, the Danish government resigned, the Nazi took over and immediately began planning the deportation of Danish Jews.  The German diplomat Georg Duckwitz, who is now commemorated in Israel’s Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, secretly tried to reach the agreement with Sweden in creating a safe place there to harbor Danish Jews.  When the Swedes responded that they needed the Nazi’s approval, Niels Bohr, the world-famous Danish physicist and a Jew, made a personal appeal for his countrymen to the Swedish King.  Bohr was hiding in Sweden at that time on his way to the United States to work on the Manhattan project.  Bohr refused to go to the U.S. until the Swedish government decided the “Jewish question”.  Whether Bohr did play a pivotal role in Sweden’s making their decision or not, in October 1943, Sweden agreed to shelter the entire Danish Jewish community, and close to 8,000 people were smuggled out of Denmark over the Oresund strait to Sweden.  One of the fishing boats that transported Danish Jews to freedom is exhibited in the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and another- in Yad Vashem in Israel. There an entire country is honored as “Righteous among the Nations” for the unprecedented heroism and selfless good will.

There were numerous possible explanations given by European historians of why the Danes behaved drastically different from all other nations in relation to their Jewish compatriots. The rescue operation was very easy logistically, since the Jewish population was so small and most Jews lived in and near Copenhagen. Jews were so strongly integrated into the Danish society that the Danes did not see them as “others.” The importance of small, close-knit community was an integral part of Danish national consciousness. Whatever were the reasons, the Danes as one nation stood up against evil when the rest of the world turned away.

How did it happen then, that Denmark, a heroic exception in the history of the Holocaust, is becoming, as expressed by an Italian journalist Giulio Meotti, a “bit of an exception once again, in Europe’s post-Holocaust anti-Semitism?” I called the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen and was connected to their Chief Cantor, Atzmor. After I stated the reason for my call and the “Danish paradox” question that bothered me a great deal, Atzmor said: “Nothing is straightforward. Let’s talk.”   

Denmark – present

As a curious historic coincidence, the main synagogue in Copenhagen is located in close proximity to major historical landmarks of the Danish capital, including the royal Rosenborg Palace and the observatory called Round Tower, both representing favorite building projects of the King Christian IV, who was the first Scandinavian ruler to open his country to Jews.  During the Nazi occupation, the Torah scrolls of the synagogue were hidden at the Trinitatis Church, right next to the Round Tower. After marveling at the Hebrew lettering on the Round Tower that, as we were told, signified the name of God, we went to the Krystalgade Street, where Atzmor waited for us at the synagogue.

Conversations with the Chief Cantor of the Great Synagogue

Atzmor gave us a brief tour of this magnificent building where he and the chief rabbi work and live. The synagogue building, he explained, is one of the very few of its period (1830s) to abandon the classical tradition. The architect G. F. Hetsch used Egyptian elements in the columns, and his design was defined by the building’s unique architecture around the Ark of the Law with Egyptian motives on the ceiling and cornice over the Ark itself.  Perhaps the architect, a non-Jew, wanted to emphasize that the Exodus from Egypt was a definite episode in forming Jewish identity, I said.  “Or,” replied, Cantor Atzmor, “perhaps he just preferred pseudo-Oriental style over the Greek or Roman.”  “Nothing is straightforward here,” he repeated. The Cantor planned to start our visit in the main sanctuary, but on that weekday morning, the sanctuary was occupied by a study group of about 30 to 40 people who had their Jewish history class. All of them are non-Jews, Atzmor said.  Registering our surprised faces, he explained, “Non-Jewish Danes take a growing interest in Judaism. Some even come to the services on a regular basis.” He invited us to talk in the conference room first and visit the sanctuary when the class is over.

An Israeli by birth, Atzmor was educated as an opera singer in Vienna and as a wind instrument player in Berlin. Over 20 years ago, a friend from Copenhagen invited Atzmor to come from Vienna and interview for the job of the chief cantor, the position he has been holding ever since. Atzmor is a typical European intellectual with a profound knowledge of literature, theater and of course, music. Learning about our Russian origin, Atzmor beautifully sang an aria from Prince Igor. “My Master Thesis,” he explained.  Effortlessly changing from the operatic part to that of a cantor in a major synagogue, Atzmor continued with the Danish Jewish story.       

There are about 7,000-8,000 Jews living in Denmark today, with less than one percent of then residing in Odense and Aarhus.  2,000 people belong to the Great Synagogue and about 1,000 constitute members of the other three much smaller congregations.  This vibrant community supports an active Zionist Federation, Women’s International Zionist organization, B’nai B’rith, Jewish school, and several publications, with Joedisk Orientering being the leading Jewish magazine in the country.  Almost all the Jews who were rescued during the war returned back home, but the birth rate is low and the numbers keeps diminishing. I shared the main reason for our visit, my “Danish Paradox collection” with Atzmor and asked him to tell us his own perspective.

In January 2013, seventeen-year old Moran Jacob testified at a Copenhagen City Hall hearing on growing anti-Semitism in Danish capital and described the harassment he experienced for years while living in Norrebro, a heavily Muslim neighborhood of his home town. His testimony was corroborated by Max Mayer, president of the Danish Zionist Federation, who stated, “Danish Jews learned to keep a low profile in the city. “To pretend not to exist” (Front Page Magazine, October 1, 2013). I had clippings from various publications stating that the Danish Jewish community documented 40 violent anti-Semitic incidents in 2013, almost double compared to 2009. Some journalists traced the beginning of open anti-Semitic hatred to 2001, when an anonymous poster in Arabic was pinned to the bulletin board in one of the colleges in Copenhagen. The poster promised $35,000 to anyone who would kill a Jew.  An Italian journalist, Giulio Meotti, wrote that it is just as unsafe in 2013 to be a Jew in Copenhagen as it is to be a Jew in most Middle-Eastern countries.

“Yes,” agreed Cantor Atzmor,” barbed wire and security guards surround the Jewish school in Copenhagen. And yes, there is a network of ‘no-go’ zones in our city. That would be highly unusual 10 years or so ago.”  Some young people from his congregation are either planning to leave Denmark or have already left for Israel, the United States, or Australia.  But this “situation,” Orin emphasized the quote signs, “should not be exaggerated and elevated to an emergency crisis level.” “This is no more than a temporary issue,” he insisted, “and the best way to deal with it now is to ignore it. ““Ignore it?” I thought I misunderstood our new friend. “Oh, yes,” he said.  He then proceeded to tell us about his recent experience that he thought was rather humorous. 

While going shopping at one of the exclusive department stores, Cantor Atzmor was confronted at the store entrance by a group of young Middle-Eastern men. “Are you Jewish?” they angrily asked. “From Israel?”  Atzmor, who, as an undergrad, majored in Arabic studies in Tel-Aviv, confirmed in pure Arabic that he indeed was from Israel but that he was an Arab. Enjoying this role-playing, Atzmor recited a verse from Koran right in front of the perplexed youths, “There is no God but Allah…” “They left,” said Atzmor. We were impressed but not amused. “Listen,” I said,” what if you happen to be a non-Arabic-major regular Jewish guy, what then?”  Our new friend smiled: “Oh, I might’ve been beat up.”

Otherwise, Atzmor did not experience any harassment and did know personally anyone who did. The issue of kosher slaughter been outlawed in Denmark, just like in Sweden or Norway, did not bother him at all. “I am a vegetarian anyway,” he said. His personal concern was more with an inability of a “foreigner” to get accepted by the Danish Jewish community, even if this foreigner was invited to serve as a Chief Cantor for the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen. So, another Atzmor’s story was that of a royalty, Jewish royalty, to be precise. “I am not a Dane so [I am] able to present an outsider’s perspective,” he said. Atzmor sees the Jewish community of Copenhagen as a parallel reality to the gentile society of Denmark with its profound respect and admiration for their royal family, one of the oldest continuous monarchies in the world. The Danish Jews have their own royalty, the Melhiors, whose ancestor was one of the first Jews invited by King Christian IV to settle in Denmark. “This is our reigning dynasty,” said the Cantor. “The rabbis of the Great Synagogue and the decision-making Board, all have to come from or be closely-related to the family. Otherwise you are not really an ‘in-person.’” Atzmor did not think that his twenty-plus years among the clergy of the largest Danish congregation made him less of an outsider. Atzmor thinks he will retire soon: his plans are to leave Denmark and go to the music capitals of Europe, either Vienna or Berlin, and continue his career as a musician. We promised to come to his first recital there.  

Our new friend, both a citizen of Denmark and a citizen-of-the-world, polyglot and erudite, a dedicated Jewish clergy and a passionate European musician, left us with more disturbing questions than definitive answers. But we were not done with Denmark’s Jewish narrative, not yet. We headed to the Jewish Museum. 

Reflecting on architecture telling the story: The Jewish Museum of Denmark

Located within both a historic and contemporary architectural complex (the Renaissance Royal Boat House-turned the Nordic Romantic Royal Library-turned Post-Modern Black Diamond building), the museum tells its story even before you even enter. In the seventeenth century, King Christian IV built his Royal Boat House, which was renovated in the early 1900s to become a part of the adjacent Royal Library. At the end of the twentieth century, the Black Diamond building, nicknamed for its shiny black glass walls, designed to serve as a cultural center and an exhibition space, connected both the old and new libraries and instantly became one of the most beloved landmarks of contemporary Copenhagen.  In the 1990s, the Society for Danish Jewish History hired the world-renowned Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind to create the Danish Jewish Museum. Libeskind thought the complex of the Royal Boat House/Library/Black Diamond contained a unique intellectual context in which the Danish Jewish Museum would represent a deep historical legacy. In June 2004, one of the most unusual of museums opened its doors.

The architect designed the museum’s layout to incorporate a pedestrian walk between the new and old libraries, outdoor summer seating for a café, and intimate conversation spaces at the ground level of the entrance. When you enter the exhibition itself, you are inside a…Word. This word is in Hebrew: Mitzvah, meaning “good deed.”   My advice is to start with an introductory movie before you venture ahead. This is where you learn not only the Jewish history of Denmark but also the architect’s way of immortalizing it in his design.  In the movie, Libeskind explains: “The Danish Jewish Museum will become a destination which will reveal the deep tradition and its future in the …space of Mitzvah… a dynamic dialogue between architecture of the past and of the future – the newness of the old and the agelessness of the new. The Danish Jewish Museum differs from all other European Jewish Museums because Danish Jews were, by and large, saved through the effort of their compatriots and neighbors during the tragic years of the Shoa. It is this deeply human response that differentiates the Danish Jewish community and is manifested in the form, structure and light of the new museum. Mitzvah is the guiding light of this project. “

And indeed, the entire exhibition space is full of light coming through the stained glass windows. Libeskind wanted us to feel “a microcosm of Mitzvah transforming light across the day.” The architect organized the building inside as a series of planes, each corresponding to a particular field of historic and religious narrative: Exodus, Wilderness, The Giving of the Law, and The Promised Land. Interior corridors consist of fractured passageways and slanted floors. This is how the corridors, which serve as the museum’s exhibition spaces, whirl us around and form the Hebrew letters for the word Mitzvah. As museum’s website states, the form of the building becomes a commentary on the artifacts it presents, paralleling how accompanying texts often illuminate different aspects of the Talmud. Libeskind describes the space as a “sort of text running within a frame made up of many other surfaces – walls, inner spaces, showcases, virtual perspectives.” You, as a visitor, literally walk inside the four huge Hebrew letters, a landscape both enigmatic and expressive. Guided by the architect’s genius and the uniqueness of the Danish Jewish narrative, you create your own experience, at once deeply memorable and highly personal.

A chat at the Jewish Museum: the flag of Israel as a provocation

The museum was closing but a few young women working at the cloakroom and the bookstore kindly agreed to chat with us.  We felt overwhelmed by the museum experience and wanted to share our feelings. However, the conversation turned to today’s Denmark and the growing tensions between the Jewish and new immigrant communities.  One girl shared how she, a year or so ago, participated in the “Taste the World” festival as a member of the Danish Zionist Federation (DZF).  The festival was supposed to demonstrate the diversity and inclusiveness of Denmark and to feature the foods and cultures of various nations living in Copenhagen.   The city council, however, believed that the DZF displaying Israeli food would be a mistake. The DZF decided to participate anyway, and the council requested they do not display the Israeli flag. “Taste the World” was held in Norrebro, a large borough home to the city’s North African, Middle Eastern, and Balkan immigrants. The DZF were the only vendors without the flag identifying the food products’ origin. The council believed that an Israeli flag might be a provocation.   

A Sense of History – European-Style

Two years ago, Irish journalist Liam Hoare wrote: “Despite their image of moral innocence and best intentions, the lands of the north have become home to a scary, new form of anti-Semitism,” “The Scandal of Scandinavia,” The Tower (UK), April 2013. Unlike majority of the American Jews, the Jews of Scandinavia and indeed of most of Europe are largely children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors or, very few now, survivors themselves. A smaller percentage of European Jews are also survivors but of the near-complete expulsion of Jews from North African or Middle-Eastern countries that happened during the second half of the last century. Most European Jews are bound to know all too well, from either personal experiences or inherited knowledge, how a normal, secure, and comfortable life could be destroyed overnight.  So, perhaps, this is why when they see anti-Semitic incidents rising, some cannot help but feel that history is getting ready to repeat itself.  At the same time, there is a prevalent attempt to dismiss these incidents as a non-entity, not to “elevate them to the crisis level.” A renowned Danish journalist and a TV personality Martin Krasnik is quoted in “Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen:” “Anti-Semitism is strictly endemic to only new immigrant neighborhoods. It’s the same in London, it’s the same in Paris.” (Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine, March 2013). Anti-Jewish sentiment is virtually unknown in Denmark, so what’s happening is a “small shift imported from the Middle East,” insists Krasnik.  

Norwegian Jo Nesbo, one of the most popular crime fiction writers in Europe, stated that Norwegians, as indeed most Scandinavians, are “in love with their restrained response to tragedy or violence,” considering themselves “so calm, wise, and full of love.”  As history shows, Scandinavians have been much more accepting and respectful of “others” and much less traditionally anti-Semitic than other Europeans. In his quoted above piece “The Scandinavian Scandal,” Liam Haare stated, “the problem today is not widespread traditional anti-Semitism but rather a new kind of hate, derived mainly from the failure to distinguish between Israel, Zionism, and local Jewish communities in political discourse… anti-Zionism has rechanneled anti-Semitism.” As he and other journalists point out, this issue is especially acute in small Scandinavian countries, where Jews who are the smallest of the minorities but well-integrated into their home countries live in close proximity to much larger and non –integrated immigrant communities from North Africa and the Middle East that often display extremist anti-Israel and anti-Jewish feelings.  

Shall we choose to ignore the incidents of violence and hatred, as Atzmor, the Chief Cantor of Copenhagen advised? Or shall we hope then, as John Gradowski, the Head of Information for the Jewish Community of Stockholm suggested, for the “first track?” By that Mr. Gradowski meant the socio-economic way of new immigrants’ development toward accepting an openness and inclusiveness of Swedish values.  

Indeed, all Scandinavian countries, the least church going and the most secular in Europe, made Jewish studies and Holocaust education a way to open up minds and increase awareness. Non-Jews come to synagogues and museums to learn about Judaism, and schools bring their students to Holocaust and Jewish history museums as an integral part of their curriculums. At the same time, certain cultural attitudes, such as animal or children rights, led to governments’ prohibition of kosher slaughter and circumcision, which for observant Jews are nothing short of anti-Semitic acts since they touch on central traditions of Jewish life.

Given the demographic changes with the fast-growing new immigrant communities and current intensity of anti-Israel campaigns throughout Europe, could all these trends promote a disturbing sense of “otherness” toward the Jews? The same “otherness” that encourage seeing the Jews, with their connection to a foreign state and their “strange” traditions, as markedly and conspicuously different from everybody else and less acceptable because of it? Then, it would not matter how much the Jews contributed to or how well they were integrated into their home-countries’ gentile societies.

Were the February 2015 shootings just a singled-out crime, a mad loner acting alone?

Or was it an expression of rabid hatred toward intellectual freedom in general and Jews as “others” in particular, a logical development of the already visible trends?

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