There is no Holocaust memorial in Denmark. In Copenhagen, however, there is a fantastic new Jewish Museum, designed by the renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind, and dedicated to the rich history and culture of the Jewish Community in Denmark. At this museum, the story is told why a Danish Holocaust memorial was never built – the story is about the rescue of the Danish Jews during the Nazi-German occupation of Denmark.
It is a story worth telling – a ray of light in those darkest years of recent European history. In October 1943, the Danish people – ordinary Danes – stood up and spontaneously organized the rescue of their fellow Jewish citizens from Nazi persecution. The bravery of this action is underlined by the mere fact that it was spontaneously organized with no prior planning, and carried out – not by the authorities, but by ordinary citizens who came to the aid of their neighbours, colleagues, and friends – who were regarded as fellow Danes who just happened to be Jewish.
Out of approximately 7,000 Jewish Danish citizens, more than 6,500 managed to escape to neighbouring neutral Sweden, this limiting the number of Danish Jews who perished in Nazi concentration camps to 52(!). Fifty-two souls too many, but still an unprecedented low number in any country under the Nazi yoke.
What are the lessons learned from this miraculous story? A key factor is without doubt that the Jewish community in Denmark was very well integrated into Danish society, and that Jewish citizens in 1943 were, therefore, first and foremost considered ordinary fellow Danes. No more, no less. This is still the case today. This is why, for the overwhelming majority of Danes anti-Semitism is not an issue today, either.
However, anti-Semitism is not extinct, even in Denmark. As other European countries faced the influx of immigrants from many parts of the world during recent decades, we in Denmark are struggling with the integration of people of different faiths and cultures. In recent years, unfortunately, we have witnessed an increase in attitudes and acts of xenophobia and racism, including a few examples of anti-Semitic acts. In these – still rare cases - the perpetrators are often described as “young males with Arabic/Muslim background”, according to the latest annual overview report from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in Vienna.
The Danish Government takes these developments very seriously. A Government-commissioned study on attitudes on anti-Semitism and Holocaust among Danish school children and youth concluded in 2006 that only a tiny group of pupils had radical views on these issues. Nonetheless, based on the findings of the study the Minister for Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs initiated new teaching materials on anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination to be used in Danish schools, including on the annual “Auschwitz Remembrance Day” (the 27th of January every year).
Such initiatives are specifically aimed at promoting the basic common values of the modern Danish society also among our new fellow citizens. Education, integration, mutual respect, and common values are key factors in dealing with the challenges of xenophobia and racism, including anti-Semitism. The Jewish community in Denmark has shown the way – Jews have been a part of Danish society for almost 400 years, most of our Muslim citizens (3-4 percent of the population) for less than 40 years.
Today we bow our heads in respect for the sufferings of all victims of the darkest chapter of European history. We must commit ourselves not only to never forgetting the Holocaust, but also to tirelessly pursuing the fight against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. This fight sometimes takes moral courage and strength.
The writer is the Danish ambassador to Israel