Denmark's Holocaust Record Earns It Benefit of Doubt on How to Protect Jews

The small nation was the only European country to save its Jews - defying Hitler's Germany and the dark seas to whisk them to safety across the strait to neutral Sweden.

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

The office of the prime minister of Denmark is situated behind a rather nondescript door on the side of the bleak neoclassical hulk of the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know exactly where it is. Inside, the rooms are functional but rather understated in the way the Scandinavians tend to their politics.

On Monday afternoon I went there for a briefing of the international media, and only halfway through Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s short press conference did I realize that these may have been the rooms where plans to spirit 8,000 Jews out of the Nazis’ clutches may have been hatched 72 years ago. Was it in these corridors connecting the government offices with King Christian X’s reception rooms? The king had bankrolled the rescue operation.

One of the more overlooked exhibits at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum is a tiny white fishing boat. Unlike the images of extermination and devastation and the tiny salvaged belongings of victims and survivors, this is one of the few bright spots in the saga of the destruction of Europe’s Jews: how a small nation, from the king to the fishermen, defied Hitler’s Germany and the dark seas to save their Jewish community, which the Nazis were planning to round up and deport to the camps. The only European country that saved its Jews.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prides himself on his keen sense of Jewish history. I wonder if the story of Danish Jewry’s salvation during the Holocaust passed through his mind on Sunday when he called for a “mass emigration” of Jews from “the soil of Europe.” He was speaking only hours after a Danish citizen of Palestinian origin murdered, in two separate attacks, filmmaker Finn Noorgard and Dan Uzan, a member of the local Jewish community standing guard outside the central synagogue while a bat mitzvah party was going on in the adjacent community center.

The Danes themselves didn’t mention it to Netanyahu, though they were offended by his call. Thorning-Schmidt, who had spoken to him over the telephone, simply told him that “the Jewish community has been in Denmark for centuries and their place is here and Denmark wouldn’t be the same without them.” Actually, during three days in Copenhagen, in which I spoke to dozens of Danish citizens, Jews and non-Jews, about the situation of Jews in the country, no one talked about that proud, unique chapter in their national history. The most anyone said to me was “you know what happened here during the Holocaust.”

Usually this kind of oblique talk about a country’s conduct during the Second World War is a polite way to sweep under the carpet a dismal record of reluctant collaboration at best or, too often, willful cooperation. But the restrained way in which the Danes refer to their valiant record reflects a deeper feeling that they were simply doing their basic duty towards a group of citizens who had lived among them for nearly four centuries.

Some even believe they should have done more, and that there was too much acquiescence. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued an apology for the extradition of a small number of Jews and Communist activists to Germany during the war. He didn’t try to hide behind the much larger rescue efforts, but simply said that the government’s actions had been “morally unjustifiable.” But Denmark’s resistance to many of the German demands is all the more remarkable when taking into account that the Nazis regarded their Nordic citizens as “fellow Aryans,” and that the occupation of Denmark, beginning in April 1940, was probably the Third Reich’s most benign of any it imposed on a conquered country.

Political leaders across the continent are now swearing allegiance to their Jewish communities – the fashionable phrase is that “without our Jews, our country is not the same” – as if functioning synagogues and kosher restaurants are this season’s must-have status symbols. On the other hand, governments are graded by many Jews by the stridency of their rhetoric and firmness of policies towards the local Muslim communities. Denmark scores low on this scale, since it has pursued “de-radicalization” programs, in which young devotees of jihad are encouraged to integrate into mainstream society instead of being hauled up on criminal charges.

Last weekend’s attacks have added ammunition to those who ridicule such schemes, and it certainly seems that a series of security failings allowed murderer Abdel Omar al-Hussein to avoid detection and carry out two successive attacks. Danish leaders are quietly admitting that they have to improve the flow of information between government agencies and act more forcefully against potential perpetrators. At the same time, they are not about to abandon the integration approach.

Some will see it as defeatist and accuse the Danes of appeasement of radical Islam. On the other hand, countries like France, where the attitude is radically different, don’t seem to have had that much success either. But no European country is planning to deport its Muslim minority and no one yet is certain how best to guarantee a more optimistic future in which Jews and Muslims live in Europe at peace. The Danish model seems naive and out-of-touch with reality, but for lack of a better alternative for now, we owe them the benefit of the doubt before writing it off. They got it right the last time Europe faced a terrible calamity. Jews should remember that.