From Medieval Mintmasters to Nuclear Physicists: The History of Denmark's Jews

The deadly attack on a Copenhagen synagogue this week should be seen in the context of the tolerant history of Denmark's Jews.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Illustration of the Great Synagogue from around 1899
Illustration of the Great Synagogue from around 1899Credit: Wikicommons
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Denmark's chief rabbi was "disappointed" by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call on Sunday for European Jews to immigrate to Israel, following the double shootings in Copenhagen a day earlier, including one at a synagogue that left a young Jewish guard dead. "Terror is not a reason to move to Israel," added Rabbi Jair Melchior.

Both the Israeli premier and the Danish chief rabbi drew on history in their remarks – the rabbi on centuries of thriving Jewish life in the Scandinavian nation, Netanyahu on European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It is thus fitting to look at the recent incidents in the larger context of the history of Denmark's Jewish community.

That history started in 1618, when King Christian IV appointed a Sephardic Jew from Hamburg named Samuel Yakhiya, also known as Albert Dionis, as mintmaster of the newly established mint in Glückstadt (now a city in northern Germany). Impressed by Dionis, the first Jew to be issued a royal Danish letter of protection, the king agreed to the mintmaster's suggestion to invite Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam and Hamburg to settle in Glückstadt and establish businesses and industry there. In a letter sent on November 22, 1622, King Christian IV promised potential Jewish settlers religious freedom and business licenses.

Over the following decades Jews began to settle in Glückstadt and then elsewhere in the kingdom. In 1646 Benjamin Mussafia, author of an important Talmudic dictionary, was appointed court physician and over the next century Sephardi Jews began to play an increasingly important role in the Danish economy and society. For instance, Mussafia’s son-in-law, Gabriel Milan, was appointed governor of the Danish West Indies in 1684.

That same year, the first Jewish congregation was founded in the Danish capital. Permission was granted to Israel David, the court jeweler, and his partner, Meyer Goldschmidt – both originally from Hamburg’s Ashkenazi Jewish community – to conduct prayers in their homes as long as these didn’t include sermons and were done behind closed doors. In 1687, Denmark got its first rabbi: Abraham Salomon of Moravia was appointed rabbi of Copenhagen, though prayer services continued to be conducted in private homes until the first synagogue was established in the city, in 1795.

At the close of the 18th century there were just under 2,000 Jews living in Denmark, three-quarters of them residing in the capital. But it was in the 19th century that the country's Jewish community really thrived. As a part of a general trend toward liberalization, secularization and democratization, particularly in Denmark but also in Europe during that period, Jews were finally granted Danish citizenship in 1814. Previously, as was the case in other European nations, the Danish government had granted members of the community permanent residency but not full citizenship. In 1849, when the (first) Danish constitution was signed, it guaranteed equal rights to all citizens – voiding any legal restrictions that encumbered Jews before. By that time the Jewish population had more than doubled but it subsequently shrank a bit, mostly due to intermarriage, by the end of the century, to 3,500 members, still mostly in Copenhagen.

The first Zionist organization in Denmark was established in 1902, and later during World War I, Copenhagen was home to the headquarters of the World Zionist Congress.

The Nazi era

On the eve of World War II, in 1939, there were about 6,000 Jews living in Denmark; the population grew over the next year after some 1,000 refugees arrived, mostly from Germany. On April 6, 1940, Germany occupied Denmark, but although the Danish collaborated with the Reich for the most part, anti-Semitism wasn’t popular in the country and the Nazis decided to leave destruction of its small Jewish community to a later, more opportune time. So it was that during the first three years of the Nazi occupation, Denmark's Jews continued to live relatively unmolested.

The widely circulated myth that King Christian X, the Danish monarch at the time, donned the yellow Star of David in identification with the country's Jews is untrue. Danish Jews were never obliged to wear the telltale Jewish symbol at any time during the war. The source of the myth is probably a cartoon published in a 1952 Swedish newspaper and popularized in Leon Uris’ 1958 novel "Exodus," which quotes a fictional radio broadcast reporting that the king “himself will wear the first Star of David and he expects that every loyal Dane will do the same.”

The uneasy tranquility of Danish Jewish life came to an end in 1943. On September 11, the Nazi representative in the country, Werner Best, told his colleague Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, the local Nazi attaché for shipping affairs, of the plan to deport the country’s Jewish community on October 1. Dismayed by the scheme, Duckwitz traveled to Germany to persuade the Nazi government to cancel it. When that effort was unsuccessful, he travelled to Sweden, ostensibly for commercial reasons, to ask the Swedes if they would accept Jewish refugees. Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson promised Duckwitz that Danish Jews would be taken in.

Upon his return to Denmark, Duckwitz (who eventually was designated a Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust authority in Jerusalem) warned social democrat politician Hans Hedtoft about the plan to deport the Jews and about the Swedish promise to take in refugees. Hedtoft, who later became Denmark's prime minister, notified the Jewish community and a rescue organization was promptly set up by its members along with sympathetic non-Jews. Some 7,200 Jews and 700 non-Jewish relatives were ferried over to Sweden over the following months, including the prominent physicist Niels Bohr.

When the Nazis launched their raid on Denmark's Jewish community on the night of October 1, 1943, some 500 of them were rounded up. They were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where most survived until the end of the war, when they were brought to Sweden by the Swedish Red Cross. It is estimated that 2 percent of Danish Jewry perished during the Holocaust, mostly in Theresienstadt.

After the war Danish Jews returned home to find their property largely intact. By 1968, the country's Jewish population had reached its pre-war size, though most were either immigrants from Eastern Europe or the children of recent immigrants; only a quarter were thought to be descended from the pre-war community. Since then, Denmark's Jewish community has remained relatively stable; there are roughly 6,400 Jews living there today, most of them concentrated in Copenhagen which has three synagogues.

While historically, Denmark has seen very few incidents of anti-Semitism over the centuries, in recent years there have been a number of attacks on the Jewish community, mostly in the form of vandalism by members of the country's growing Muslim community, now numbering about a quarter million persons, whose hostility toward Jews is in some cases fueled by support of the Palestinian cause.

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