Good Job, Sweet Prince: Israel Welcomes First Danish Royal

It may be a legend that the Danish king wore a yellow star during the occupation, but the reality is even better: The king and people resolutely protected the Jewish community during the Holocaust.

Michael Melchior
Michael Melchior
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Michael Melchior
Michael Melchior

The day has finally come: Danish Crown Prince Frederik arrives Wednesday for the first-ever royal visit to Israel. Frederik is coming to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi German Aktion against Denmark's Jews and their evacuation to the safe shores of Sweden, Denmark's neutral neighbor.

An Israeli Supreme Court justice emeritus, Gabriel Bach, was the prosecutor in the Eichmann trial. He asked me a few years ago whether I fully grasped the indispensability of the testimony of my uncle, David Werner Melchior, on the rescue of Denmark's Jews. Ostensibly my uncle's testimony didn't add anything directly to the case against Adolf Eichmann, but Justice Bach made clear to me that the testimony contained a message that needed to be heard.

Through the Eichmann trial, he explained, an entire generation had been exposed to the Holocaust, to the depths of the evil of the Nazis and their collaborators and to the diabolical plan of the Final Solution to the "Jewish problem." Given the horrors described in testimony, the multitudes who followed the proceedings were likely to conclude that human nature will cause people, when faced with a choice between good and evil, to choose evil.

My uncle helped the prosecution show that Eichmann's actions were not necessarily human nature. Rather, by describing the story of the rescue of Denmark's Jews, he showed that when faced with difficult choices, not only people but entire nations can and will choose to do good, even when their lives are at risk.

Granted, the occupation of Denmark was less harsh than that of most European countries, but that doesn't diminish the significance of the Danish people's spontaneous reaction to stand alongside the Jews. The exceptions only prove the rule. Tens of thousands of Danes risked their lives to save the Jews. The German occupier was stunned that in Denmark the Jews were looked upon as an integral part of Danish society, not as outsiders or a "problem" to be traded away or gotten rid of.

This heroic rescue was not in any way coordinated from above, but there was one man whose resolve inspired the entire Danish people: King Christian X, grandfather of Denmark's current queen and great-grandfather of our royal visitor. From my earliest childhood, I was brought up on the tales of King Christian's relationship with his Jewish subjects.

In 1933, when the first-ever visit of a king to Copenhagen's Great Synagogue was being planned, threatening winds were blowing from neighboring Germany with the Nazi rise to power. The leaders of the Jewish community told the king they would understand if he deemed it an inappropriate time for a royal visit to the synagogue. The king responded to the head of the community in a loud and clear voice, "Are you mad, sir? Now, even more so, this visit is justified!"

According to a legend in many books, out of identification with the Jews, the king wore a yellow star during his daily horseback ride through the streets of Copenhagen. This legend was also commemorated in the movie "Exodus," based on the novel by Leon Uris. Alas, no doubt this story is only legend, if for no reason than the fact that Denmark's Jews never wore yellow stars.

Still, in the king's recently published diaries, the minutes appear of a conversation on September 10, 1941 with Denmark's acting prime minister, Vilhelm Buhl. Buhl voiced the widespread suspicion that Denmark's Jews would be forced to wear yellow stars, as happened in the other occupied countries, but he said such a decree should be quashed. The king not only agreed but added that if the German occupiers enforced such a decree, the only possible Danish response should be that "all of us will wear yellow stars." This statement was also quoted in a Swedish newspaper several months later.

Unlike the hesitation that characterizes Shakespeare's hero, there was nothing rotten in the state of Denmark at the time. On the contrary, the Danish royal family was the most resolute in its relationship to the Jews and may have thus prevented the tragedy Hamlet brought upon himself through his indecision.

This decisive approach is probably what ensured that there were never any restrictions against Denmark's Jews until the Aktion; it's also probably what inspired the rescue of the Jews, a rescue that came from below - from all levels of society. This is a beautiful example of how sometimes reality is even greater than legend.

In Israel 70 years since the Holocaust, we will never completely understand what happened "there" and the significance of the Holocaust on our lives. But I have a feeling that our younger generation is at least trying to listen and comprehend the messages. In the context of this most horrific chapter in history, we must also tell young people the story of the rescue of Denmark's Jews. This story shows that people have a real choice between good and evil and life and death; it's thus a story of hope for humankind. So on Wednesday we're giving a royal welcome to the prince of Denmark, as is his due.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former minister and MK and a native of Denmark, is the son of Holocaust survivors saved during the rescue of Denmark's Jews.

Prince Frederik of Denmark and his wife Princess Mary. Credit: AP