The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen, Tivoli, thatched-roofed cottages with storks nesting on the chimneys, "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen." These are some of the stereotyped images associated with Denmark, images frequently encouraged by official Danish tourist propaganda, but which have little to do with a modern, complicated, largely urban society. There are also other images of Denmark, including the unique and heroic efforts made during the Second World War by the Danish population to preserve the lives of their Jewish compatriots and save them from the Nazi holocaust by smuggling them to safety in neutral Sweden in the autumn of 1943.
Yet this historical event is also the subject of myth-making. There is an oft-told fiction of how the Danish king, Christian X, either threatened to wear, or in some versions actually wore the yellow Star of David when his Jewish subjects were forced to do so, until the German authorities relented. In fact, at no time was the wearing of the Star of David one of the German demands in Denmark. In the same way that storks are in reality virtually extinct in Denmark, yet are still exploited for the purpose of enticing potential tourists to the country, so too are the events of 1943 utilized to give Denmark a positive image, thereby even covering up certain aspects of Danish cooperation with the German authorities during the Nazi occupation. But just as Denmark has plenty to offer visitors without patronizing tourists with invented folklore, so too King Christian's personal integrity and the courage shown by many Danes should be sufficient and need no further enhancing. Nor is the history of Danish Jewry limited to those terrible times. By focusing on the wartime situation, the broader role of the Jewish community in Danish society and culture has often been ignored.
A brief look at the history of Jews in Denmark and the role of Jews in Danish society today is appropriate. I write as an American Jew who has resided in Denmark for the past eighteen years and who teaches Danish, English, and German in a Danish secondary school, a Gymnasium, in the center of Copenhagen. Much of the inspiration for this article I gained while teaching, for I was surprised by the limited knowledge Danish students possess about Jews in Denmark. All know about how the Danish Jews were rescued during the war, but that was about the limit of their knowledge despite the fact that quite a number of Danish Jews are highly visible in the Danish media. The explanation for this apparent paradox is that the Jewish people who are visible in the media are not usually thought of as being Jewish; they are simply viewed as newscasters, entertainers, politicians, and intellectuals.
In some ways the history of the Jewish community in Denmark resembles that of Jews in the United States of America. The first Jews in modern times arrived in Denmark about the same time the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. As in America the first Jews were Sephardic. Just as one of the oldest surviving cemeteries in Manhattan is the Shearith Israel burial ground from 1682 near Chatham Square, so too the oldest surviving cemetery in Copenhagen is the Jewish cemetery from 1693. It has survived because it dates back to a time when all Christian burials took place within the city walls. The Jews, however, buried their dead far outside the city limits, hence the Jewish cemetery survived when burials within the city were forbidden because of hygienic reasons and all the old graveyards were razed. Denmark, too, saw an influx around the turn of the century of Eastern European Jews and there were Yiddish newspapers and theaters in Copenhagen as on New York's Lower East Side. As in the States, Jews have contributed greatly to Danish literature, medicine, law, politics, the sciences. One Danish Jewish entertainer has even become world famous - Borge Rosenbaum, better known by his stage name, Victor Borge. However, one must remember that the number of Jews in Denmark is microscopic. There are probably only about 8,000 Jews in the whole country out of a population of some 5 million. This means that most Danes have never actually met anyone who is Jewish. True, Danes see Jewish public figures on television, but these figures seldom refer to their Jewish identity. Limited contact is reflected in the Danish language, too. Unlike American English, which has borrowed innumerable words from Yiddish, the Danish language hardly shows any indication of a Jewish presence. One notable exception is the word for the poppy seeds used on the ubiquitous breakfast rolls seen by all visitors to Denmark and on other baked goods. The Danish word for poppy seeds used in baking is birkes, a word derived from the Hebrew word brakhot - no doubt the word has entered Danish because Danes saw Jewish Sabbath loaves sprinkled with poppy seeds.
Whether Jews ever visited Denmark in the course of the Middle Ages is not known. There are images of Jews in medieval Danish art - recognizable because of the pointed Jew's hat - but this is not proof of the presence of Jews, for it might be an artistic convention, part of medieval iconography. From the time of the Reformation in 1536, only followers of the state Lutheran faith were permitted in Denmark, at least officially, and even followers of other Protestant sects, especially Calvinists, faced dire consequences and even death. We must turn to the seventeenth century before we can find tangible evidence of a Jewish presence in Denmark.
In the seventeenth century, Denmark was a far different country than the tiny, peaceful nation easily overlooked today. At that fame, Denmark was engaged in an intense military and geopolitical rivalry with Sweden for the role of the leading northern European nation. Denmark consisted not only of the land area we currently associate with the country, but was united with Norway and Iceland and possessed what is now southern Sweden, as well as much of what is now northern Germany, with the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein remaining under the Danish monarchy until 1864. In an attempt to entice lucrative commerce away from Hamburg, Christian IV founded in 1616 a rival town on the river Elbe, Gluckstadt, in what is now Schleswig-Holstein. Gluckstadt never proved much of a success and in 1619, in order to bolster the foundering town, Christian IV granted a Jewish merchant from Hamburg, one Albert Dionis, the right to settle in the new town. Other Jews followed and in 1628 were granted protection, the right to hold services in private homes, and the right to have a cemetery. This settlement marks the beginning of Jewish history on Danish territory.(1)
As in other northern European nations and the German states, certain privileged "Court Jews" (hofjoder in Danish) like Albert Dionis, were utilized by the Danish monarchs when they were in financial straits and had to borrow money. One of them, Gabriel Gomez, managed in 1657 to persuade the king, Frederik III, to grant entry to all Sephardic Jews wishing to engage in trade in the possessions of the Danish monarchy - however Ashkenazim were forbidden entry unless they were specifically granted a letter of entry and were liable to pay a sizable fine if caught without such a permit.(2) Nevertheless, the vast majority of Jews who did end up moving to Denmark were of Ashkenazi origin, many of whom came from Hamburg. One of these "Court Jews," Gabriel Milan, converted to Christianity and in 1684 became governor of the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies (presently the U.S. Virgin Islands) - he was executed for corruption and abuse of office in 1689.(3)
Following the Thirty Years War and a disastrous war with Sweden in 1658, which cost Denmark its wealthiest territories, and very nearly the independence of the whole country, Denmark was in a state of total economic, military, and political chaos. In 1660, by means of a veritable coup d'etat, the Danish king seized control over the country, an absolute monarchy was imposed and a written constitution drawn up confirming the monarch's new position. This absolute monarchy was to last until 1848 and was to be of decisive importance for the Jewish community in Denmark. To get the nation back on its feet, the government started to welcome immigrants who were thought to be able to bring capital or initiative to the country, among them Jews. In order to encourage settlement of the new fortress town of Fredericia, built to protect the strategically vulnerable straits between Jutland and the Danish islands, religious toleration was shown to other otherwise forbidden religious denominations - Calvinists, Roman Catholics, and Jews - hence the oldest Jewish settlement in what is present-day Denmark occurred in Fredericia. In 1682 the congregation in Fredericia received official permission to hold services.(4) In 1684 an Ashkenazi congregation in Copenhagen likewise received official sanction and the right to hold services in private homes, and the document granting these privileges is considered the birth certificate of the Copenhagen congregation - oddly enough the Sephardim were not given comparable permission until eleven years later? Copenhagen quickly became the largest Jewish community in the country, which is not so surprising since it was the largest city in the country and the seat of the court and administration.
Though there were some 1,600 Jews in Copenhagen by 1780, Jews still had to have special permission to enter and settle in the country. To get permission, they had to show that they were solvent by proving that they possessed 1,000 rix-dollars, would build a house, and open a manufacturing business. Jews even had to pay a special entry fee of 100 rix-dollars to the police to pay for the police's work in finding, arresting, and …