Modern Identities and the Creation of History: Stories of Rescue among the Jews of Denmark

Article excerpt

Anthropological analysis of the construction of history and tradition has focused on the role of the past in expressing group identities and interests. It has done so primarily in contexts where group identities are relatively clearly marked, as in nationalist movements or colonial situations. In many places, however, including many modern urban settings, group identities are ambiguous and poorly defined In such contexts, standard approaches to the construction of the past are difficult to apply. This article contains a consideration of one such case, the Jewish community of Copenhagen, Denmark. A variety of Jewish accounts of the rescue of thc nseuc of thc Danish Jews from the Nazis in 1943 are analyzed. Emerging from a complex and deeply fragmented community, these narratives defy abstraction into a group version of the event. Thematically, however, all address problems of sameness and difference endemic to Danish Jcwish life. A focus on such thematic issues allows a cultural analysis of the construction of the past, even where group identities are fragmented and incoherent. [history, Denmark, Jews, invention of tradition, identity]


On October 1, 1943, as the setting sun inaugurated the Jewish New Year, a sadly familiar story began to unfold on the streets of Copenhagen. Gestapo troops began quietly surrounding Jewish homes, shops, and institutions, preparing to round up and deport one of the last surviving Jewish communities in occupied Europe. The extermination of the community, which had survived intact through three years of German occupation, was intended as a routine operation, a reprise of the countless other roundups and massacres through which Hitler's forces had murdered the bulk of Europe's Jews. When the signal was given to move in, however, the story took an unexpected turn. The troops found most of the homes they had surrounded empty, their occupants hidden with Christian friends and neighbors. Over the next month, despite searches throughout eastern Denmark, only a handful of the nation's Jews fell into German hands. A massive effort of resistance members, fishermen, doctors, and thousands of ordinary Danes succeeded in hiding over six thousand of the Danish Jews and ferrying them to safety in neutral Sweden. The spectacular failure of the roundups marked one of the few defeats in the history of the Final Solution; it energized the resistance in Denmark and aroused fury in Berlin. After the war the Danish rescue became emblematic of resistance to the Holocaust, commemorated and retold in hundreds of books, museums, and anniversary celebrations. For many Jews and Danes today, the story represents the possibility of resistance to evil, a proof that even the apparently powerless can act successfully in the face of in,justice.

This allegory is not, however, the only story of the rescue. The dramatic events of October 1943 involved not simply abstract forces of good and evil, but the lives and experiences of individual Danes, Jews, and Germans. For many Danish Jews, this period became one of the most vivid and important episodes in personal and family hist-irs. The meaning of Jewishness, the meaning of Danishness, the place of nonconformity in a homogeneous society, the acceptance of Jews in a Christian state - such issues appeared in stark relief throughout the occupation, and they achieved critical importance during the rescue. The way individuals told the story of the rescue reflected individual understandings and resolutions of such questions. These personal stories varied considerably, not only because Jews experienced the rescue in different ways, but also because they constructed the meanings of the events in different ways.

In this article I examine the ways that Jews in contemporary Copenhagen tell the story of the rescue. I focus on several distinct narratives, told by different people, and try to understand the influences that shaped their construction. I seek to understand how individuals create images of the past, and how those images both reflect and help construct the social worlds within which they live. …


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