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. …