Despite being radically atheist, I’m ethnically Jewish. One of the ways that Jewishness manifests itself is, when I’m travelling, I occasionally find myself drawn to Jewish historical museums or sites. That’s particularly true if they deal with oppression of Jews. When confronted with anti-Semitism, I feel even more Jewish in response. It’s ironic that if it weren’t for anti-Semites my Jewish ethnicity might fall by the wayside entirely.
I have been to Amsterdam, Holland four times in my life and I’ve been to the Anne Frank house four times in my life. It’s a bit of an obsession. So, when I went to Copenhagen, Denmark it seemed only natural that I would visit the Danish Jewish Museum.
There are 400 years of Jewish history in Denmark. And Denmark was one of the only countries in Europe, if not the only country, to rescue it’s Jews from the Nazis. I’m ashamed that I didn’t know that before visiting the museum. I like the Danes even more now that I do know it.
Here’s the what happened. When the Nazis invaded Denmark, the Danes cooperated with them and, in return, their Jewish population was exempted from the laws that the Nazis imposed on Jews in other countries. The Jews in Denmark weren’t required to wear the yellow stars and they could keep their jobs, unlike Jews in other Nazi-occupied countries.
When information leaked that the Nazis were about to launch an action against the Jews, the Danes warned their Jewish population in enough time that 7,000 of them were able to sail from several points in Denmark into exile and safety in Sweden before the Nazis moved against them.
Only 481 Danish Jews ended up in Theresienstadt concentration camp and most of them survived. In fact, about 99% of the Danish Jews survived.
Denmark also made an effort to protect the property of Jews when they fled in 1943. As a result, many Jews could come back and resume their lives after the war. However, still only about half were able to return to their former residences.
I learned all of that at the Danish Jewish Museum. Yet, it’s a small museum, particularly if you consider that there are 400 years of Jewish history in Denmark to cover. After going through the museum, I was convinced that I must have missed a section, but I checked and I hadn’t.
A Small Museum
On the outside, the building is a rather plain brown brick building with ivy growing on the lower portion. It’s located right next to the Royal Library Garden.
That’s not quite accurate. The Danish Jewish Museum occupies only a portion of the building. The rest is one of two buildings of the Royal Library. (The other building of the Royal Library is much more modern. The two library buildings are connected by an enclosed pedestrian bridge.) The museum is separate from the library and there is no inside passage between them, at least, not one that’s available to the public. I have no idea if there are any personnel-only doors between the two.
Right-Angles in Short Supply
There are very few perpendicular walls inside the museum, most of them are joined at weird angles. Even the floor is slightly sloped, but that was subtle enough that I wasn’t sure if the slope was just in my imagination.
If you read the very first post in this blog, which was on the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, or you’ve been to the ROM and the angled walls of the Danish Jewish Museum, as shown in the accompanying pictures, remind you of the addition to the ROM, that’s not entirely coincidental. The architect who designed the ROM addition, Daniel Libeskind, also designed the Danish Jewish Museum.
The exhibits in one room of the museum covered the inside and outside walls of circular pods and/or were inside those pods. One of the exhibits on an outer wall was a collection of letters written by Jewish school children in America to the Danish Queen, Queen Margrethe in 1993, the 50th anniversary of the rescue of the Danish Jews. While reading the letters, tears welled in my eyes. It’s happening again as I recount the experience.
Make sure you watch the two short films playing on a continuous loop, one after the other, in a small space near the entrance of the museum. One film talks about the Jewish migration to Denmark. The other film features Daniel Libeskind talking about the architecture of the museum and his inspiration for it.
When I was there, the museum had also mounted an exhibit in a space next door on the effects of the war on the Danish Jews and their experiences upon returning after the war. It was a temporary exhibit so if you visit the Danish Jewish Museum it might not be there when you go.