Jews and Danes: 400-year bond

COPENHAGEN, Denmark- While the world remembers Denmark’s rescue of its Jews from the clutch of the Nazi occupiers during World War II, it knows next to nothing about the rich four centuries of history in which the relationship between Jews and Danish Christians has been forged.

Hans Weinberger, a patron of the theater and the arts, wants to change all that. He is trying to establish a museum of the Danish Jewish experience- one which not only might recall the careers of some world famous Danish-born Jews as Nobel Prize winning physicist Nils Bohr, opera and film star Lauritz Melchior and comedian and pianist Victor Borge, but also depict the rhythms of Jewish life in a country where Christians outnumber Jews by a margin of five million to 8,000.

For example, he looks forward to exhibiting a collection of Torah binders that traditional Danish Jewish families artistically executed from the cloths on which their sons experienced their brit milah- circumcision.

The Torah binders were presented to the synagogue when the boys celebrated their bar mitzvah. The illustrations depict scenes from the families’ pasts, and sometimes scenes of their hopes for the future.

Numerous other sacred Jewish objects today may be found in Danish Christian homes, passed down through the generations from Jewish forbearers who intermarried with Christian families, Weinberger said.

These objects in a museum setting could help portray to the general Danish population and to European visitors “what are Jews,” Weinberger added.

If he is fortunate, Weinberger also may be able to find gold ducats that were minted by Albert Dionis, a Sephardic Jew who was invited in 1622 to settle in the then-Danish, now-German town of Gluckstadt by King Christian IV. The ducats were engraved with the Hebrew letters yud, hey, vav, hey- the four-letter name of God.

There is a legend that King Christian IV considered that inscription instrumental in helping him to defeat Sweden in one of the Scandinavian wars of the period, and as a result ordered that the inscription be carved prominently onto various churches and public buildings constructed during his reign.

These inscriptions clearly are visible today at such places as the Round Tower, which has an observation deck that affords a beautiful view of Copenhagen, and the naval church, which neighbors the Christianborg royal palace, today the home of the Danish Parliament and the Royal Library.

It would be appropriate if Weinberger’s dream museum could be built within or near the confines of the Royal Library, because here has been amassed one of the greatest collections of Judaica in all of Europe- more than 100,000 books and manuscripts in Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Aramaic, Ladino, Yiddish, Amharic and Persian, to name just some languages.

One prized manuscript within the collection is a decorated copy of Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed, executed by devout Spanish Jews in 1348.

The collection began when the Protestant Reformation prompted royalty and laymen to want to read Scripture for themselves, rather than to hear it from priests. King Frederik II sent out expeditions to collect manuscripts from the Holy Land and established the Royal Library in 1650 to house his treasures.

Major acquisitions were made in 1932 when the Royal Library purchased the 25,000-volume collection of Rabbi David Simonson, who served as Denmark’s chief rabbi from 1891 to 1902.

While a refugee in Sweden during World War II, the Royal Library’s director, Raphael Edelman, continued to purchase Judaica for the Danish collection- with the secret knowledge and cooperation of Danish authorities.

More volumes were added in 1949 when Lazarus Goldschmidt sold his extensive collection. Readers of the Jewish Daily Forward in New York, responding to stories in the newspaper, contributed another half-ton of Jewish books to the collection.

Denmark’s respect for Jewish learning may have set the stage for Danish religious-political developments over the centuries. In 1684, the king granted permission for the 19 Jews in his kingdom to hold religious services within their homes. In 1693, they were permitted to purchase land for a cemetery.

It was not until 1766 when the first full-scale synagogue was to open its doors- only to be destroyed in the 1794 fire that razed much of Copenhagen.

A Jewish day school and a home for the aged were established in 1805. By royal decree in 1814, Jews were accorded full and equal status. In 1833, the Grand Synagogue of Copenhagen, still standing today, was opened.

When Denmark adopted its constitution in 1849, becoming a constitutional monarch, freedom of worship was guaranteed as part of that document.

Among Jews to pursue a political career was Edvard Brandes, who served in the Danish parliament for 40 years, including a stint as minister of finance during World War I.

As they prospered financially, politically and socially, some Jews in turn became benefactors to the Danish nation.

Moritz Gerson Melchior, for example, was a friend and patron to 19th century fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, who spent his declining years under Melchior’s roof.

Andersen’s voluminous output included not only such famous stories as The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor’s New Clothes, but also a lesser known tale called The Jewish Girl.

From our perspective as modern American Jews, secure in our faith, it is a troubling tale, but one which was tinged with kindness and compassion. Let me offer a brief synopsis, aware, as an average writer, that I am doing an injustice to the words of a great one:

After the death of her devout Jewish mother, the Jewish girl is enrolled by her secular father in a Christian school. An agreement is made that, in respect for the late mother’s wishes, the girl is not to participate in any Christian prayers, so that she will remain a Jew her entire life.

When the other children are given instruction in religion, “Sara” is told to go on reading her geography book. Although she complies, she cannot help but to hear the lesson and to hunger to participate. At one point, the teacher notices how intently Sara has been following the lessons and asks a question. She answers better than any of the other children can.

The teacher asks the father to either withdraw Sara from the school or let her become a Christian. The father withdraws Sara from the school.

Later in her life, Sara has become a servant in a Christian family- as good and kindly a woman as God has created. She reads her “Old Testament” but her heart hungers for her schoolgirl “New Testament” lessons whenever the church bells peal.

On one occasion, she lingered by the open church door, but was hooted at by the Christian boys- confirmation in her mind that she must remain faithful to her dead mother’s wishes.

At the end of the tale, the widow of the household is taken gravely ill, and Sara nurses her. The widow asks her to comfort her by reading from the Christian Bible. Reading from the New Testament for the first time, Sara is struck by the words’ force.

Unwilling to desert her people, yet unwilling to be without this so-long denied religion, she dies and is buried in a grave outside the Christian cemetery. “But God’s sun, that shines upon the graves of Christians, throws its beams also upon the grave of the Jewish girl beyond the wall,” Andersen wrote, and I’d have preferred if he had ended the tale there.

But he went on to say, “she who sleeps beneath is included in the call to the resurrection, in the name of him who spake to his disciples: ‘John baptized you with water, but I will baptize you with the Holy Ghost.'”

Retelling such a story, I am tempted to launch into a treatise on how important it is that we, as Jewish parents, provide our children with sufficient background in their own faith.

I am tempted to write a strong editorial about how insidious I believe the campaign is by the Christian right to force prayer back into our public schools.

But this, after all, is a story about Denmark’s Jewish community, so suffice it to say that a high rate of assimilation has characterized life in the Jewish community in Denmark, almost from its beginnings.

Yet, that is not to say that all Danish Jews- or even the most successful ones- achieved their prominence via the path of assimilation. Among Denmark’s best known and most controversial men of letters was Georg Brandes, the brother of Edvard, and a critic and essayist in his own right.

He encouraged Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen to develop the philosophy presented in such plays as An Enemy of the People that truth, whatever its consequences, must be championed over popular beliefs, however comfortable.

As if to prove the strength of his own belief, Brandes published a book in 1926 that was to become immensely unpopular in a country that was more than 90 percent Lutheran: Jesus, A Myth.

Another Jewish writer who made his mark on the early 20th century was Henri Nathansen, whose play about Jewish assimilation into a Gentile world, Within These Walls, has become a staple of the Royal Danish Theater. Within the last decade, it was adapted into a musical entitledEsther.

“In every country there are a few plays which are national treasures,” Weinberger recounted in an interview with Heritage.

“It is a story about of a Jewish family,” he said. “The father is a banker. There are two sons and a daughter. The elder son is religious; the other son, a doctor, is not very religious. At university, the daughter meets the son of a non-Jewish banker, a rival of her father’s, and they fall in love and get married.” Sort of a Danish version of Romeo and Juliet.

If assimilation sees a preoccupation of the Jewish community in Denmark, it is because for centuries it has experienced the same high intermarriage rates that now characterize American Jewish life.

For generations, as members of “old Jewish families” married Christians who considered them wonderful marital catches, Jewish life in Denmark would be freshly reinvigorated by new waves of immigrants- such as Weinberger’s own family, which moved to Denmark hoping to escape the Nazis in Germany.

Like the Henriques family from which Otto Hertz is descended, many of Denmark’s original Jewish families were Sephardic Jews who left Spain and Portugal at the time of the Inquisition, settled in Holland, then moved to Denmark after King Christianj IV opened his country to Jewish settlement.

“Our family came to Denmark about 400 years ago- about 1590,” Hertz said proudly. “I think I am the 11th or 12th generation.”

Arne Melchior, currently Denmark’s minister of tourism and communications, traces his family’s origins in Denmark about three centuries, noting “I am the seventh generation on my father’s side.”

“When I lecture to non-Jewish audiences, I tell them it is not a problem for me to be Danish and Jewish, and I can be 100 percent Danish- as Danish as you, Mr. Soren, and as Danish as you, Mr. Nielsen- but I am also 100 percent Jewish.” The minister keeps a strictly kosher diet, which is served to him at all official functions.

Hertz is married to a Christian woman and no longer follows kashrut.

“There is no resistance from the Christian side to such a marriage at all,” Melchior said. “They say, ‘Isn’t it nice? My son is dating a Jewish girl.'”

Both Hertz and Melchior are concerned that the number of Jews in Denmark is diminishing. As a managing director of “Friends of the Jewish Community in Denmark,” Hertz recently issued a report that said:

“Through centuries…Jews have been fully integrated in the Danish society. Many have founded families with non-Jewish spouses, and consequently the membership of the Jewish community has to a certain degree, stagnated in numbers. On the other hand, the descendants from these families are counted in many thousands.

“The preservation of the Jewish cultural heritage is an obligation which creates a heavy economic burden on the Jewish community. Not only the synagogue in Copenhagen, one of the most impressive in Europe, but youth work, care for the elderly and the library as well as other institutions of cultural value are causing heavy strains on the budget.”

“Especially to be mentioned is the responsibility of the upkeep of the Jewish cemeteries,” the Hertz report added. “Not only the 300-years-old cemetery in Copenhagen and the one presently in use, but also the many cemeteries around the countries in cities that once had a Jewish community.”

Although affiliated Jews in Denmark pay a percentage of their incomes to the Jewish community for support of its institutions, those contributions are proving insufficient because of the declining base of the population. Unlike in past generations, there is negligible in-migration of “new Jewish families” from other countries.

Today such families go to Israel instead.

The relationship between Israel and Denmark is very close. In Copenhagen, there is an Israel Square, marked by a large stone from Eilat. In Jerusalem, thee is a Danish square, where boats symbolize Denmark’s rescue of the Jews during World War II. While the two countries have not always seen eye-to-eye on the Palestinian question, Denmark generally has been one of Israel’s staunchest friends in Europe.

Melchior says the children of Danish Jewish families also are making aliyah to Israel, raising concerns about who will take over the community’s leadership positions in the future.

Hertz coupled his report with a fund-raising appeal sent to various Jewish communities around the world. It was cosigned by producer Sam Besekow, entertainer Victor Borger and writer Suzanne Brogger. The results? Not very encouraging, Hertz replied.

In such a context, one wonders about the prospects of Weinberger’s idea for a Jewish Museum in Denmark. It would tell a wonderful story, but who is there to pay for it?

I’d like to pass on some addresses to you, just in case you would like more information either about Hertz’s general fundraising drive for the Danish Jewish community, or about Weinberger’s efforts to establish a Danish Jewish Museum. The two men are friends, not rivals.

“Friends of the Jewish Community in Denmark,” managed by the Board of the Jewish Community of Denmark, may be reached by writing to the law firm of Horten and Coimpany, Kgs. Nytorv 22, 1050 Kobenhavn K, Denmark.

Weinberger may be reached by writing him at Fredensborgvej 56, DK-3480 Fredensborg, Denmark.

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