History of the Jews in Denmark
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The Jewish community of Denmark constitutes a small minority with a known history back to the 17th century. The commminuty reached its peak prior to Holocaust. When the German plenipotentiary in Denmark ordered the arrest and deportation of all Danish Jews, the Danish resistance movement with the assistance of many ordinary Danish citizens took part in a collective effort to evacuate about 8,000 Jews of Denmark by sea to nearby neutral Sweden, an act which ensured the safety of the Danish Jews.
Medieval Danish art contains depictions of Jews – visibly wearing pointed hats – but there is no evidence that any Jews actually lived in Denmark during that time. With the conclusion of the Danish Reformation in 1536, Jews along with Catholics were prohibited entry into Denmark.
The first known settlement on Danish territory was based on a royal dispensation. When the industrious Christian IV founded Glückstadt on the river Elbe in today's Schleswig-Holstein, he allowed one Jewish merchant, Albert Dionis, to settle in the city. This dispensation was extended to a few other Jews, and in 1628 their status was formalized by being promised protection, the right to hold private religious services, and maintain their own cemetery. Albert Dionis gained special status within the Danish royal court, apparently as a source of credit for ambitious projects. Gabriel Gomez, who also attained status, persuaded Frederik III to allow Sephardic Jews to reside in Denmark while conducting trade. Although this was limited to the Sephardim, a number of Ashkenazim were granted letters of safe passage and settled in the kingdom in the coming years.
Establishment of permanent communities
Following the costly Thirty Years' War, which created a fiscal crisis for the Danish crown, Frederik III proclaimed absolute monarchy in Denmark. To improve trade, the king encouraged Jewish immigration. The first Jewish community was founded in the newly established town of Fredericia in 1682, and in 1684 an Ashkenazi community was founded in Copenhagen.
By 1780, there were approximately 1,600 Jews in Denmark, though all were admitted by special permission granted only on the basis of personal wealth. They were subject to social and economic discrimination, and for a brief period in 1782 they were forced to attend Lutheran services. But they were not required to live in ghettos and had a significant degree of self-governance.
Integration into Danish life
As the Jewish enlightenment reached Denmark in the late 18th century, the king instituted a number of reforms to facilitate integration of Jewish subjects into the larger Danish society. Jews were allowed to join guilds, study at the university, buy real estate, and establish schools.
The Napoleonic Wars and the disastrous Gunboat War brought about a complete emancipation of Danish Jews (while, in contrast, events in Norway resulted in a constitutional ban on Jews entering Norway). Still, there were severe antisemitic riots in Denmark in 1819 lasted several months, though without any known fatalities.
On the other hand, the early 19th century saw a flourishing of Danish-Jewish cultural life. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen is a landmark building, designed by the architect G. F. Hetsch. A number of Jewish cultural personalities, among them the art benefactor and editor Mendel Levin Nathanson, the writer Meir Aron Goldschmidt, and founder of Politiken, Edvard Brandes; his brother literary critic Georg Brandes (who had a strong influence on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen), Henri Nathansen, and others rose to prominence.
Growth and 20th century crises
As in many other societies, increasing integration accelerated assimilation of Jews into mainstream Danish society, including higher rates of intermarriage. In the early twentieth century, events such as the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, and the series of Russian revolutions, led to an influx of approximately 3,000 Jewish refugees into Denmark.
The new arrivals changed the character of Danish Jewry significantly. More likely to be socialist Bundists than religious, they founded a Yiddish theater and several Yiddish newspapers. These proved to be short-lived, however, and Denmark closed its door to further immigration in the early 1920s.
The Nazi era
In April 1933, Christian X was scheduled to appear at the central synagogue in Copenhagen to celebrate its centennial anniversary. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933, the community leaders suggested that the king postpone his visit. The king insisted, however, and became the first Nordic monarch to visit a synagogue. Christian X also became the subject of a persistent urban legend according to which, during Nazi occupation, he donned the Star of David in solidarity with the Danish Jews. This is not true, as Danish Jews were not forced to wear the star of David. However, the legend likely stems from a 1942 British report that claimed he threatened to don the star if this was forced upon Danish Jews. He did, however, later on, finance the transport of Danish Jews to unoccupied Sweden, where they would be safe from Nazi persecution.
A period of tension ensued, for the Danish population in general and its Jewish citizens in particular. Danish policy sought to ensure its independence and neutrality by placating the neighboring Nazi regime. After Denmark was occupied by Germany following Operation Weserübung on April 9 1940, the situation became increasingly precarious.
In 1943, the situation came to a head when Werner Best, the German plenipotentiary in Denmark ordered the arrest and deportation of all Danish Jews, scheduled to commence on October 1, which coincided with Rosh Hashanah. However, the Jewish community was given advance warning, and only 202 were arrested initially. As it turned out, 7,550 fled to Sweden, ferried across the Øresund strait. 450 Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In the course of their incarceration, Danish authorities often interceded on their behalf (as they did for other Danes in German custody), sending food.
Of the 450 Jews who were deported, 52 died during deportation.
The number of Jews living in Denmark today is approximately 1900, according to Finn Schwarz, president of Mosaisk Troessamfund. Comparing to 1997, this number indicates a significant decrease in the Jewish population of Denmark, which is explained by the increasing of antisemitic incidents (40 antisemitic incidents registered in 2012, almost double the number in 2009). However, the estimated number of people who consider themselves to be Jewish may be around 7,000 to 9,000 out of a total population of 5.5 million. Almost all Jews are very integrated into main-stream Danish society.
Danish society has generally maintained a safe and friendly environment for its Jewish minority. There are three active synagogues in Denmark today, all in Copenhagen. The larger congregation in Krystalgade is inclusive of its members, though follows a traditional liturgy. The Machsike Hadas Synagogue is a small Orthodox synagogue, and Chabad has a presence in Copenhagen. Shir Hatzafon is the Progressive Jewish synagogue and community in Denmark.
In addition, there are two Jewish periodicals published in Danish: Rambam, published by Selskabet for Dansk-Jødisk Historie; and Alef, a journal of Jewish culture.
As of 2012, tolerance toward the Jewish population in Denmark has become more tenuous due to increasing anti-Israel sentiment and hostility from a growing Muslim immigrant population now numbering over 250,000. In October 2013 it was reported that there has been an increase in anti-Semitism towards Jews living in Copenhagen. This report included a testimony of seven Jewish boys during a hearing in January 2013. The testimony revealed widespread physical and verbal attacks on Jews, mostly by Muslim immigrants.
- "The number of Jews in Denmark has dropped, partly because of antisemitism". CFCA. Retrieved 28 November 2013.
- "Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen - In Denmark, known for its historic tolerance, Jews are now threatened and told to remove their ‘Jewish hats’" By Michael C. Moynihan, Tablet Magazine, March 28, 2013
- "Denmark: Jews warned not to wear religious symbols - Amid rising anti-Israel sentiment, Israeli envoy warns Jews in Copenhagen to keep low profile; in Spain, embassy fights back against boycott" by Itamar Eichner, YNET News, December 13, 2012
- "Jews advised to keep faith symbols hidden", Copenhagen Post, December 13, 2012
- "Danes alarmed by rising anti-Semitism - Rise in physical, verbal assaults in Denmark is in line with claims by Jewish communities that anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe. Local Jews urge authorities to take action", YNET News, March 3, 2013
- The Coordinating Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism: "Alarm over rising antisemitism in Denmark" January 3, 2013
- "Great café life, but hate stirs under the surface in Copenhagen" By Liam Hoare, Jewish Chronicle, February 15, 2013
- Bawer, Bruce (October 1, 2013). "Anti-Semitism in Copenhagen". FrontPage Magazine. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
- Conrad Kisch: The Jewish community in Denmark: history and present status - From all their habitations
- Official website for the Jewish community in Denmark
- Shir Hatzafon - Progressive Judaism in Denmark
- Society for Danish-Jewish History/Rambam
- Jewish Genealogical Society of Denmark
- The Jews of Denmark – a Bibliography, website of The Royal Library, Denmark
- Jews in Denmark