Moral Courage and Democratic Solidarity: The 70th Anniversary of the Rescue of Danish Jewry

09/10/2013 11:09 BST | Updated 09/10/2013 11:09 BST

Seventy years ago in October something extraordinary took place in Europe.

Standing in solidarity with their fellow Danes, the people of Denmark organized a large scale rescue of the Danish Jewish community, bringing the overwhelming majority to the safety of neutral Sweden and thus preventing their deportation by the Nazis to extermination camps.

The rescue was not a fragmented effort of various individuals acting as a small minority of an otherwise indifferent population.

Rather, it was a complex and coordinated process necessitating the participation of a large cross section of Danish society.

It reflected a deep commitment to democratic values of freedom and equality that have long been a central feature of Danish culture and the insistence that the Jews of Denmark had the same rights as all Danes and that it was incumbent upon their fellow Danes to protect these rights and come to the aid of the Jewish minority.

The Danish rescue was a collective rescue and in scale and scope it is unique because of this.

It could only succeed if the Danish people in large numbers supported the efforts and took part and if those who were not actively involved put up no barriers to its success and ensured the safety of both rescuers and Jews by refusing to reveal the nature of the rescue efforts to Nazi occupiers.

Denmark is a small, peaceful, prosperous country with a strong welfare state that ensures the well being of its citizens.

It does not usually make it into the news aside perhaps, most recently, on the occasion of a UN study depicting Danes as being the world's happiest people due to a combination of objective and subjective findings about their well being, life experiences, and individual and social attitudes.

But it should.

The radical decency of the Danes protected the lives of 7,000 individuals at a time when Europe's Jews were met with very few exceptions with anti-Jewish prejudice and bigotry, indifference, and complicity in persecution when seeking aid and shelter from the Nazis.

Denmark was different and Denmark was exceptional.

To commemorate the Danish rescue and reflect upon its values and legacy, a conference was held in Copenhagen from September 30-October 2 entitled, "Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust" organized by the Humanity in Action foundation.

The conference explored the role of civil society in the protection and realization of human rights, the history of the Danish rescue, the different responses to the persecution of the Jewish people in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the United States, and the diversity of responses elsewhere in Europe to this persecution, particularly in France, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria.

It also examined the place of the Danish rescue in the broader context of Danish history and attitudes towards refugees, Jewish and otherwise, which were ambivalent at best in the 1930s.

Anders Jerichow, the director of Humanity in Action Denmark writes eloquently about the significance of the Danish rescue in the program to the commemoration of the rescue held at the Royal Danish Theatre on October 2 in the presence of Denmark's Queen Margrethe II and Denmark's Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt,

"What happened during those days was extraordinary in Nazi-controlled Europe. While doors and borders in most European societies remained closed to Jews, doors were opened in Denmark. Families seeking refuge were offered a meal and beds by families they didn't know... these days and evenings 70 years ago were historic hours during which nurses and doctors offered hospital beds and protective false diagnosis to fellow citizens in danger and fear. These were days and nights when churches and ministers welcomed strangers of other faiths. These were days when brave resistance fighters at risk for their lives arranged for secret routes, new hiding places and safe havens."

There is a statue of a Jewish man on the shores of Denmark looking out on the straits of the Oresund to Sweden, a land which promised safety for Denmark's Jews.

The man is jubilant.

Despite the distance between Danish shores and Sweden being a mere 5-10 miles, that distance would have remained vast and impassable had the Danish people not organized to rescue the 7,000 Jews of Denmark.

At the base of the statue, in Danish and Hebrew, it says, "Let the great shofar declare our liberation."

At Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial where trees have been planted to honor the individual rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust there is a tree to honor the Danish resistance and its role in the rescue.

Leaders of the Danish resistance asked that the Danish rescuers be acknowledged as a collective.

It is one tree but it represents so many Danes who came to assist the Jews of Denmark at their time of greatest peril and need, to protest their persecution and to protect them.