On Feb. 13, Prince Henrik, husband of Danish monarch Queen Margrethe, died at the age of 83. Many Jews recall the courage of the Danish royal family and the entire Danish people during the Holocaust, and how they saved approximately 99 percent of all Danish Jews from the Nazis.
Danish Jews were relatively safe until Oct. 1, 1943, when after increasing effectiveness by the Danish resistance, Berlin ordered them arrested and deported. After the order, Danish civil servants started identifying and contacting Jews; but unlike the contacts made by their counterparts elsewhere, these were made to warn Jews and get them into hiding — to save them from Nazi clutches, not to deliver them.
Then, over several nights in October, ordinary Danes led by the Danish resistance movement, evacuated all of Denmark’s remaining Jews (more than 7,200) across the Baltic Sea to neutral Sweden, an event unfortunately unique in the annals of the Holocaust. After that rescue, the Danish government continued to intercede on behalf of the almost 500 Danish Jews in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, saving almost all of them, too.
No doubt that is why my Danish hotelier said it had to be fate that brought me to Copenhagen at this particular time. The prince’s death has shaken all Danes, who are proud of a scandal-free royal family that is beloved and honored by its people. His body was lying in state and I had a chance to say thank you as a Jew, grateful for a people that could not even conceive of how being Jewish made some of their fellow citizens any different from them. And they acted on that belief.
Copenhagen is one of the world’s most beautiful cities to walk, and after about 20 minutes, I arrived at Thorvaldsen’s Museum where the body was lying. I followed the line of people for almost a half mile without even seeing the end, and returned to the museum entrance. There, Danes unable to stand the hours-long wait, many with strollers and young children, handed the police flowers that would be placed by the prince’s coffin in a sea of flowers. One elderly man, dressed in a Danish army uniform and sporting white gloves and a black arm band, came to pay his respects and crisply saluted the prince. The one discordant note was the presence of military guards with automatic weapons. As my hotelier told me, it was an unfortunate feature of life today; “We face the same threat as you do,” he said.
Since World War II, several myths have grown out of the Danish actions, the most prominent being that Denmark’s king wore the yellow star in solidarity with Jews. (Danish Jews never were required to wear the yellow star or other markings.) Yet, no myth could come close to what it took to carry out the rescue — a rescue smaller but no less impressive or fraught with danger than the one at Dunkirk. It took a social ethic so strong, so pervasive among an entire nation, that were it only common elsewhere in Europe, the Holocaust never would have had a chance.
Richard L. Benkin is an American human rights activist in Europe. He meets with exiles and others struggling to free their own peoples from the heirs of the Nazis in Asia.