Lessons from Denmark
By Elizabeth Keith
Boulder, CO


 

The images are pervasive. We see starving, emaciated prisoners. Crematoriums and ashes. Broken promises of freedom over empty gates. Piles of shoes and corpses. Lists of the dead. These are the images that represent the Holocaust. They show us misery, horror, despair, cruelty, and evil. Here are the visual representations of the worst humanity has to offer.

Knowledge of this evil is one of the reasons we study the Holocaust. Seeing this darkness and suffering gives us an understanding of what we, as humans, must guard against. Yet seeing only these photographs gives us an incomplete picture. Hitler’s Germany has more to offer us. For every image of suffering there is one of light and hope, some courageous act of resistance, some inspiring story. The Holocaust tells us not only how low humanity can sink, but also how high we can rise.

Denmark’s story is a perfect illustration of this goodness. Although the small Scandinavian country was first invaded in 1940, German administrator Werner Best waited until 1943 to deport the Jewish population. He knew that the tolerant Danes would protest and resist attacks on their Jewish neighbors, so he kept his plans secret from all but the highest-ranking Germans. One official, Georg Duckwitz, protested. Deciding that he could not let the Jews be killed, he warned the Danes of the Nazi’s plan.

The reaction was amazing. Danes from all walks of life joined together to save their Jewish neighbors. Jews were warned by family, friends, and strangers. People opened their houses to the refugees, who were smuggled to the coast and brought to neutral Sweden; some homes sheltered more than 700 strangers in two nights (Werner). In one week, over 7,000 Jews (out of 8,000) were safe in Sweden (Werner). Five hundred were caught and deported to Thersienstadt, a waystation for those destined for the death camps. The Danish government, however, refused to lose even these Danes. Officials harassed Nazis until they were allowed to send packages and visit the ghetto. The prisoners, as well as the refugees, survived. At the end of the war, in 1945, all but 100 Jews came home to Denmark (Werner).

So why remember this story? The past is dead and gone; Denmark’s story is far beyond my control. Yet there is some truth in the cliché that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. This genocide was not a unique event, and understanding it can help prevent repetitions. Our generation cannot excuse ourselves by ignorance. We know what has happened. We know where hatred, intolerance, and oppression lead.

I believe that studying the resistance is vital. Simply knowing the signs of another Holocaust will do us no good unless we then act to change the course of events. Understanding those who worked for good in the face of the Nazis can help us do the same. If we can know why Georg Duckwitz risked his life to warn the Danes, or why strangers hid refugees in their homes, we can learn how to emulate them. The resistance stories give us hope, too, that good can come out of evil and that hatred can be countered.

Denmark’s story is important because it is so unique. No other country reacted in the same way to Nazi rule or saved so much of its Jewish population. How did they do this? What was their secret? Their rescue depended on a pre-existing tolerance. Genocide doesn’t begin on its own, but has its roots in hatred and oppression. Germany, Poland, Russia, and Austria all had histories of anti-Semitism. Hitler’s ideas were nothing new, and his atrocities were only enabled by this historic hatred. Denmark was different. They had no such oppression or hatred; they saw their Jewish neighbors as fellow Danes, not a separate, inferior group (Werner). Because of this equality and respect, they felt unable to let their fellow citizens be treated so atrociously and acted in what they thought was the only decent course.

It’s hard to know how one individual can stop a genocide, but the Danes provide an answer. Tolerance and equality saved Denmark’s Jews. We can make our society into a similar institution. Oppression is alive in the United States in the form of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, and religious oppression. If we can eliminate the inequalities, stereotypes, and hatred caused by these, we can stop potential genocide by attacking its roots and making our own country free of prejudice.

This isn’t easy. One person working alone can’t root out all hatred and oppression from our world. Yet we, as individuals, can enact change. All we need to do is work as allies. As a white, straight, middle-class, Christian woman I was born with power and privilege I neither asked for nor earned. Yet over the years I have realized that this is not inherently negative. I can use the power I was so unfairly given to make a difference in my world. I do this by using the voice this privilege gives me to work as an ally and help victims of oppression.

There are many ways for youth to work as allies. We all have some political power- students can contact legislators, volunteer in political campaigns, or encourage older voters to exercise their rights. Everyone can work to discover and eliminate their own prejudices. We all have some biases or stereotypes, and one of the most important aspects of working as an ally is to acknowledge these. Students can also educate others about oppression and hatred. Many people who have privilege are ignorant about those who do not, and such knowledge is essential in working for change. We cannot fight something if we don’t know it exists.
The most important way to work as an ally, however, is to simply confront intolerance and hatred wherever we see it. This can be anything, and ranges from calling people out on inappropriate language to protesting unfair laws to hiding refugees from a genocide. It needn’t be drastic; anything, however small, helps. Although these actions can entail some risk, it is important that everyone speaks up in some way. Resisting oppression by confronting hatred is the only way to enact permanent change. Although other work can support this confrontation, speaking up is the most important aspect of being an ally.

It is certainly a cliché to proclaim that youth are the future, but there can be no doubt that this is true. We have the power to change the direction and culture of our country, and we can work for good. By attacking intolerance we can eliminate the potential for genocide. Although this process isn’t easy or fast, it is essential to building a peaceful world. If we, as this future, can eliminate prejudice, hatred, and oppression, then we can become another Denmark.

 

Bibliography:


Goldberger, Leo, ED. The Rescue of the Danish Jews. New York University Press, New York. 1987.

*Werner, Emmy E. A Conspiracy of Decency, Westveiw Press, Cambridge. 2002.

*United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Denmark.” The Holocaust Encyclopedia. <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/>. Accessed 2-17-07.

*Includes primary source material.
 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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