This week marks the 60th anniversary of victory in Europe, and leaders of the Allied states marked the occasion this weekend in Moscow. Across the continent, liberated nations are commemorating the revival of their freedom. On Wednesday, May 4, at a celebration marking Denmark’s liberation from the Nazis, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued a stern apology on behalf of his state. Danish officials, he said, “took part in sending people to suffering and death in concentration camps.” He called his country’s behavior “a stain on Denmark’s otherwise good reputation,” and expressed great regret that Denmark had acted so shamefully (“Denmark Apologizes for Sending Refugees to Camps,” by Sam Ser, in The Jerusalem Post, 5/5/05).
It sounds as if Prince Hamlet’s remark about his native kingdom is ringing true, but Rasmussen’s apology should be considered quite ill founded. It is not because of insincerity that his gesture should be taken with incredulity; rather it is because there is little reason why Denmark, of all the states occupied by Nazi Germany during the war, should apologize at all. The deportations that Rasmussen refers to were of 21 Jews who came to Denmark seeking refuge but were turned away. When measuring the righteousness of Danes in their conduct under Nazi occupation, the inability to protect 21 Jewish asylum-seekers does little to tip the scales away from the great heroism on their part that saved thousands.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on September 28, 1943, the Danish resistance learned that the Nazi occupiers were planning to deport the country’s Jewish population to concentration camps. Within three weeks, with the help of ordinary Danes nationwide, more than 7,200 Jewsnearly all of those living in Denmarkwere smuggled over the Oresund Straits to neutral Sweden. Even though almost 500 Danish Jews were deported by the Nazis to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Danish officials worked tirelessly in demanding that the Nazis account for their whereabouts throughout the war, saving all but 51 from death. To this day, Danes take pride in having saved so many from annihilation, and wartime Danish leaders are considered part of the “Righteous Among Nations” honored by Israel’s national Holocaust memorial for their part in the rescue.
Of all the European states whose Jews, Roma, queers, communists, dissidents, and other “undesirables” were taken en masse to slaughter, why is it Denmark alone that issues such an apology at this moment of reflection? What the prime minister is in effect telling the world is: We Danes rescued nearly the whole of our Jewish community through an unprecedented national effort, but because we prohibited a handful of Jews from other countries from seeking refuge in Denmark, we carry a terrible national shame and are profoundly sorry.
I had a lot of respect for Denmark and its people before Rasmussen issued this apology, but now I am awed by their collective sense of justice and deeply moved by their national fortitude. Why is it that this nation, which under the perils of occupation worked so hard to save its entire Jewish community, feels obligated to apologize? Where are the similar expressions of regret this week from the leaders of Norway, Germany, or Hungary? In the Ukraine, people volunteered for Hitler’s S.S. In Poland, local militias continued to slaughter Jews for weeks after that country’s liberation. Only in Denmark was there a concerted national program of As far as I am concerned, Denmark needs no apology. I recall visiting Yad Vashem, the Israeli national memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem. There, in a hall at the exit from the main museum, are a series of pillars representing the several European states whose Jewish communities were depopulated. Walking through this hall, one reads on each pillar the name of a country and the number of Jews killed there. Greece lost 90,000; Poland, 3,000,000; Germany, 520,000; and Czechoslovakia, 325,000. But in a corner, hidden in the maze of dark pillars, is Denmark, with the total number of Jews killed at 51, by far the lowest.
Rasmussen’s apology is an unexpected gesture from the leader of a nation whose heroism should be a light for us all. This week, as the world marks 60 years since the liberation of Europe from Hitler, we should not forget to celebrate the courage of the Danish people, as well as that of individuals in other states who helped rescue the innocent enemies of Nazism. As easy as it is to forget the importance V-E Day holdswhether we are preoccupied with summer plans, midterms, or the small dramas that make up our daily liveswe should each try to set aside at least a moment to remember the fallen and honor those who risked their lives in order to preserve life. This week, with admiration and reverence, Denmark will be on my mind.