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Take a tour through the history of Jews in Denmark

The Copenhagen Synagogue, built in 1833.

MARCH 8, 2018 – Charlotte and Ronen Thalmay run the tour company Jewish-Copenhagen.dk, specializing in Jewish tours in Copenhagen, which tell the dramatic and inspiring history of the Danish Jews.

Here are some of the historic insights they share during their tours:

Although Jews always have been a very small minority in Denmark, they have made significant contributions to the economic, political, cultural, and scientific development of the country. Well-known members of the Jewish community include Niels Bohr, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922; entertainer Victor Borge (1909-2000); and Academy Award-winning director Susanne Bier (“In a Better World,” Best Foreign Language Film, 2011).

The first Jews arrived in Denmark in 1622 at the invitation of King Christian IV. Aiming to propel trade and economic growth, the king gave the Jews – who were successful merchants from Amsterdam and Hamburg – extensive trading privileges and freedom from religious persecution.

Escaping from pogroms and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, more than 100,000 Jews passed through the port of Copenhagen on their way to America.

Hard working Jewish immigrants

Approximately 3,000 of them ended up settling in Denmark. However, they were not welcomed by the well-established middle and upper-class Danish Jews who were afraid the new wave would negatively impact their smooth relationship with the general Danish population.

The ancestors of both Charlotte and Ronen Thalmay came from Poland and Russia and were part of this wave of Jewish immigrants who settled in Copenhagen. Charlotte’s great grandfather, Solomon Bornstein, established a successful clothing factory in the heart of the city.

In September 1943, Adolf Hitler gave the order to arrest and deport all Jews in Denmark. Despite great personal risk, Danes spontaneously organized a rescue operation and helped Jews reach the coast, where brave fishermen then ferried them to neutral Sweden. In cooperation with the Danish resistance movement, they managed to evacuate approximately 7,000 Danish Jews, plus around 600 non-Jewish spouses.

Jacob Thalmay, Charlotte Thalmay’s grandfather, was one of the few Jews involved with the Danish resistance movement. He had managed to organize a rescue opportunity on the fishing boat Elisabeth in the coastal village of Dragør for his wife and 8-year-old son. Turning around on the pier, he shockingly announced that he had unfinished business in Denmark and would therefore not join them. His decision turned out to be fatal.

He managed to help save many Jewish lives, but in his attempt to stop the deportation of family members, Jacob ended up being arrested by the Gestapo. He was eventually send to Auschwitz and died on the death march in March of 1945. In the World War II memorial park outside Copenhagen, the name Jacob Thalmay is engraved amongst the 104 resistance fighters who were killed outside of Denmark.

Ronen’s great grandfather, Isaac Waniewitz, was 70 years old in 1943 and lived in the Jewish old age home during the war. Unfortunately, he did not get away in time. He was brutally captured by Nazi soldiers and together with 481 other Danish Jews, sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. In total, 52 Danish Jews died in the camp.  Isaac Waniewitz survived 20 months of captivity.

Chairman of the Danish Jewish Community, Dan Asmussen, greets a Danish soldier outside the Copenhagen Synagogue.

In recent years, there has been repeated attacks against Jewish institutions and Jews in Belgium, Sweden, England, and France.

After the terrifying attack against a French newspaper  and a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, Jews in Denmark felt the threat of terror getting closer. Three weeks later, the worst nightmare became a reality.

On Feb. 14 and 15, three separate shootings occurred in Copenhagen.

Ronen and Charlotte were guests at a bat mitzvah party at the Great Synagogue in Krystalgade on Feb. 15. After midnight, a guard came in screaming: “Stop the music, run to the basement!” A second security guard, a Jew named Dan Uzan, had been shot and killed by a radicalized Muslim.

The perpetrator, who was eventually killed, initially succeeded in escaping police captivity, and a Danish anti-terror unit was summoned to evacuate the 40 adults and children who hid for more than two hours in a very tiny room in the basement.

For Charlotte, Ronen, and the other guests – 20 of them children – it was a very traumatic experience.

The aftermath has been a high increase in security in all Jewish institutions, carried out by the Danish police and military.

In spite of many dramatic events through the past 400 years, the approximately 7,000 Danish Jews are still living a prosperous life in a vibrant community. The Jewish school is just about to reopen in beautiful new buildings in 2018, to ensure Jewish life continues in Denmark for many years to come.

For information about tours, visit jewish-copenhagen.dk.

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