Rabbi Lau – and the rescue of Danish Jews

In a demonstration of both defiance and solidarity the people of Denmark helped their Jewish countrymen escape by boat to neutral Sweden.

Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau is one of the most prominent figures in Israel. A man respected and revered – and rightly so.
So much the greater was my disappointment at contra-factual statements and conspicuous omissions in the interview with him (“The World has not learned the lessons of the Holocaust”) in Jerusalem Post Metro on October 7, 2016.
I will restrict myself to one minor and one major point – in that order.
Rabbi Lau claims that the Scandinavian countries are consumed today with the desire to boycott Israel. This is a great myth that seems to have acquired a life of its own. Let me bust the myth with basic facts: from 2014 to 2015 Danish exports to Israel rose by approx. 20 percent. Would that indicate that Danish companies are consumed with boycotting and shunning Israel? Hardly. Second fact: this autumn the government of Denmark is opening an Innovation Center in Tel Aviv. One of only seven across the world (the other six being located in Sillicon Valley, Sao Paolo, Shanghai, Delhi, Seoul and Munich).
Would that tend to suggest that Denmark is consumed with boycotting Israel? Hardly.
These myth-busting facts are easily available on the Internet.
But what really disappoints me in the interview is Rabbi Lau’s sweeping claim that “antisemitism was universal” during the Nazi period, a claim that he supports by quoting the figure of 26,000 Righteous Among the Nations, similar to “the size of a small town in Poland.” In other words: except for precious few individuals, Europeans in those days were antisemites condoning the Holocaust.
Next time rabbi Lau comes to Yad Vashem, I propose that he take a stroll in the garden.
There, in front of a tree, he will find a memorial plaque dedicated to “The People of Denmark.”
No less. Why? Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany in April 1940. The Danish government initially decided to cooperate with the Nazi occupiers, which allowed the government to stand firm on a number of “red lines,” one of which was insistence on the security of Jews in Denmark.
Any talk of “special measures” directed at Danish Jews was categorically rejected by the Danish government. For example, nothing in the identity papers of Danish Jews indicated or hinted at their Jewishness. And Jews in Denmark at no time wore the infamous yellow star.
However, the policy of cooperation broke down in August 1943. Soon thereafter, on Yom Kippur that October, the Nazi occupiers decided to “cleanse Denmark of Jews.”
In other words: to round them up and send them to the concentration camps.
In some cases, the Nazis, sadly, succeeded.
Close to 500 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt – and 53 of them never came back.
But the vast majority of the approximately 7,000 Jews in Denmark at the time were rescued. In a spontaneous demonstration of both defiance and solidarity the people of Denmark helped their Jewish countrymen escape by boat to neutral Sweden. Danish democracy mobilized itself to protect the values on which it was based. As a consequence more than 98% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust. A genuine light in the darkness.
Around the 70th anniversary of the rescue operation, which was commemorated here in Israel at a festive concert by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, attended by the crown prince of Denmark, the renowned Danish historian Dr. Bo Lidegaard published a book entitled Countrymen – The Untold Story of How Denmark’s Jews Escaped the Nazis (Knopf 2013).
When I go to Copenhagen later this month to attend the launch in Denmark of Innovation Center/Israel, I will make sure to get a copy of Dr. Lidegaard’s book, that I will be happy to present to Rabbi Lau upon my return. Perhaps, with Rabbi Lau’s recommendation once he has read the book, Yad Vashem might then consider translating this excellent study into Hebrew so that the untold story can be told and so that errors of omissions and simplification may be avoided in the future.
The author is Denmark’s ambassador to Israel.