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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Denmark

The country’s youngest Jewish organization, established by the Chief Rabbi last year, is the Society for Danish Jewish History, which sponsored its second Nordic Congress on Judaica June 14-17. The opening setting was the Jewish Department in the Royal Library, but most of the sessions were held at the community’s central address, a large, renovated home dedicated as the Community Center in 1968.

Any political turmoil in the host community seemed far removed as the historians and educators met in the spacious conference rooms, enhanced by ceremonial art, for an exchange of information and review of research. Subjects discussed ranged from Jewish antiquities to the teaching of the Holocaust.

Uri Yaari, the editor of the monthly magazine published by the official Jewish community, who is also a teacher of mathematics in a Danish public school, participated in the session on the Holocaust. He reported that a participant from Germany revealed that the subject is given the minimum of exposure in schools there — one lesson on the period for every 10 or more on Bismark. Yet the interest of young Germans in the Holocaust is strong, and growing stronger, according to the report.

How the Danes, from royalty on down, acted to save Danish Jews from the Holocaust is a well known story. With their help, all but about 500 escaped to Sweden. The “happy homecoming” of Danish Jews in 1945 is noted in a brief historical listing in a pamphlet about the Synagogue, along with the notation that in 1953 King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid attended a special Thanks-giving Service on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of “the miraculous escape.”

SYNAGOGUE’S 150TH ANNIVERSARY IN 1983

In 1983 the community will mark the 150th anniversary of the consecration of its large synagogue. Located in the heart of old Copenhagen, near to the church in which its Torah scrolls were safely stored during the German occupation, the building was “completely restored in 1961, thanks to the support of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany.”

A brick structure of simple lines and angular portals, the synagogue has a magnificent sanctuary — pillared, high-ceilinged, with a frieze at the top of gold and deep Copen blue. Rows and rows of pews of dark wood, on which are scattered the personal cushions of those who regularly occupy those “seats,” lead forward to an area of shorter pews, at the center of which is the large, raised reading table.

The Ark reaches up to the second story (on three sides of which are the tiered seats for women) and is topped by a sculpture of the tablets — all with the clean, symmetrical lines typical of Danish design.

Services, while distinctly traditional in the sequence of prayers and the universal Judaic melodies, have a Danish touch in the formal attire of the chief participants, a continuing custom echoing the royal days of yore.

The magnificent voice of the Cantor, Ralph Levitan, leads in the song of welcome to the Sabbath Queen, and a lusty choir of male voices punctuates the air with the refrain of “L’cho Dod.” (On the eve of an early summer Sabbath in the Northland, the light does not fully fade until close to midnight, services begin regularly at 8 P.M.)

A GOOD LAND FOR JEWS

The first Jewish House of Prayer was opened in Copenhagen nearly 300 years ago, 62 years after Jews first came under Danish rule — by invitation of the King. Nine years after the opening of the Synagogue in 1684, the first Jewish cemetery was established. The issuance of a decree “granting all Jews civic rights and duties of Danish citizens” came in 1814.

As the late Chief Rabbi, Marcus Melchior, wrote in his memoirs, published in English under the title, “A Rabbi Remembers,” being both a Jew and a Dane, he did not think of himself as having double loyalty, but rather, “double love.”

For the elderly, sunning themselves in the garden of their “home” at the rear of the Synagogue (one of the two maintained by the community), Denmark has been a good land to live in as a Jew, especially for those from the more recent waves of refugees.

Quotas of refugees came from Hungary in 1956, at the time of “the revolt,” and from Czechoslovakia following the Soviet invasion in 1968.

COPING WITH PROBLEMS

For the young — the 300 pupils in the Jewish Day School, those in the two Talmud Torah Schools, and in the four Jewish kindergartens in Copenhagen, as well as those in the several youth groups — their future as members of a strong Jewish community of Danes is not so secure. Assimilation at the rate of 50 percent in a community numbering at the most 8000 could have staggering results in just a generation.

“Without some infusion from abroad,” Yaari said, the community will shrivel in about 50 years, “and it is hard to see where that infusion could come from now.” Although Danish Jews demonstrate strongly on behalf of Soviet Jewry, they know very few released emigres will come to Denmark.

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