- History of the Jews in Denmark
Part of a series of articles on Jews and Judaism Who is a Jew? · Etymology · Culture
Medieval Danish art contains depictions of Jews – visibly wearing pointed hats – but there is no evidence any Jews actually lived in Denmark during that time. With the conclusion of the Danish Reformation in 1536, Jews along with Catholics were prohibited entry into Denmark.
The first known settlement on Danish territory was based on a royal dispensation. When the industrious Christian IV founded Glückstadt on the river Elbe in today's Schleswig-Holstein, he allowed one Jewish merchant, Albert Dionis, to settle in the city. This dispensation was extended to a few other Jews, and in 1628 their status was formalized by being promised protection, the right to hold private religious services, and maintain their own cemetery. Albert Dionis rose to special status within the Danish royal court, apparently being a source of credit for ambitious projects. Gabriel Gomez, who also attained this status, persuaded Frederik III to give general leave for Sephardic Jews to reside in Denmark for purposes of conducting trade. Although this was limited to Sephardim, a number of Ashkenazim were granted letters of safe passage and settled in the kingdom in the coming years.
Of special note is perhaps the story of Gabriel Milan, who converted to Christianity and became governor of the Danish West Indies in 1684, only to be executed in 1689 for corruption and abuse of office.
Establishment of permanent communities
Following the Thirty Years' War, which cost Denmark many of its possessions and created a fiscal crisis for the Danish crown, Frederik III proclaimed an absolute monarchy in Denmark. To improve trade, the king opened the door to greater immigration. The first Jewish community was founded in the newly established town of Fredericia in 1682, and in 1684 an Ashkenazi community was founded in Copenhagen.
By 1780, there were approximately 1600 Jews in Denmark, though all were admitted by special permission granted only on the basis of personal wealth. They were subject to a number of discriminatory restrictions of both social and economic character, and for a brief period in 1782 they were forced to attend Lutheran services. But they were not required to live in ghettos and had a significant degree of self-governance. Judging from art and writings from the time (particularly by the Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg), these early communities set themselves apart.
Integration into Danish life
As the Jewish enlightenment reached Denmark in the late 18th century, the king instituted a number of reforms to facilitate integration of Danish subjects into the larger Danish society. Jews were allowed to join guilds, study at the university, buy real estate, and establish schools.
The Napoleonic Wars and the disastrous Gunboat War brought about a complete emancipation of Danish Jews (while, in contrast, events in Norway resulted in a constitutional ban on Jews entering Norway). Still, there were severe antisemitic riots in Denmark in 1819 that were allowed to run their course for several months, though without any known fatalities.
On the other hand, the early 19th century saw a flourishing of Danish-Jewish cultural life. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen is a landmark building, designed by the architect G. F. Hetsch. A number of Jewish cultural personalities, among them the art benefactor and editor Mendel Levin Nathanson, the writer Meir Aron Goldschmidt, and founder of Politiken, Edvard Brandes; his brother literary critic Georg Brandes (who had a strong influence on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen), Henri Nathansen, and others rose to prominence in the Danish cultural landscape.
Growth and 20th century crises
As in many other societies, increasing integration also accelerated assimilation of Jews into mainstream Danish society, including higher rates of intermarriage. At the same time, events such as the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, the series of Russian revolutions, led to an influx of several thousand Jewish refugees into Denmark, of whom approximately 3,000 settled in Denmark.
The new arrivals changed the character of Danish Jewry significantly. More likely to be socialist Bundists than religious, they founded a Yiddish theater and several Yiddish newspapers. These proved to be short-lived, however, and Denmark closed its door to further immigration in the early 1920s.
The Nazi era
In April 1933, Christian X was scheduled to appear at the central synagogue in Copenhagen to celebrate its centennial anniversary. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933, the community leaders suggested that the king postpone his visit. The king insisted, however, and became the first Nordic monarch to visit a synagogue.
A period of tension ensued, for the Danish population in general and its Jewish citizens in particular. Danish policy sought to ensure its independence and neutrality by placating the neighboring Nazi regime. When Denmark was put under Germany military occupation as a result of Operation Weserübung on April 9 1940, the situation became increasingly precarious.
In 1943, the situation came to a head when Werner Best, the German plenipotentiary in Denmark ordered the arrest and deportation of all Danish Jews, scheduled to commence on October 1, which coincided with Rosh Hashanah. However, the Jewish community was given advance warning, and only 202 were arrested initially. As it turned out, 7,550 fled to Sweden, ferried across the Øresund strait. 450 Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In the course of their incarceration, Danish authorities often interceded on their behalf (as they did for other Danes in German custody), sending food.
Of the 450 Jews who were deported, 52 died during deportation.
The number of Jews living in Denmark today is not known. According to the rosters of the synagogues, there are approximately 2,500 members in Denmark. However, the estimated number of people who consider themselves to be Jewish may be around 7,000-9,000 out of a total population of 5.5 million. Almost all Jews are very integrated into main-stream Danish society.
By all accounts, Danish society has maintained a safe and friendly environment for its Jewish minority. There are three active synagogues in Denmark today, all in Copenhagen. The larger congregation in Krystalgade is inclusive of its members, though follows a traditional liturgy. The Machsike Hadas Synagogue is a small Orthodox synagogue, and Chabad has a presence in Copenhagen. Shir Hatzafon is the Progressive Jewish synagogue and community in Denmark.
In addition, there are two Jewish periodicals published in Danish: Rambam, published by Selskabet for Dansk-Jødisk Historie; and Alef, a journal of Jewish culture.
- Conrad Kisch: The Jewish community in Denmark: history and present status - From all their habitations
- Official website for the Jewish community in Denmark
- Shir Hatzafon - Progressive Judaism in Denmark
- Society for Danish-Jewish History/Rambam
- Jewish Genealogical Society in Denmark
- The Jews of Denmark – a Bibliography, website of The Royal Library, Denmark
- Jews in Denmark
History of the Jews in Europe Sovereign
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