Jewish Denmark - Brief Historical Overview [1]

The history of the Jews in Denmark is over 400 years long. Some families arrived from Hamburg and Amsterdam as early as the 1620s. Others set out from Eastern Europe in the 1920s – heading for the United States and the American dream, they ended up in Copenhagen because they did not have enough money to complete their journey.

Though a very small minority group, the Jewish people in Denmark have made significant contributions to the economic, political, cultural and scientific development of Denmark. And the rescue of the Jews during World War II is an important chapter in both Jewish and modern Danish history.

The first arrivals

Simon Isac Kalkar, 1754-1812

The first Jews arrived in Denmark at the invitation of King Christian IV (1588-1648). Aiming to propel trade and economic growth, the King gave the Sephardic Jews – the majority of whom were successful merchants from Amsterdam and Hamburg – extensive trading privileges and freedom from religious persecution. Prominent Jews held high ranking positions, including physician to the royal family and governor of the Danish West Indies.

The Yiddish wave

In the early part of the 20th century, over 10,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe passed though Copenhagen. Most of them were on their way to the United States. However, about 3,000 stayed – they did not have sufficient funds to complete the last leg of their planned journey. The “new Jews” were poor. They spoke Yiddish and lived in close quarters in the poorest neighborhoods of Copenhagen. Many of the Russian Jews were socialists, Zionists or ultra orthodox Jews.

Poor Jews in Denmark

The well-established middle and upper-class Jews in Copenhagen were afraid that this new wave of Jews arriving would negatively impact their smooth relationship with the general Danish population. They collected money to help the poorest Jews and worked to integrate the new Jews into Danish Jewish society.

The 20th century

From 1933-39, approximately 4,500 Jewish refugees passed through Denmark. Some were allowed to stay on temporarily as farming students bound for Palestine. But as a general rule, Denmark did not allow German refugees to settle in Denmark at this time.

By the beginning of World War II, about 7,800 Jews lived in Denmark. In 1943, Danish politicians warned the Jewish community that the Nazis planned a mass deportation of the community. Events unfolded rapidly. On Rosh Hashanah 1943, Rabbi Melchior urged his congregants to go into hiding and plan an escape to nearby Sweden. The greater Danish population sprang into action, smuggling nearly all of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden on fishing boats.

From 1968-1973, around 3,000 Polish Jews arrived as refugees in Copenhagen. Like the Eastern European Jews who came before them, they found the Danish Jewish culture quite different from their own.

To read more about the history of the Jews in Denmark, go to the Danish Jewish Museum’s website. [2]