As Holocaust survivors and world leaders made their way to the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet troops, some 5,000 miles away in Sandy Springs, Ga., a Holocaust remembrance event was held at the city’s Performing Arts Center focused on the efforts of the Danes to save Denmark’s Jews.
The Jan. 26 Sandy Springs event held on the eve of the anniversary drew 1,000 attendees to Atlanta’s satellite city, according to figures provided by Am Israel Chai, the Zionist organization that has been promoting a worldwide “Living Holocaust Memorial” by planting 1.5 million daffodils in memory of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust and in support of all children suffering in genocides and other humanitarian crises in the world today.
Rabbi Bent Melchior, the former chief rabbi of Denmark, recounted his experiences dating back to October 1943, when he and his family escaped by boat to Sweden, which had offered asylum to Denmark’s Jews all of whom were slated for execution in the Nazi extermination camps.
While the Nazis at the beginning of World War II allowed Denmark’s self-rule, in 1943 following Germany’s defeats in Russia at Stalingrad and in North Africa, its hands-off policy was abandoned in favor of a crackdown on resistance activities and a roundup of the country’s 8,000 or so Jewish population for extermination.
Mr. Melchior was 14-years-old at the time. He recalled packing a bag with socks, underwear and mathematics books and then accompanying his family to a remote village where his father knew a priest who provided shelter. The feeling of leaving their cozy flat and comfortable life for the unknown has remained with him his entire life, he said, and provided him with an affinity for refugees around the world.
His father was the acting chief rabbi in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, and had been alerted of the roundup scheduled to occur on the eve of Rosh Hashanah when Jews were either to celebrate their New Year at home or in a synagogue. The elder Melchior got the word out to the Jewish community to flee preventing the capture of all but 800 who were sent to the camps.
Sweden, which was neutral in the war, accepted the Jews who were shipped to their coast by Danish fishing boats and small crafts. Although he said that the German soldiers based in Denmark appreciated being in a country where there was food — Denmark provided 10 percent of Germany’s food during the war — and they could date blonde women. But once the orders were to roundup the Jews, the Gestapo went to work capturing as many as they could.
The Danes had made no preparations, he added, but succeeded in transporting the vast majority of Jews to Sweden because of their innate abilities to improvise. “The Danes are not very good at organization,” he said. “Germans and Swedes are better organized. You know that because the Danes don’t have a car while the Germans have VW and the Swedes have Volvos” drawing a bit of levity from his audience.
He substantiated his argument by alluding to the 1992 EUFA European Football (Soccer) Championship, which Denmark won even though it has been disqualified. The team had qualified only after Yugoslavia was disqualified as a result of the breaking into a war which led to the breakup of the country.
Although originally not scheduled to play, the Danes managed to rise to the occasion and win the competition against seven other teams in the tournament including the first team representing a reunited Germany.
Similarly the Danes had had no plan to counter the Nazi roundup. “There was no plan,” Mr. Melchior added, “and the Germans (apparently somewhat in disbelief) looked for one but couldn’t find any.”
By the time he was 18 years old, he said that he wanted to help establish a country where Jewish refugees could be safe and eventually fought, despite his lack of any military experience, with the Haganah, the main paramilitary organization which later became the core of the Israel Defense Forces.
His experiences have caused him to discount heroism, but he praised the majority of Danes for the courage of helping the Jews “even at the cost of their lives. They hid Jews wherever they could — in hospitals, in ambulances, anywhere.”
Toward the end of his remarks, he contrasted the disregard of the rest of Europe and America to the aims of the Nazis in the 1930s with the presence of his older brother as a witness at the Nuremberg trials following the war.
“Why did they want him as a witness,” he asked rhetorically, “so that he could show that if there is a will, there is a way. People were willing to risk their lives for their fellow man.”
Mr. Melchior’s account included many other reminiscences of the trauma of the time and of his family’s eight-plus hours to gain the Swedish coast as well as the lifelong relationship he formed with a Swedish family who took in his family.
His reminiscence underscored the remarks made the officials who opened the ceremony including Andrea Yidelefsky, president of Am Israel Chai; Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul; Israel’s consul general Anat Sultan-Dadon; Denmark’s honorary consul general, Chris Smith and Rabbi Menace Goldberger.
Following the lighting of a series of candles by Holocaust survivors, the officials decried the rise of anti-semitism both in Europe and the United States. Keeping to the theme, Mr. Smith cited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonition that “Now is always the right time to do the right thing.”