Prior to the Nazi German occupation of Denmark on April 9, 1940, the Jewish population numbered approximately 7,500. About 6,000 of these were Danish citizens; most of the others were refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe. By 1943, as it became clear that the German occupiers planned to take actions against Denmark’s Jews, Danish authorities, in cooperation with Jewish community leaders and private citizens, organized a massive operation to smuggle Jews out of Denmark. Over the course of a month in autumn 1943, some 7,200 Jews and 700 of their non-Jewish relatives traveled safely to Sweden, which accepted the refugees. Nonetheless, the Germans did manage to capture and deport 472 Danish Jews to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where 53 died. Fifty more died after the escape to Sweden. In total, approximately 120 Danish Jews died during the Holocaust. Denmark’s Jewish community has one of the highest rates of survival for any German-occupied European country.
On May 4, 1945, German troops surrendered, and the next day, Denmark was officially free of Nazi German control. Jewish Holocaust survivors faced severe economic and emotional difficulties after the war. Jewish families had used their savings, sold valuables and property, and obtained improvised private loans to finance their escape to Sweden. During and after the German occupation, however, Danish authorities worked to ameliorate the consequences of Nazi persecution, and the Danish government implemented one of the most inclusive and comprehensive restitution laws in Europe, taking into account Jewish victims of deportation as well as victims of exile. The Danish state established a system for citizens to claim restitution only a week after the Nazis departed the country. The quality of the property restitution process Danish authorities put in place underlines their dedication to the reintegration of the Jewish community.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
On October 2, 1943, the day after the Nazi round-up of some Danish Jews and flight of the rest to Sweden, the Danish government tasked its social services agency with safeguarding their belongings. The agency had originally been set up in the spring of 1943 with the intention of providing shelter for people whose homes were destroyed or had to be abandoned temporarily because of incidents of war, primarily air raids. In October 1943, its responsibilities were extended to cover abandoned belongings and property. In the following months, the Social Service dealt with 1,970 inquiries about empty homes and other suspicious circumstances around the city. When the Social Service received an inquiry, its agents visited the residence, checked conditions, and made a complete inventory of the household effects. If it was possible to retain the apartment, the Social Service paid the rent for the rest of the occupation. In cases where the apartment had already been rented out again or circumstances indicated that it was being sublet, personal property and furniture were put in storage. In many cases, contracts with trustees for property and businesses were established with neighbors, relatives, and employees, preventing thefts and larceny.
In May 1945, the Danish government passed a law that allowed the country’s Jewish citizens to seek compensation for expropriated property. Because very poor and immigrant Jews were excluded (as the law stipulated a minimum amount to be claimed and only applied to citizens), the pool of applicants was small, and the law satisfied the claims received. The broader Claims Conference, established in 1951, covered only those Danish Jews who had been sent to Theresienstadt. As of mid-2019, the country’s Jewish community reported no outstanding claims for real property in Denmark.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art, Judaica, and Jewish Cultural Property
Museums in Denmark do not do full provenance research as a general matter, and the Ministry of Culture’s policy is that provenance research will only be carried out if a museum is faced with a restitution claim. The Jewish Museum, charged by the Danish state with memorializing the history of Danish Jews, has reported that there are no known instances of the Nazis having confiscated or looted Jewish art in Denmark. The only case the museum recounted, in which the Nazis took a chandelier from the Jewish Cultural Center, ended with a police report being filed and the chandelier returned. Some Jews later applied for compensation for missing movable property, but their claims were rejected due to lack of strong documentation. The Jewish Museum only receives donated objects and conducts rigorous provenance research on every item received. The Museum Law of 2006 stipulates that all artwork in Danish state museums or state‑subsidized museums must be registered with the Central Art Registry, though museums are not required to report the provenance.
Judaica in Denmark was spared the worst of the Holocaust desecrations committed elsewhere on the continent. The country’s Torahs were hidden and saved, for example, and the impressive Judaica collection of the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen is testament to the country’s efforts.
Access to Archival Documents
The Jewish Museum has functioned as the central repository of archival material on the Jewish community in Denmark over the last 400 years. This material, by dint of the dedication of the museum staff and the 2006 Museum Law, is widely accessible to the public. The Museum Law states that “through collecting, registering, preserving, researching and disseminating, the museums shall i) work to safeguard Denmark’s cultural and natural heritage; ii) illuminate cultural, natural, and art history; iii) enhance the collections and documentation within their respective areas of responsibility; iv) make the collections and documentation accessible to the general public; and v) make the collections and documentation accessible for research and communicate the results of such research.” The Jewish Museum’s archival collection and its resolve to expand its scope of evidentiary materials have helped families discover their sometimes hidden linkages to the Holocaust, Theresienstadt, and the flight to Sweden. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has long enjoyed productive cooperation with Denmark’s governmental archives.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
The Jewish Museum, as a state-subsidized museum, has ensured that the history of Denmark’s Jews and the Holocaust are preserved. Guidelines from the Ministry of Education mark the October 1943 rescue of Denmark’s Jews as a key event in Danish history, and that history is part of Danish schoolchildren’s education. Many teachers discuss the Holocaust in the classroom and take their students to see relevant exhibitions at the Jewish Museum. Denmark is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The country holds commemorations on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 and on special anniversaries of the October 1943 rescue. Commemorative stones are also dotted along Denmark’s coastlines to mark the locations where boats secretly ferried more than 7,200 Jews across the waters to Sweden in defiance of the Nazi occupiers.