Recognizing uncommon valor

History: An exhibition at Western Maryland College depicts the actions of Danes who risked their lives to help about 6,000 Jews escape Hitler's forces.

October 07, 2001|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,SUN STAFF

Before the rise of Germany's Adolph Hitler, Jews in Denmark played an important role in the modernization of Danish society through business, manufacturing, and scientific endeavors.

Many Danish pioneers of the early and mid-1900s were of Jewish descent, including Niels Bohr, the nuclear physicist who revolutionized his field with his 1911 doctoral thesis on the structure of the atom. Jews were partners in business and helped foster the growth of Danish society and economy.

But in 1941, Hitler began his campaign to exterminate Jews throughout Europe. By 1943, when the Nazis had reached Denmark, they had murdered 2.1 million Jews in the Soviet Union, 550,000 in Hungary, 2.7 million in Poland, more than 60,000 in Austria and about as many in France, and at least 6,500 in Italy.

In October 1943, a little-known effort by the Danes to assist their Jewish compatriots escape from the slaughter began. Hundreds of Danes helped Jews hide for days in the woods, in shacks and in homes while they waited for Danish fishing boats to carry them to freedom a few miles away in Sweden. The nighttime excursions of the fishing boats aroused little suspicion because October was herring season.

Thursday marked the opening at Western Maryland College of "October 1943: The Rescue of the Danish Jews from Annihilation," an exhibition that shows how these rescues were possible.

The exhibition, funded by the Royal Danish Embassy, features about 30 posters with pictures of and information about the events of the Danish rescues.

Paul B. Miller, an assistant professor of modern European history at WMC, brought the exhibition to the college. He said the posters have been displayed at a number of venues all over the world, and most recently at the Capitol in Washington.

"I had heard about the exhibit, and I worked to get it here," Miller said.

He said the students taking his course on the history of the Holocaust will be required to see the exhibit.

Miller said the exhibition offers an important lesson.

"Very few people know about the ordinary [Danish] people organizing an effort on the spur of the moment. It wasn't the case that every [European] country assisted Hitler and the Germans."

The exhibition highlights the camaraderie between Jews and Danes that compelled many Danish citizens to risk their lives and freedom to aid their compatriots in the rescues.

Karen Cantor, a Holocaust historian who is directing a documentary film about the events of October 1943, said the exhibition very accurately depicts what occurred during the series of rescues.

"I think [the exhibition] is important because it embodies who the Danes were. Everybody there rose overnight to help their countrymen. It shows what kind of people they were," said Cantor, who has done extensive research on the rescues, winning funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to help complete her documentary. She estimates that at least 6,000 Jews were rescued by the Danes in October 1943.

Although this number is comparatively small, the act was important, Miller said.

"The event was, in many ways, small in terms of the [Holocaust's] history, [but] people need to see how [the Danes] stood behind their fellow citizens at a risk - a serious risk."

The exhibition, in WMC's Peterson Hall, will be on display weekdays from noon to 4 p.m. through Oct. 31. Admission is free. Information: 410-857-2595.

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