Recognizing uncommon valor

History: An exhibition at Western Maryland College depicts the actions of Danes who risked their lives to help 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 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.

In October 1943, a little-known effort by the Danes to assist their Jewish compatriots escape 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.

"October 1943: The Rescue of the Danish Jews from Annihilation," an exhibition that shows how these rescues were possible, opened Thursday at Western Maryland College. Funded by the Royal Danish Embassy, the exhibition features about 30 posters with photographs 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 venues all over the world.

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."

Karen Cantor, a Holocaust historian who is directing a documentary film about the events of October 1943, said the exhibition accurately depicts what occurred during the series of rescues: It "embodies who the Danes were. Everybody there rose overnight to help their countrymen. It shows what kind of people they were," said Cantor. She estimates that at least 6,000 Jews were rescued by the Danes.

Although this number is comparatively small, the act was important, Miller said: "People need to see how [the Danes] stood behind their fellow citizens at a risk - a serious risk."

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

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