Tuesday's opening of a Daniel Libeskind-designed Jewish museum in Denmark casts light on one of the few happy chapters in WWII history: the rescue of 7,000 Danish Jews from Nazi persecution.
Copenhagen's new architectural jewel
Unlike the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which from a distance resembles a silver spacecraft, Copenhagen's new Danish Jewish Museum is not so easy to find. Only after you’ve entered the lovely and almost hidden garden of the Royal Library do you discover the first traces of new architecture along the classical 1906 brick building. Two white marks on the pebbled path lead you to a gray marble piazza. There you find a massive door bearing a sign with the Hebrew word mitzvah, or "a good dead."
"It is referring to the Danish rescue of the Jews in 1943, mitzvah, a good deed," says museum director Janne Lauresen. "This Jewish museum tells a unique story no other Jewish museum can."
Postcards from Theresienstadt: 500 Danish Jews were sent to concentration camps, but most survived.
The museum, which opened in Copenhagen on Tuesday, features exhibits on the history, culture, and art of Danish Jews since the 17th century. The building’s unusual design and the concept for the exhibitions are the work of celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
But what sets the museum apart from its predecessors is Denmark's unique World War II history.
Sailing to Sweden
In October 1943, when news of the imminent deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps reached Denmark, 7,000 Jews were hidden overnight, and within several weeks they were brought in fishing boats to neutral Sweden. Some Jews failed to escape and were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, but most survived the war and were welcomed back to Denmark.
Libeskind's architecture can be disorienting, in this case evoking the difficult journey of Denmark's Jews to Sweden.
Liebeskind wanted to convey a sense of what the Danish Jews went through as they fled from the Nazis. At the same time, he also wanted to convey the moral courage of many Danes, which was unique in Europe during World War II.
"The floor gives you the atmosphere of being at sea because it isn't level," she says. "You lose the sense of having solid ground beneath your feet, which is exactly the same feeling the Jews had going in ships to Sweden."
History in a shoebox
For a modern-day Jewish museum, the exhibition space is remarkably small, especially for displaying 300 years of history. With its mere 300 square meters, the nearly hidden building was too small, in fact, to accommodate the guests invited by the Danish Queen Margrethe II for the opening festivities. According to Kent Matinussen, director of the Danish Architecture Museum, this is the site where Copenhagen became the seat of Danish power 800 years ago.
"It's the court of the royal library, and it's actually on the very foundations of the capital of Denmark," he says. "It's a very small island in the center of the city."
The royal boathouse, which is where the museum proper is located, was also used as a marine armory by King Christian IV, the same monarch who invited the first Jews to Denmark in 1619.
A model of Daniel Libeskind's design.
The rescue of nearly all Danish Jews during the Holocaust is only one part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. Visitors also learn a lot about the history of Jews in Denmark, about Jewish religious and cultural traditions and daily life.