Memorials and memorial culture

Memorials exhibit historical events from many angles – depending on when they are erected, for what purpose and by whom. At the same time, different national myths, ideals and current political needs motivate the creation of the individual memorials. The memorials which have been raised in remembrance of the wartime experiences of the Danish Jews bear witness to fundamental characteristics of the post-war memorial culture in Denmark, Israel and the United States.

Examination of how the wartime experiences of the Danish Jews have been represented and interpreted in the post-war memorial culture makes it possible to identify three distinct phases: The period from the end of the war to around 1960, the period from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s and finally the period from the end of the 1980s to today.

For Denmark's Freedom, 1945-1960

Memorial culture in Denmark in the first years after the war was characterized by an overriding focus on national feeling and the resistance struggle. The flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in October 1943 was not presented as an event in its own right on the memorials. Instead the event   was presented in various ways as an implicit element in the history of the illegal Danish refugee transports to Sweden, and, in a broader context, as an integrated part of the story of the Danish resistance struggle and its victims. The memorials do not distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish refugees or between refugee transports in October 1943 and the illegal routes in general.

In 1946, Danish-Jewish society erected a memorial in memory of the Danish Jews who died in  the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In the more general Danish memorial culture, however, the Danish Jewish victims and the cause of their deaths were not specifically mentioned on the memorials.  There are no references to their Jewish background, to the Nazi persecution of the Jews nor to the roundup of the Jews in October 1943. Instead the deceased with Jewish background  appear under headings such as "In memory for those who fell in the struggle for Denmark" and "For Denmark's Freedom". The Jewish victims were in this way enrolled in the national  narrative of resistance, which dominated memorial culture in the early post-war years.
The strong patriotic and resistance-oriented focus in the immediate post-war period should definitely be viewed in light of the desire to divert attention from the cooperation policy Denmark had pursued during the early years of the occupation. While in the first years after the war there was tremendous activity in the memorial culture, it dropped off markedly in the 1950s. The national rehabilitation and the narrative of Danish resistance, so necessary  in the early post-war years, gradually became less essential in accord with the new political reality at the start of the Cold War and Danish membership in NATO.

A Light in the Darkness , 1961-1987

It was not only in the formerly occupied countries that Nazi Germany's persecution and mass murder of the Jews occupied an insignificant place in the national memory in the first post-war years.  The same also applied in Germany and, in part, in the two countries where the greatest number of Jews lived after the Holocaust: the United States and Israel. But from the beginning of the 1960s, both Israeli and American memorial culture developed rapidly in a way that clearly influenced Danish memorial culture. 

The memory of the 6 million Jews who had perished entered seriously into the common Israeli memorial culture after the intensive media coverage of the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Awareness of the Holocaust also grew in the United States . As in Israel, it was first after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and perhaps especially after the Six Day War in 1967, that the Holocaust truly achieved a central place in the American consciousness. 

In accord with the rising focus on the Holocaust in Israel and the United States, awareness grew of the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden and the extraordinary story of the rescue – an event that, in relation to the rest of the images of the horrors of the Holocaust appeared as a unique light in the darkness.
Developments in Israel and the United States led to a long series of new memorials and ”gratitude monuments” which were raised on Israeli and American initiative, and erected both in Israel and Denmark. On the other hand, new monuments were not raised on Danish initiative. In Denmark the efforts to help the Jews in October 1943 was still primarily viewed as a chapter in the narrative of the achievements of the resistance, whereas, in Israel and the United States, a broader Holocaust perspective celebrated the rescue as "the light in the darkness."
The one-sided focus on the positive aspects of October 1943 meant that the memorials of this period focussed exclusively on the rescuers rather than the victims. Thus no new memorials were erected to commemorate the Danish Jews who died while fleeing, or the Danish Jews who were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. That the Holocaust had, so to speak, also affected Denmark was not recorded. Denmark was, and remained, a special case.

Part of the Holocaust, 1987 – today

In the course of the 1980s, and in particular after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a veritable explosion took place in the number of Holocaust monuments in Europe, Israel and the United States. Several thousand new memorials were unveiled, and this development also made its way into Denmark, where it culminated in the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Denmark's liberation in 1995.

In contrast to the early post-war years, the memorials of this period now refer clearly to the flight in October 1943 as an independent event. In contrast to the national categories of  "Danish" and "countrymen," are the clear references to the fact that the German persecution was aimed at Jews. And not only the positive aspects of October 1943 have been commemorated. In recent years, the  deportation of the Jews from Denmark to Theresienstadt concentration camp has also received particular commemoration in the memorial culture.

Within Jewish society in Denmark this breakthrough has been expressed in the decision to establish a Holocaust monument at the synagoge in Krystalgade and a monument for the Polish Jews who died in the Holocaust at the Western Jewish Cemetery. These monuments were raised as a result of pressure from the group of Polish Jews in Danmark, who came in the period 1969-1973 and had long desired a memorial which reflected their own memories of the war and the fates of their families.  Whereas 99% of the Danish Jews survived the Holocaust, in Poland the story was far  different.  Here over three million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and it was this memory that the Polish Jews brought with them to Denmark. These monuments illustrate clearly that there are greatly differing memories of the Second World War among the various groups of Jews in Denmark.

The many new memorials erected since the end of the 1980s suggest at first glance that memories of the wartime experiences of the Danish Jews are still alive. But there are also critics who see a connection between a rising interest in raising monuments and a slow progress towards oblivion with the disappearance of the last generations who personally experienced the war.

However, the rise in activity in recent years taken into consideration, there seems to be no sign that the last memorial has been erected for the wartime experiences of the Danish Jews.

Space and spaciousness

- an exhibition about Jews in Denmark

The exhibition is a broad story of Jewish life in Denmark and focuses on co-exixstence and indentity through 400 years. Read more...

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