An Extraordinary Operation

Danish village street with farmer’s wife and milkman. Hans Andersen Brendekilde, c.1880

In his book, The Life of Reason, the American (Spanish-born) philosopher and poet George Santayana (1864-1952) wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The statement occurs in the context of his argument that human progress requires retentiveness; it needs continuity, not change. To make progress, he would have us understand, remembering the past is critical.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has an interesting spin on Santayana’s aphorism. In “The Inscrutability of History,” Chapter 7 in his book War and the American Presidency [2005], Schlesinger suggests reversing Santayana’s statement. He writes: “too often it is those who can remember the past who are condemned to repeat it.” Living in the Middle East, as I do, I can attest to the painful truth in Schlesinger’s insight. Many attempts to make peace have failed because one, or both sides, could not forget what happened in the past.

Nevertheless, there is much sense in Santayana’s statement concerning what happens when we cannot remember the past. I heard it recited by a tour guide at Auschwitz, for instance, in October 2018, and immediately understood why she quoted it.

We commemorate events annually—holidays, birthdays, weddings, the death dates of loved ones—all of them memorable occasions. But there is one set of remembrances I recall every morning, every day, at the end of the Morning Prayer. They are called “The Six Remembrances”—six passages taken from the biblical books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. They are, in order: Deut. 16:3, Deut. 4:9-10, Deut. 25:17-19, Deut. 9:7, Deut. 24:9 and Exod. 20:8. “The Six Remembrances” force me to recall specific commandments and experiences that are part of my people’s history that I should never forget.

I once worked for a Dane. He was an extraordinary boss. I remember one year sitting across from him in his office for my annual review. Papers documenting my past year’s accomplishments were on the desk in front of him. He paged through them, rather carelessly, I thought, then shoved them aside and looked me squarely in the eye. “There’s only one question,” he said. “If I were in a trench during wartime would I want you standing there next to me? Yes,” he replied, answering the question himself. Part of his Viking heritage surfaced from time to time.

He was proud of Denmark, where he had been born, and often told me things about the country. I remember one lunchtime walk with him and some of my co-workers. We strolled down to the Delaware River, not far from our office in Philadelphia. A Danish sailing ship for training naval cadets had docked there. He wanted us all to see it. His face was beaming the whole time. Indeed, the ship was an impressive sight.

From time to time, he mentioned the rescue of Denmark’s Jews during World War II. I was familiar with the story. I want to share a description of it from the book, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz. She records it in Appendix A of the book, where she documents the fate of Jews during the Holocaust, by country. Here is what she writes about the Jews in wartime Denmark. [ Note: “Best” refers to SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Werner Best, the Wehrmacht commanding general in Denmark.]

Despite efforts by Himmler and other top Germans to convince the Danes that the Jews were an alien element, Jews remained under the protection of the Danish government. No anti-Jewish legislation was enacted and no Jewish property was expropriated. No Jews were ousted from government posts.  After Denmark came under martial law, Best tried to deport the Danish Jews. His plans, confided to a German shipping industrialist, were reported on September 28 to Danish Social Democratic leaders. The Germans had scheduled the roundup of the Jews for October 1, 1943, but in an extraordinary operation involving the whole Danish people and the agreement of the Swedish government, nearly all Danish Jews were hidden and then ferried across to Sweden, where they remained in safety until the end of the war. The Germans managed to round up some four hundred Jews, whom they sent to Theresienstadt. The internment of the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt agitated the Danish government, which repeatedly requested permission to inspect the camp. In June 1944 such permission was granted, and the visit was made by delegates of the Danish Red Cross. As a consequence of persistent Danish interest in the deported Jews, none was sent to Auschwitz. At the end of the war, fifty-one had died in Theresienstadt of natural causes.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S.. The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945 (pp. 373-374).

This rescue is a unique event in Holocaust history. For me, it is a special remembrance on October 1. I am grateful to the people of Denmark and Sweden for what they did. The memory of what they or their parents or grandparents did for Jews during the war is a blessing—an episode of noble humanitarianism that we should all remember. May the peoples of Denmark and Sweden always enjoy the sweet fruits of peace!

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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