Travel | World

Copenhagen Jewish museum worth finding

The Dansk Jodisk Museum in Copenhagen has 250 Torah binders dating back to the 1750s. [Mary L. Peachin)

While visiting any new city, following hotel check-in most guests take a moment to look at tour books or “where to go” information the hotel provides. Copenhagen was no different. How would we spend several days?

A Torah scroll from a provincial Danish congregation at the Dansk Jodisk Museum. Most provincial Jewish congregations closed by the early 20th century, as members moved to Copenhagen or left Denmark. [Mary L. Peachin)

After checking a few restaurant menus, museums, and even a palace, I noticed a simple bold red square saying “Dansk Jodisk Jewish Museum.” It sounded intriguing, but there was no address, only a URL. As it was a beautiful sunny day, we decided to take a morning canal tour, view the new location of the famous Little Mermaid, lunch on some fine Danish herring, and then search out the museum.

Departing the restaurant, I turned on Google Maps and we started walking … walking … and walking. The streets were crowded with shoppers and retail stores of all types. The blocks became longer as our confidence in Siri waned. Where we started walking in circles, I noticed a woman sitting at a street-side table, licking a delicious looking ice cream cone. We asked to join her and told her we were lost.

She was familiar with Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue, but didn’t know the Dansk Jodisk Museum. Equally curious, she excused herself to quickly ask a friend, then offered to lead us there.

Returning to the vicinity where we had enjoyed our herring, we walked a few more blocks and found the museum.

Seriously concerned about safety, many of Europe’s synagogues and museums now have protective barricades as well as requiring advance reservations, along with a copy of your passport, in order for visitors to gain admission. This was not the case in Copenhagen. While the small museum is discreetly tucked adjacent to Copenhagen’s Royal Library, its door was open. A single police car, which might have been there coincidentally or as security, was parked down the street.

A museum brochure expounds on architect Daniel Libeskind’s interior space, built within an existing historic space. The brick building dates back to the 17th century, when King Christian IV built the Royal Boat House. In 1906 it became part of the Royal Library.  Near the end of the 20th century, the library was refurbished with a waterfront extension of polished black granite cladding and irregular angles known as the Black Diamond.

Libeskind describes the museum’s corridor space as a sort of text running within a frame made up of many other surfaces, drawing a parallel with the way Jewish core texts such as the Talmud are presented surrounded by commentary. He adds that the space is shaped in the form of the four letters of the Hebrew word “mitzvah.” 

Perhaps we missed the architectural symbolism by getting caught up with the objects, such as a Nazi yellow star with the word “Jude,” donated by families sharing their memorabilia with a public audience.

Copenhagen’s Jewish history begins around 1620, when King Christian IV invited “Portuguese” (Sephardic) Jews to settle in Denmark as a means of building economic growth. The majority of Jewish arrivals were successful merchants from Amsterdam and Hamburg, and they were given broad trading privileges and religious freedom. In the late 17th century, some “German” (Ashkenazi) Jews were allowed to settle, and they were allowed to practice their religion, albeit not openly. During the early 20th century, more than 10,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe passed through Copenhagen. While the majority were bound for the United States, approximately 3,000 mostly poor, Yiddish-speaking Jews remained.

Despite concerns about these new arrivals awakening anti-Semitism, the well-established middle and upper-class Jews collected money to help the poorest Jews and worked to integrate newcomers into Danish Jewish society.

During World War II, in 1943, Denmark’s Jews were warned of a Nazi mass deportation. Sweden offered asylum, and with the help of the Danes, some 7,800 Danish Jews were smuggled to safety in Sweden on fishing boats — a shining moment in history.

Between 1969 and 1973 almost 3,000 Jews from communist Poland fled to Denmark. Although Denmark adopted a liberal policy toward the Polish refugees, the government discouraged publicity out of fear for the Jews still waiting to leave. Public knowledge of this group of refugees remains limited.

Today, treasures and memorabilia from more than 400 years of Danish-Jewish history are on display in the Dansk Jodisk Museum. Our new friend, who led the way, enjoyed a most unexpected afternoon.

Take time to find this museum.

Tucson native Mary Levy Peachin is a freelance travel writer and book author who specializes in scuba diving and sport fishing articles. She has visited and written about all seven continents.