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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: We can learn a lot from the WWII-era Danes

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 9:29 p.m. MDT

The undated photo shows German refugee children in a camp in Aarhus, Denmark, after World War II.

Erik Kragh, Associated Press

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During World War II, Denmark was the only one of the countries controlled by the Nazis besides Bulgaria that did not actively deport its Jews to their inevitable deaths in the concentration camps.

The book "Countryman" by Bo Lidegaard attempts to explain how this small country that shared a border with all-powerful Germany did something that, in varying degrees, other countries including France, Holland, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, Greece, Belgium, Poland and Romania, did not or could not do.

It may be due to the differing circumstances. Hitler felt the Danes were fellow Aryans. He wanted to use Denmark as the example of the future cooperating Europe and not the occupied empire of the conquering Third Reich.

Still, there was a difference in their king, their leaders and, in fact, the whole Danish society. The one overriding distinction between Denmark and the rest of Europe was that Denmark's government, from the beginning and especially before the war, made certain its people who were Jews were considered part of them. There was no "Jewish problem" because there was no "them" and "us." There were only fellow citizens.

Citizenship was the unifying identifier. There were no governmental lists of race or religion. To get names and addresses, the Germans had to steal from the library of the Jewish Community rather than have the information handed over by the Danish police.

In the fall of 1943, Berlin and the local governing German authorities finally pulled the trigger for arrests and deportation. The Gestapo moved in to arrest the “enemies of the state.” Those who admitted to their faith, had a name associated with Jewish ancestry or supposedly even looked like a child of Israel were put at risk for both their own lives and the lives of their families.

Here, too, the story of Denmark was different from that of neighboring countries. Fellow Danes helped their neighbors. Lutheran and other Christian leaders spoke up against the injustice. Labor unions and business associations protested.

More importantly, when a fellow Dane who happened to be Jewish asked for refuge, it was offered most often freely and without hesitation.

“The crucial point is that the refugees could count on their countrymen and engage friends, colleagues and neighbors, as a matter of course, in their efforts to find a way out,” Lidegaard wrote.

Yes, there were Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. But they were in the vast minority. The government had cooperated with outside rulers to arrest Communists and encourage them to volunteer for the Eastern Front to fight with their Russian comrades.

The story of the Danish King Christian riding his horse out to support his countrymen is true. Apparently, the tale that he wore a Star of David in solidarity is not true; Jews did not have to wear the star. They were one country. They were all his subjects.

Politicians came together to form a national unity party. They relied upon the law and one another. The whole country did. When the Germans invaded the offices of the Jewish Community, the treasurer confronted them.

“Axel Hertz … asked one of them in German: 'By what right do you come here?' He answered: 'By the right of the stronger,' to which Alex replied, still in German, 'That is no good right,’ ” Lidegaard wrote.

The sense of right was a product of an intentional persistent and consistent strategy of all major political opposing parties for a decade leading up to Axel Hertz’ defiance. Instead of dividing into their own political persuasions, they agreed to unify the country. It was more important to be a Dane than to be a Social Democrat or a Liberal or a member of Labor.

The Danes' example of building a society of "we" and not of "them" and "us" is in contrast to what is happening in America today. What is lacking here and today is the continued reminder that we are Americans first, most and always. We are not occupied by an invading force; we are dividing ourselves.

We can learn a lot from the Danes.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: jgcramermd@yahoo.com

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