This week marks a special moment for Denmark’s small Jewish community, as the country’s only Jewish school moves into a new purpose-built building three years after a deadly terror attack on the community in Copenhagen.
This coming Monday will be a day of mixed emotions for supporters of Caroline Jewish Day School. With the unveiling of its “beautiful new buildings”, Danish Jews will also remember almost three years to the day, when the 7,000-strong Jewish community was shocked to its core by a deadly Islamist attack in the capital.
At the Jewish community centre that day, 15 February 2015, were Ronen and Charlotte Thalmay, guests at a batmitzvah party.
“After midnight, a guard came in screaming ‘stop the music, run to the basement,’” recalls Charlotte, vice-president of the Zionist Federation in Denmark.
A second security guard, Dan Uzan, had been shot and killed outside by a radicalised Muslim man whose intention was to force his way in.
The attacker escaped and a Danish anti-terror unit arrived to evacuate 40 adults and children who had been hiding for more than two hours in a tiny basement room.
“Nobody knew if more terrorists were waiting to shoot from a rooftop out there in the dark,” says Ronen, the lead singer in the klezmer band Mazel, who runs the Jewish Copenhagen tour company.
“For everyone, especially the kids, it was a very traumatic experience. There was no phone signal, so we couldn’t reach family and friends, and the chaotic noise of people running around upstairs led people to fear the worst.”
They, like other Danish Jews, had been watching news of anti-Semitic attacks in Belgium, Sweden, France and elsewhere and, only three weeks before Uzan was killed, Islamist terrorists had attacked both the offices of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.
The Danish community was already living with a sense of unease. In 2012, the Israeli Embassy in Copenhagen warned Jewish tourists to refrain from wearing Jewish symbols on the street or speaking Hebrew loudly.
In 2014, in the aftermath of Israeli operations in Gaza, the private Caroline Jewish Day School in Copenhagen told its pupils not to wear religious symbols near school grounds for security reasons, arguing that it was “a consequence of being a Jewish institution”.
Yet in spite of the many dramatic events over the past 400 years, Danish Jews are “still living a prosperous life in a vibrant community”, says Charlotte.
In 1622, the first Jews arrived at the invitation of King Christian IV, who was hoping famous Jews would help boost trade. Merchants from places like Amsterdam and Hamburg came to settle. “They had extensive trading privileges and freedom from religious persecution,” says Ronen.
In the early 20th century, pogroms in Russia and the east forced more than 100,000 America-bound Jews through the port city of Copenhagen, where 3,000 decided to stay but, unlike 300 years earlier, the newcomers did not get the best welcome.
“Danish Jews were afraid the wave of Jews arriving would negatively impact their smooth relationship with the general population,” says Ronen.
Charlotte’s great-grandfather, Salomon Bornstein, was one such immigrant, working up to 20 hours a day to establish what became a successful clothing factory.
Within a generation, reluctant hosts were heroes, as the Nazis occupied Denmark. In September 1943, Hitler ordered the arrest and deportation of all Danish Jews.
“Despite great personal risk, Danes spontaneously organised a rescue operation and helped Jews reach the Danish coast, where brave fishermen then ferried them to neutral Sweden,” explains Ronen.
“In cooperation with the Danish resistance movement, they managed to evacuate approximately 7,000 Danish Jews, plus around 600 non-Jewish spouses.”
The small community is proud of its history and contribution, listing famous Danish Jews including Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, entertainer Victor Borge and Oscar-winning film director Susanne Bier.
The state continues to protect its Jewish minority, giving $20million (£14m) per year in security funding, with the help of Denmark’s police and military. Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen told a Rosh Hashanah reception in September 2015 that Danish Jews “are and will always be an invaluable part of Danish society”.
That society now has “beautiful new buildings” to celebrate on Monday, when the school reopens. Founded in 1805, it has an enrolment of about 170 Jewish students aged between six and 16.
Charlotte says: “The Jewish school’s reopening [in new buildings] will ensure Jewish life in Denmark for many years to come.”
However, she adds: “For the first time in 400 years of Danish Jewish history, we were met by military when we arrived for the Kol Nidrei service last year,” she says. “Things have changed in this beautiful peaceful country of ours.”
Clockwise from top: Charlotte and Ronen Thalmay were at the synagogue, where Jewish volunteer security guard Dan Uzan was killed. Above: A woman lays flowers in tribute
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.
By Joe Millis