Jewish Copenhagen

Feature by Willard Manus

Copenhagen, wonderful Copenhagen, as Danny Kaye once sang.

The very name is beautiful to say--and all the adjectives it suggests have to do with beauty. Copenhagen--which literally means Merchant's House--has everything that the world can offer. It has Amsterdam's canals, the palaces of Paris, Rome's arcades, London's commercial buildings, the skyscrapers of New York--well, one or two of them, anyway--and the pagodas of China. A wide range of European architectural period styles since the Gothic are represented without becoming emporium, pastiche or museum.

In many cities, opposites shriek unintegrated. In Copenhgaen they come together in a sort of restrained dialogue, where the speeches do not exclude, but supplement each other--not noisily and violently, but subtly, imperceptibly, at work everywhere.

In the old houses are many new flats; in the new, old furniture. In the oldest quarters are the most ultramodern buildings; in the new residential areas live the most conservative inhabitants. But essentially Copenhagen is a city filled with red and grey roofs from which green-bronze towers sprout like rococo stalagmites. The city has preserved this network of quaint, narrow winding streets in one part, and the broader, straighter, more distinguished avenues of another still lend the town a grace and air of respectable age.

Copenhagen and the Jews have always got on well together. The shared history goes back to 1684, when Israel David and Meyer Goldschmidt, unofficial bankers to the court of Denmark, were granted permission to hold religious services at home. Over the next three centuries the Jews enjoyed more and more freedom and prosperity in the city.

The relationship culminated in 1943 when Christian Danes saved the entire Jewish community, some 7,000 lives, from Hitler's final solution. Jews were hidden in homes, churches and funeral parlors until they could be safely smuggled out to neutral Sweden.

Today, some ten thousand Jews live in Denmark, mostly in the capital city of Copenhagen. There is no recognizable Jewish quarter, but at 12 Krystalgade sits the Great Synagogue, which was erected in 1833. When it celebrated its 125th anniversary, it had the Royal Family in attendance.

While the synagogue's exterior is unprepossessing, its interior is something special: all white-and-gold elegance, with a two-story-high sanctuary, tall pillars and a brightly-decocrated ceiling. A full complement of services are held here, with a Sunday morning study group (in Danish, of course).

The Torahs of the Great Synagogue were hidden from the Nazis in the church adjoining the nearby Round Tower, which has a Tetragrammaton etched over its entrance.

The Resistance Museum, on Esplanaden, has stirring exhibits from the 1943 rescue, and the Royal Library (8 Christians Brygge) owns one of the best Judaica collections in the world. The Jewish community center at 6 Ny Kongensgade also has a small museum and a gift shop (and a mikvah).

In Israel Square, near the city flower market, can be found a stone sculpture, a gift of friends of Denmark in Israel. A colorful flea market fills the square on weekends.

Statistic show that, relatively, there are more people selling antiques, books and flowers in Copenhagen than in most cities. (The Danes speak their second language English so well that many Danish books are published in simultaneous English editions).

After a few days in Copenhagen a visitor feels he has known it all his life. The reason why? Copenhagen was built for human scale. It's a city for people, not machines.