October 2, 2013

An awe-inspiring Danish legacy

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In 1943, a clandestine operation helped most of Denmark’s jews escape to nearby Sweden. In recognition, an NGO is honouring the Danish people

The Holocaust was the darkest chapter in human history, but there were many beacons of light. Denmark’s singular example of collective solidarity was one of the brightest examples of the latter.

The facts are crystal clear. During the Holocaust, Denmark was the only Nazi-occupied country that defied Germany’s orders to deport its Jewish population.

The Nazis, with their ruthless and systematic killing machine, were faced by the brave Danish people who actively organized and orchestrated a swift rescue operation of epic proportions.

Individual acts of rescue were seen all across Europe. No doubt about it. Women and men, from all religions, ideologies, social classes and nationalities, engaged in life-saving efforts, reaching out to the victims of the Nazi extermination machine. Yet, such a collective determination as shown by the Danish people was unprecedented.

Following the tip-off from a German official, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who revealed in September 1943 his government’s plan to deport the Danish Jews to concentration camps, the Danish resistance and common Danish citizens set into motion a Hollywood-like rescue operation; in a matter of two weeks, from the first of October, with the help of local fishermen, they rescuers managed to ferry some 7,200 Jews to neighboring Sweden.

In spite of this remarkable feat, almost 500 Danish Jews were left behind and eventually deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, but the Danes did not give up on them. They relentlessly pressured the Germans, succeeding in saving most of the Ghetto inmates.

We are proud to lead the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF), a global-reach NGO based in New York, whose mission is to research, preserve and spread around the legacies of the rescuers.  Having thoroughly researched this phenomenon, we feel privileged to have contributed to the recognition of many unknown rescuers, incorporating their feats in our educational programs for the young generations.

Despite the long time elapsed, we are amazed to be able to unearth further stories, hitherto unknown.

Earlier this month, for instance, we paid posthumous tribute in Yerevan to Dr. Harutyun Khachatryan, an Armenian physician who went out of his way to save the life of a fellow Jewish inmate in a Nazi concentration camp.

Similarly, we managed to identify rescuers from Poland, Hungary, Belgium, France and many other countries. Last June, we paid tribute in London to a singular British hero, aged 104, Sir Nicholas Winton, who is responsible for the rescue of 669 Czechoslovakian Jewish children by arranging their emigration to the UK, before the war broke out.  Meeting Sir Nicholas was one of the most rewarding experiences we have ever had.

Our NGO is privileged to have honorary members from all backgrounds, including more than 300 heads of state, former and incumbent, and Nobel Prize laureates. President Shimon Peres and Chancellor Angela Merkel are amongst them, and one of our first members is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, nowadays better known as Pope Francis.

Our organization bears the name of the great Swedish diplomat, who almost single-handedly, managed to save scores of Hungarian Jews during WWII

If we were to liken Raoul Wallenberg to a virtuoso soloist, we should compare the Danish people to a magnificent philharmonic orchestra.

With these examples in mind, mulling over a number of “what if” scenarios is inevitable. What if other nations had acted the way the Danes did? What if more individuals had stood-up against evil the way Raoul Wallenberg, Irena Sendler or Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) did? How many innocent lives would have been spared?

It is our duty to teach their stories, to promote their legacies. We, humans are naturally prone to recognize evil. But why are we so numb when it comes to recognizing good deeds?

Last year, Raoul Wallenberg would have turned 100. That is why we have coined the “Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Medal”.

Next October 2, at the Danish Royal Theater, a majestic venue, our Foundation will be bestowing the “Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Medal” to the Danish people.  The award will be conferred to Prime Minister Helle Thorning- Schmidt, on behalf of the heroes.  Representatives from the rescuers and the survivors will be honoring the event with their attendance.

Seventy years after their awe-inspiring deeds, we shall have an opportunity to pay our tribute to the Danish saviors, expressing our eternal gratitude and our recognition of good.  The collective heroism displayed by the Danes, merits to be remembered and cherished.

The IRWF is a global-reach NGO based in New York, with representative offices in Jerusalem, Buenos Aires and Berlin. Its main mission is to research, preserve and spread around the courageous legacies of Raoul Wallenberg and his likes, the rescuers of victims of the Holocaust.