Scandinavia Special Interest Group (SIG)

The History of the Jews in Denmark

by Hanne Trautner-Kromann, dr. phil.,
Professor at Lund University, Jewish Studies
  1. Schleswig-Holstein
  2. The First Jews in Denmark
  3. Internal Self-Government 1684-1814
  4. The Jews in the Eighteenth Century
  5. Animosity
  6. The Period of Reform
  7. Wolff's Epoch
  8. Assimilation
  9. New Immigration
  10. The Escape to Sweden
  11. Conclusion


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Christian IV (reigned 1588-1648) was the first Danish king to establish connections with Jews. This happened because he needed a mintmaster to run the Mint in the newly planned town of Glückstadt on the Elbe and, in 1619, Albert Dionis (Denis)was appointed to this post. Dionis, a Sephardi Jew, "of the Portuguese nation" as they came to be designated in Denmark, had settled in Hamburg in 1605 where he developed an extensive import-export business. Dionis thus became the first Jew to be issued a royal Danish letter of protection.

After consulting with Dionis in 1622, King Christian IV invited "Portuguese" Jews from Amsterdam and Hamburg to settle in Glückstadt in the hope that this town would compete with Hamburg. To attract enterprising merchants with disposable capital, a large number of trading privileges, as well as freedom of religion were offered. The privileges given to these Jews were broadened on several occasions until they obtained, among others, the right to trade freely in Denmark and throughout the seventeenth century they provided luxury goods to the Danish court and arranged large loans for the Danish kings.

Some "German" (Ashkenazi) Jews traded in Denmark but they had to be able to produce a special letter of safe conduct, since privileges concerning the right to trade and live in Denmark only applied to the "Portuguese" Jews. In 1667, however, the Jews from Altona near Hamburg were empowered to travel and trade freely in Denmark which included Norway and Schleswig-Holstein.

The First Jews in Denmark

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The real settlement of Jews in Denmark proper, however, first began in the 1670s when the government, acting according to mercantilist motives, wished to promote trade and industry. Some tobacco manufacturers and dealers were allowed to settle in Copenhagen and in a few provincial towns but were not given any religious concessions.

In 1682, the privileges of the recently established fortress and commercial center of Fredericia were extended to include religious freedom for all its inhabitants. This attracted a number of poor "German" Jews who, for the most part, made a living from tobacco manufacturing and retail trading, but many years were to pass before this community could afford to build a synagogue and appoint a rabbi.

Among the Jews in Copenhagen were some well-to-do "German" Jews who served, among other things, as court jewelers. One of them, Meyer Goldschmidt, applied for, and was granted in 1684, the right to hold religious services for the community. Though this was limited to the privacy of his own house and no form of sermon could be preached, the establishment of the Copenhagen community is always considered to have begun with this event.

For the next fifty years services took place in Goldschmidt's home. A piece of land for a cemetery was purchased in 1694 and in the following year the Sephardi Jews were also given permission to hold services. In general, however, the commercial possibilities for "Portuguese" Jews were few and far between in the Danish capital and it was the "German" Jews who became dominant.

Internal Self-Government 1684-1814

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For over fifty years, Meyer Goldschmidt was the undisputed leader of the Copenhagen community. However, the leadership in fact was composed of seven men (three elders and four principals), who, in association with a number of officials, organized practical matters. There were often disputes over these representative posts, and religious disagreements could divide the community.

In 1719, a house in Fredericia had been converted into a synagogue so that, for many years to come, Jews from Jutland and Funen streamed into the town to celebrate the great holy festivals.

In contrast, it took the Copenhagen community many long negotiations before they were given permission to build their first impressive synagogue. Not until 1766 were they able to consecrate the new building and it formed the focal point for the Ashkenazi community over the next thirty years until the house was destroyed in the great Copenhagen fire of 1795.

The few remaining "Portuguese" families stayed loyal to their own small prayer meeting rooms, clinging to their old privileges until the introduction of equal civil rights in 1814.

The Jews in the Eighteenth Century

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The Danish authorities were well disposed to encourage Jewish immigration provided the newcomers were rich Jews who could stimulate commerce and industry. It was different with poor German and Polish Jews, who tried to enter Denmark without letters of protection as peddlers or simply as beggars. They were quickly seized and expelled.

After 1726, conditions for citizenship in Copenhagen were the possession of a certain sum of money, the ability to have a house built, or the establishment of some sort of workshop or factory. Very few Jews were in such affluent circumstances, and from the middle of the century, the community obtained dispensations to cover Jews who wished to marry into already-established families. In later years, a great many Jews came in on these terms, especially from Altona and Hamburg. Others went to provincial towns like Fredericia, while the total Jewish population of Copenhagen rose steadily from nineteen in 1682 to some 1,200 by 1784.

The only business enterprise which lay open to the "German" Jews in Denmark was trade in commodities not controlled by the guild system's monopolies. The result was that Jews were mainly involved in moneylending, the mortgage market, and dealing in secondhand clothes, tea, coffee and chocolate. Consequently, these areas became known as "Jew trade." In fact the term "Jew" was used as a designation of specific types of business and was only officially abolished after Jews obtained their civil rights in 1814.

It was unavoidable that "Jew trade" often found itself in conflict with laws relating to shopkeepers' rights and other guild privileges. There were frequent complaints against Jews, whether they were permanently established traders or peddlers. The government, however, was opposed to the guilds because they tended to impede business development and, as a rule, supported the Jews when they wanted to expand their trade or establish new enterprises.

Throughout the century, Jews were given many privileges in the form of cash grants and loans to build new factories and, in addition, they were given monopolies as well as tax and customs duty relief. Some of these factories became, in the course of time, quite successful, particularly in the manufacturing industry where Jews dominated some areas of production. Some Jews, however, used applications to manufacture as a pretext for getting into Denmark. Clearly the authorities were well aware of this. Nevertheless, such applications were usually accepted, for, as the College of Commerce wrote in 1757, "We acknowledge that these are unfortunate, ill-fated people; they are hated everywhere and civil rights are denied to them in most of Europe". The majority of Jews earned poor livings as retailers.

However, the Danish merchant fleet and colonial trade experienced massive expansions during the second half of the eighteenth century, and many Jews were able to build up major businesses, and a number of important Jewish trading houses were founded during this period.


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The official Danish attitude towards Jews had always been that they were beneficial to the economy, with the result that the government generally looked upon them with favor. This positive attitude was somewhat modified, however, partly because of the state church's limited goodwill and partly by the action of various guilds which feared Jewish competition.

This was manifested to some extent in mob violence against individual Jews at the start of the eighteenth century and in imaginative schemes to set up ghettoes, introduce a special tax on Jews as well as an identifying badge. While the police took energetic action to suppress the violence, declaring that everyone had the same right to protection under the law, the government chose to totally ignore the discriminatory proposals. On the other hand, it was more difficult to counter the Church's dislike, for since 1530 the only legally approved worship had been the state church form of Protestant belief.

In the course of the eighteenth century, unsuccessful attempts were made by the clergy to convert the Jews. Generally speaking, only the poorest and most ignorant let themselves be persuaded into Christian baptism with promises of material rewards. The clergy attempted to introduce, in 1728, obligatory attendance by Jews at conversion sermons in one of Copenhagen's churches, but the Jews protested violently. When the church burned down shortly thereafter, the matter was allowed to drop.

In 1747, because of Christian mistrust, Jews were required to take a special public oath in the synagogue before the town judge and his clerk and in the presence of the rabbi and a minyan. The last remnants of this oath were not swept away until 1864.

There was also a long and hard struggle with the Medical Faculty of Copenhagen University to allow Jewish students to defend their theses and thereby obtain the right to practice medicine. This reluctance affected not only Jews but all others who did not subscribe to thc state Church. It was not until 1788 that the paragraph in the University's charter, excluding those of other beliefs, was abolished.

The Period of Reform

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The last decades of the eighteenth century witnessed a spiritual and intellectual struggle throughout Europe. The ideas of the Enlightenment concerning freedom and equality also made an impact among Jews, giving rise to tension between the strictly orthodox, the poorest groups, and the more liberal, the latter often found among the richer merchant families. The lack of an organized system of schooling became apparent when Hebrew literacy and basic arithmetic were no longer considered sufficient.

The main point of the reform groups was that Jews should conform to Danish law except in those areas concerning the Christian church. Minutes and records were to be kept in Danish or German and no longer in Hebrew, while the community's leadership would be enlarged and chosen by all members of the community. These proposals from 1796 met with violent opposition from the majority of Jews so the government left its ideas in abeyance; the time was not yet ripe.

Nevertheless, the authorities introduced a number of improvements in the civil rights of Jews such as giving them access to craft guilds (1788), to high schools (1799), the right to buy land and erect synagogues and, in 1809, they became liable, like the rest of the population, for military service.

In 1805, a quality school for poor Jewish boys was opened and a school for girls was founded in 1810, and named the Carolineskolen (Caroline School) after its patroness, Princess Caroline, daughter of the King. Both schools were maintained by money raised from affluent Jews in the community or by legacies. The community's own tax system was reorganized to make it more fair and the reform movement made steady progress.

In 1814, the new Royal Decree was issued which gave Jews the same rights as other citizens.

Just before the issuance of this decree there was an outbreak of anti-Semitism known as the "Jewish literary controversy"; however, it had little effect on the goodwill of the authorities. In 1813, Denmark had gone bankrupt and people were looking for a scapegoat. A German anti-Semitic book, translated into Danish, provoked a flood of polemical articles both for and against the Jews. Many leading authors spoke up on behalf of the Jews.

This controversy had scarcely died down before the HEP! HEP! riots of 1819 spread from Germany to Denmark resulting in mob attacks on Jews in Copenhagen and many provincial towns. The authorities quickly acted to put a stop to the "Jewish physical controversy" as the disturbances were called.

However, these riots were not just an outburst of hatred against the Jews, but had political and social undertones. Although the disturbances soon subsided, they may have been a further impetus to the many Jewish families who, during these decades, were partly or wholly giving up the Jewish religion.

Wolff's Epoch

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The reforms evoked strife in the community but in 1829 Abraham Alexander Wolff who came from Germany and was well-educated in Jewish subjects and other fields, was appointed chief rabbi in Copenhagen and, for the next sixty years, he was able to reunite the divided Jewish society. His first task was to hasten the construction of a large synagogue that could unite the many small congregations which held separate services in various parts of the city since the fire of 1795 had destroyed the main synagogue.

Until Wolff's appearance, internal divisions had kept the Jewish community from working together toward this end, but Wolff's impressive personality soon endeared him to his followers. He had a knack for bringing together both the broad orthodox mass and the leading prosperous and welleducated families. The latter wanted contact with the non-Jewish world around them, even a degree of assimilation, but without giving up their Jewish faith and lifestyle.

By 1833, the new synagogue in Krystalgade was ready and with some minor liturgical reforms, among them the introduction of a sermon and choral singing, Wolff was able to make the service both more solemn and dignified. He also had influence outside Jewish circles where he was accorded great respect, thus contributing to an improvement of the community's relations with Danish society.


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Despite Wolff's energetic efforts to protect and strengthen the ties among the Jewish community, there were a great number of defections throughout the nineteenth century. The Decree of 1814 had, in effect, given equal rights to Jews along with the rest of the population, which meant that Jews could play a larger role in public life. A great many social relationships developed between Christian and Jewish families and, when these resulted in marriage, the Jewish partner was usually baptized. In this way, many branches of leading Jewish families became Christian, creating divisions which caused great sorrow for those branches that remained Jewish.

On the other hand, the respect and regard which these frequently eminent "defectors" won for themselves led to greater Christian understanding of the Jewish community. The same can be said of the countless ties which arose from the mixed marriages between old Christian and Jewish stock whose descendants have mostly been proud of their Jewish ancestry. Despite all the problems, there was a large group which was able to cling to its Jewish background, participated in public life and gained great influence in the culture, politics and economics.

New Immigration

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The many mixed marriages between Christians and Jews during the nineteenth century posed a real threat to the continuance of the Jewish community. The number of Jews declined while the Christian population continued to increase.

In 1901, there were fewer than 3,500 Jews compared to over 4,000 in 1834 and, if measured as a percentage of the total population, the fall was even more striking -- from 0.38 to 0.14 per cent. The majority of provincial communities died out around 1900, the result of assimilation and migration to Copenhagen. It was therefore of utmost importance that at least some of the many Jews who left Eastern Europe during the decades of mass emigration found their way to Denmark.

Immigration became particularly significant between 1904 and 1917, until the authorities introduced very stringent controls. By then, the Eastern European newcomers already formed the majority of the Jewish community which numbered some 6,000 people, but the gulf between the "old" and "new" families was very wide.

The "old" belonged overwhelmingly to the middle and upper classes while the "new" were poor artisans and traders. The "old" were almost totally assimilated Danes but of the Jewish faith. The "new" were visibly Jewish, strangers within the Danish society who spoke another language -- Yiddish.

Danish Jews, from the start, were afraid that the newcomers would weaken their own position and provoke anti-Semitism. A few men who were assimilated yet held traditional religious beliefs, took up the challenge and helped the newcomers. This included the teaching of Danish and the establishment of a small community center where the newcomers could keep alive their Yiddish culture.

In the course of a few years, they found a place for themselves both within the Jewish community and in Danish society at large, while their children attended the two Jewish schools formerly in danger of closing for lack of pupils. They founded many small societies for crafts, sports, singing and drama and instilled new life into the community.

The Escape to Sweden

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Over the next few decades, these East European Jews improved their social and economic position by working hard, thus easing their integration into both the Jewish community and Danish society.

In the 1930s, however, another stream of refugees arrived, this time from Germany. They entered despite the fact that Denmark, like other countries at the time, was inhospitable towards foreigners since it was undergoing a period of mass unemployment and economic crises.

The restricted refugee policy was carried out even during the German occupation of Denmark from April 9, 1940, but in October 1943 most of the refugees along with about 7,000 Danish Jews were rescued to Sweden. About 475 Jews did not reach safety, but were deported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The Danish authorities succeeded in persuading the Germans to permit the supply of some food and medicine to the imprisoned Jews from Denmark and to refrain from deporting them to the extermination camps further east. Fifty-two Jews died of disease and deprivation but the rest was rescued by the Red Cross in April 1945 and brought to Sweden in a convoy of white busses.

After the war, Denmark was more sympathetic toward foreign Jews than before the war and received some Jews from Hungary in 1956 and, in 1968, from Czechoslovakia. The largest immigration was in 1969-1972 when about 2,000 Jews found refuge in Denmark from persecutions in Poland. Another segment of Danish Jewry is made up of Israelis who immigrated since the late 1960s.


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The more than three-hundred-year-old history of Jews in Denmark reflects a steady progression of toleration and acceptance. From being a group invited to settle for commercial reasons under the official protection of the king and the authorities, Jews came to be accepted, in the course of time, by the rest of the nation. The Jews' own desire and ability to master the Danish tongue and culture eased their integration into Danish society. Assimilation and the many intermarriages between Jewish and Christian families further consolidated the Jewish position so that they came to make vital, indeed invaluable, contributions Danish cultural and professional life. By the twentieth century, the Jewish population has become an integral part of the Danish people.

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Copyright © 2002 Scandinavia SIG & Hanne Trautner-Kromann - Reprinting or copying of any of the material on the Scandinavia SIG Website is not allowed without prior permission from the Scandinavia SIG Coordinator or the author

05.10.2002 by the Webmaster