The first Stolpersteine in Denmark were placed in the summer of 2019.
It was about time the victims of National Socialism in this country were included in the world’s largest decentralized memorial.
The first 12 Stolpersteine on Danish ground were placed the 17th of June 2019. On that day, the German artist Gunter Demnig came to Copenhagen and Frederiksberg to remember the lives and deaths of Thora Krogmann, Rosa Nachemsohn, Beile Malka Zipikoff, Irma and Julius Barasch, Ruth Fanni Niedrig, Ernst Platzko, Schmul Sender Jonisch, Pinkus Katz, Liselotte Schlachcis, Herschel Fischel Choleva and Jacob Thalmay. Their names and facts about their destiny, which in all cases had been tragic, was engraved onto a brass plaque placed on top of a small stone made of concrete and installed in the pavement in front of their last address of choice.
On this sunny, beautiful morning, close to 200 people were gathered in front of the synagogue in the street Krystalgade in central Copenhagen where the first three Stolpersteine were to be placed. The three women Thora Krogmann, Rosa Nachemsohn and Beile Malka Zipikoff had lived here in a Jewish home for the elderly behind the synagogue. On October 1st 1943, they were arrested by the Germans and deported to Theresienstadt. They were 76, 75 and 82 years old. None of them returned to Denmark. After Gunter Demnig had kneeled and placed the three Stolpersteine, Herbert Krogmann, the grandson of Thora, gave a small speech about how much it meant to him and his family to have his grandmother remembered this way. Then everybody present in the small street turned towards the East (Jerusalem) and 90 year old Bent Melchior, former chief rabbi of the Danish Jewish community, said Kaddish, the prayer sung as part of the mourning rituals in Judaism.
Here is the story of how the Stolpersteine finally came to Denmark.
There had been a Danish initiative taken back in 2010. A small group of people (I wasn’t among them) wanted to commemorate Danish Jews, who perished in the Holocaust, with Stolpersteine. They got as far as obtaining a permission from the local authorities in Copenhagen. But disagreements in the group (regarding things that had nothing to do with Stolpersteine) killed the initiative.
In January 2018, I wrote an article in the Danish weekly Weekendavisen about Gunter Demnig and the Stolpersteine. I have lived and worked in Berlin as a journalist and writer for more than a decade and have admired the work of Demnig ever since I became aware of him around 2006. The article made one of the former group members contact me. He asked if I didn’t think it was about time to install Stolpersteine in Denmark. It most certainly was. We founded a small group – Snublestensgruppen i Danmark – and started working, all voluntarily, on the project. To start with we fortunately had two members in the group who both were experts in this field: One was Silvia Goldbaum Tarabini Fracapane who has written her PhD about the Danish Jews deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt. (The Jews of Denmark in the Holocaust: Life and Death in Theresienstadt Ghetto, Routledge, 2020). The other was Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson. He has written about the 21 stateless Jewish refugees, who fled from Germany to Denmark in the 1930’s, where they found shelter until they were deported by the Danish authorities in 1940-1942. These refugees returned to Germany and were sent to camps in the East, where 19 of them were murdered. (Medaljens bagside: Jødiske flygtningeskæbner i Danmark 1933-1945, Vandkunsten, 2005).
We wanted to commemorate both groups. The destiny of the latter is almost completely unknown in Denmark: “Jewish refugees were deported back to Germany by the Danes and then killed? That can’t be!” is the reaction you normally get if you touch on the subject. The title of Vilhjálmsson’s book is, if you translate it into English, “The Downside”, in Danish “Medaljens bagside”.
Demnig and his team advised to begin the project in Denmark to plan no more than 12 Stolpersteine. It’s a huge work to get a permission by the local authorities, raise money for the Stolpersteine, find and contact relatives and to go through archives to make sure that the facts on the Stolpersteine are correct. Information from family members has to be checked. Often stories, names, dates, addresses, birthdays and details about the further destiny delivered from one family member to the next through generations are incorrect. For instance; we were contacted by a woman who wanted a Stolperstein for her father’s aunt whom she said had been deported to Theresienstadt from where she returned after the war. Demnig also installs Stolpersteine for victims who survived. They are still victims. But in this particular case we could tell her that her father’s aunt never went to Theresienstadt, but managed to escape to Sweden.
The escape of the Danish Jews to Sweden is an important part of Danish history. By the end of September 1943, the Danish Jewish community had been warned by the Danish government that the Germans, who occupied the country since April 1940, planned to arrest and deport Danish Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Until this point in 1943, the Danish Jews had lived, even under German occupation, a life like all other Danish citizens. There were no restrictions for Jews: they kept their jobs, they didn’t have to wear a star sewn to their clothes, the synagogue was still open. The collaboration the Danish government had managed to keep up with the Germans had protected the Danish Jews from persecution, but on the 29th of August 1943 this collaboration fell apart. The Danish government administration took over, but the power now rested with Dr. Werner Best, the political head of the occupations forces. He decided to ‘solve the Jewish Problem‘ in Denmark by deporting all Danish Jews to Nazi-Germany. This plan was leaked, maybe on purpose, to the former Danish PM who warned the Jewish community. On the night of Jom Kippur, the chief rabbi of Denmark warned the community and told them not to sleep at home on the upcoming Friday the 1st of October. Almost 8.000 Jews managed to flee to neutral Sweden. First hidden by non-Jewish friends and colleagues they were eventually, secretly and by night, brought over Øresund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden, by Danish fishermen. A number of them drowned fleeing, but the main part arrived safely in Sweden where they were welcomed with open arms.
But 472 Jews did not make it. They were captured by the Germans and put on four different transportations deported to Theresienstadt. Two died before arrival and two were sent to respectively Majdanek and Auschwitz where they were murdered. The rest remained in Theresienstadt. Two children were born and died in the camp. 51 of the deported died before the end of the war, the rest returned to Denmark in May 1945 with the White Busses of the Swedish count Folke Bernadotte. In total the story of the Danish Jews is, compared to the fate of all other Jewish communities in occupied Europe, an outstanding and lucky story. For the same reason you find one of the fisherboats bringing the Danish Jews to Sweden in the exhibition of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
But the happy ending for most families does not make the tragic ending for a few more bearable. With the first Stolpersteine in Denmark we wanted to commemorate two victim groups: The Danish Jews, who did not return from deportation, as well as the stateless refugees deported by the Danish authorities. We chose six people from each group. We decided to begin with victims where we could find family members still alive, but old enough to remember the deceased. Like for instance, in the case of the former mentioned Thora Krogmann. Among the refugees it was difficult to find relatives, since they were all living abroad and had no connection to Denmark. But Vilhjálmsson did succeed in the case of Ernst Platzko. Some of his relatives came all the way from Israel for the installation.
The placement of the 12 first Stolpersteine in Denmark had a strong media response. On the day of the installations the group launched a website (www.snublesten.org). We communicated to the public that in case of future installations we would appreciate inquiries from relatives to victims or from citizens in general, for instance people living in a house from which a person was deported. The Stolpersteine should be, and this is Gunter Demnig’s intention, a civic movement. The demand and initiative remembering victims with a Stolperstein are supposed to come from the citizens, not the authorities. We wanted to involve our fellow citizens, because a Stolperstein is always two things: A memorial for one human being, in most cases brutally murdered and not even properly buried with a gravestone. But it is also a reminder for the present and future generations to be aware of their responsibility in our societies: This must never happen again.
Since Gunter Demnig has a full schedule, he can only travel to Denmark once a year. From summer 2019 and until the spring of 2020 we got so many requests on our website, that we managed to plan and install 19 Stolpersteine in Copenhagen, Frederiksberg and Gentofte in July 2020. Because of Covid-19 Demnig could not go abroad, but his workshop in Berlin made and sent us the Stolpersteine. Kind and professional road workers from the respective municipalities placed them with such great respect that Gunter Demnig would have been proud.
One of these 19 Stolpersteine was the first in Denmark for a non-Jewish citizen. The young priest Egon Henry Johannesen was only 26 years old and newly married when he was shot in his home by Nazis in November 1944. He had helped Jews escape to Sweden the year before. Among the victims on these 19 Stolpersteine were also Leopold and Adolf Fischermann (father and son) and Chaim Wassermann who drowned on their way to freedom in Sweden and four people who survived Theresienstadt and returned to Denmark after the war.
Among the requests for Stolpersteine in 2020, one case became peculiar and embarrassing for the city of Odense. The group had had a request from Steen Metz who is an elderly gentleman living in the United States. In October 1943, 8 year old Steen and his parents were arrested in their home in Odense and deported to Theresienstadt. His father Axel soon succumbed to the hard conditions in the camp. He died of hunger at only 40 years old. Steen asked for a Stolperstein for his father. I made a request for a permission by the city’s authorities. We all thought this would go smoothly. Even though Steen has lived abroad since his youth, he often visited his hometown and spoke as a witness to school children and others about his experiences during the Shoah. But when I finally – and after many months – got the permission, the politicians in Odense had attached it with two reservations: First the owners of the house, in front of which the Stolperstein was to be placed, should give their permission. This is strictly against Demnig’s concept. He says that the owners can be informed about the installation, but they have no rights to refuse a Stolperstein being placed since the pavement is public property. The second reservation was even worse: Should future owners dislike the Stolperstein, they would be allowed to remove it.
I immediately called Gunter Demnig to inform him. His reaction was – and I quote: „Oh! This is something new!“ After 75.000 Stolpersteine in 26 countries, the hometown of the world famous author Hans Christian Andersen had managed to surprise Gunter Demnig. His response was that he would place the Stolperstein for Axel Metz, since his son is of a certain age and had waited for this so long, but there would be no further Stolpersteine in Odense before the politicians had removed the reservations from the permission.
To make a long story short: after strong media response and two months of fighting between our group and the stubborn politicians of Odense, who seemed unable to admit they had made a huge mistake, they finally surrendered and gave up their reservations. Because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions Steen Metz was unfortunately not able to travel to Denmark this summer, but we plan for July 2021, when Gunter Demnig and Steen Metz hopefully will be present, hence we can finally remember and honour Axel Metz.
In July 2021 we also plan to place approximately another 20 new Stolpersteine in Denmark. The first Danish resistance fighters will have their Stolpersteine when the city of Kolding – if everything goes as planned, the permission from the city has not yet been granted – will be the first city in the region of Jutland to have Stolpersteine.
The artist Gunter Demnig (born 1947 in Berlin) commemorates with the Stolpersteine (literally‚ stumbling stones‘) victims of National Socialism all over Europe. Since the first in 1995 in Cologne in Germany he has placed more than 75.000 Stolpersteine in 26 European countries which makes them the largest decentralized memorial in the world. The Stolpersteine are placed for all kinds of persecuted groups: Jews, roma and sinti, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses, victims of political persecution and victims of euthanasia. A Stolperstein abroad (not in Germany) costs 132 euro. This includes the making of the Stolperstein and the installation by Gunter Demnig.
Henriette Harris (b. 1971 in Frederiksberg, Denmark) is one of the founders of Snublestensgruppen in Danmark. She holds a Master of Arts in Danish, Italian and History of Theatre from University of Copenhagen and Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale. Since 2004 she has lived and worked as a journalist and author in Berlin.