Conversations With Europe's Legendary Chief Rabbi

Conversations With Europe's Legendary Chief Rabbi
As I stood up to deliver my lecture at the University of Copenhagen, my host whispered that the Pakistani ambassador was in the audience and directed my attention to him in the front row. We smiled at each other. My host then said in an excited voice that Bent Melchior, the legendary former Chief Rabbi of Denmark, was also here. This was a rare honour, he told me in an awestruck whisper. He pointed to an elderly, modest-looking man sitting unobtrusively in the fourth row.

During the lecture, I explained the purpose of my visit to Denmark. I was travelling with a small team and we were researching the Muslim community in Europe. Our aim was to produce an academic book and documentary, both called Journey into Europe. For this purpose, we had crisscrossed the continent, interviewing a variety of people from different categories of society. Our purpose was to promote better understanding between the communities. In my talk, I shared some of our experiences and the interfaith stories we had come across.

After my talk and the question-and-answer session, Rabbi Melchior walked up to me and congratulated me warmly for my lecture. I expressed my delight at his appreciation. Taking the opportunity that had presented itself to me, I requested an interview on camera for the documentary that we were filming. He kindly invited us to his flat the next day. We arrived in a modest apartment and conducted a fascinating conversation on camera. It was a rare opportunity to talk to one of the great men of Europe. Dr Amineh Hoti and Dr Harrison Akins who accompanied me felt we were in the presence of an extraordinary human being who had led an extraordinary life. Appreciating the historic nature of this rare interview, I have reproduced it in his own voice.


Advice for Muslims

As our project was about Muslims, I was keen to ask the Chief Rabbi what advice he had for the Muslim community. I felt there was much to learn from the Jewish experience in Europe. When asked what advice he had for Muslim immigrants in Denmark, Rabbi Melchior gave tips based on a lifetime’s experience:

“There are a few basic elements. I am the one who is saying immigration is a question from two sides. If you integrate, it’s not only you but the society must also be open to accept immigration, but those that come, they have to start on a couple of basic ideas. Number one is to learn the language. The fact that we speak Danish better than most Danes, and my father was known as the best speaking Dane of his time [...] learn the language. The Jewish school in Copenhagen was established 200 years ago in order to learn Jewish children Danish. Not to learn Judaism, that was on the side, but the first reason was to learn Danish. Number 2 you have to accept that the law of the country is law. You have to respect the law as it is in the country where you are. Some of the people I have spoken to said why should we follow the constitution of Denmark? We have not voted for it. I say listen, there are very few people here today who voted for the Danish constitution. It’s an old thing. The last time it was actually on a vote it was 1953 and at that time you had to be 21 years old, so you must have been born before 1932 and the majority of people you see here are born after ’32 but they are still obliged to follow it…the law of a country is law, and that is very important. And then you have to understand that you are a minority. A minority in a democratic country have rights, but you have to respect that there is a majority, you shall be considered, your special wishes shall be considered when you have celebrations, Muslim celebrations, you must be allowed to perform etc. But you still have to accept… There are places where the Muslims resist Christmas trees being put up, but the majority has a right there too. There are kindergartens where they insist that all meat should be halal meat. Now it should be halal meat for the Muslims, okay, but you have to accept that the meat for the other children can be other things. I am a minority and I have to respect the majority."

Finally, Melchior spoke about the challenges and inevitability of stereotyping by the majority:

"We have to understand that if one Jew is committing a crime, people will say 'Aha! That is how the Jews are.' That is what they are saying about the Muslims. If a Muslim is a criminal, they would say 'Aha! That is how the Muslims are. Muslims are all terrorists.' I have learned that from my childhood, we don’t say when a member of the Danish Lutheran Church commits a crime, we don’t say every Lutheran is...But this is the fate of every minority, justified or not."


On the Nazis

The Jewish community, said Rabbi Melchior, had been in Denmark for more than three centuries and was patronised by the monarchy. The close relationship between the monarchy and the Jewish community meant that when the Nazis invaded and occupied Denmark, the fate of the Jews was different from that in other countries. Rabbi Melchior’s father was the Chief Rabbi during the Nazi period, when the royal family of Denmark opposed the Nazi policy toward the Jews and protected them. He showed us a letter, written by the Danish king in 1942, expressing his solidarity with the Jewish community after an attempted firebombing of a synagogue.

While the Jews were able to remain safe for a while, there reached a point when the Nazis decided to act. Rabbi Melchior recounted the story of how he, at the age of fourteen, and his family escaped the Nazis after being warned by a German soldier:

“We were staying with a priest who my father had met once. So, he could place one here and one there, but he said, “You are all staying with us.” We stayed with him, and the kitchen was made a kosher kitchen, and only served things we could eat, and people were marvelous, the young people went out and started organising boats to take the Jews from Denmark to Sweden, which was safe.”

The story takes a dramatic turn as the group puts out to sea and almost immediately lands back in Nazi-controlled Denmark after the fisherman got lost. Miraculously, Rabbi Melchior’s group arrived at their destination:

“There was a little boy there who was playing and was seeing our little boat from afar, and his father was also a fisherman, and he went in to get his father, and his father and a colleague came out and took us inland, and I’m still in contact with this little boy, who by now is seventy-seven. I visit him and he lives in the same house where we entered in October 1943.”

I asked him whether the persecution of the Jewish community in Denmark was similar to that in Poland and other places under Hitler.

“We had a special situation in the beginning in the first part of the Occupation. The Danish government gave up, and the Germans and Danes made an agreement that the Danish were allowed to have its autonomy for its internal matters. So, our courts were still working etc. and one of the conditions that the Danes made at that time was that we would not in Denmark have any laws about the Jews. The Jews would be regarded as equal citizens. That held for about 3 years, from April 1940 to August ‘43. In August ‘43 the resistance movement had grown so strong here that the Germans required that we should have the death penalty […] They got it as an ultimatum and the Danish government resigned. From then on, the rule to not have Jewish laws was taken away because the Danish government resigned, so the Germans immediately prepared to deport the Jews of Denmark, but we had many lucky circumstances around that. Number one we had a German officer who told about the plans 3 days before it should have been carried out.”
"We have to understand that if one Jew is committing a crime, people will say 'Aha! That is how the Jews are.' That is what they are saying about the Muslims. If a Muslim is a criminal, they would say 'Aha! That is how the Muslims are. Muslims are all terrorists.' I have learned that from my childhood, we don’t say when a member of the Danish Lutheran Church commits a crime, we don’t say every Lutheran is..."

I remarked that the German officer appeared to be a decent human being.

“Yeah, he was against it because up until then there had been peaceful existence in Denmark for the Germans too! And they preferred to come to a peaceful Denmark then come to the front against the Soviets. So he saw it was also in German interest, he knew that the Danes would react to this, so he gave it away and came to our house three days before and on the Wednesday morning, it was on the morning before the Jewish New Year, my father stopped the service in the synagogue, he was not Chief Rabbi then, but the Chief Rabbi had already been arrested, not because he was a Jew but because when the government resigned, the Germans arrested all important people in the society to make sure that they would not start any opposition of this and that. So, the Chief Rabbi was not available, so the message came to my father, and he was then on this Wednesday morning, they stopped the service, there were about 100 people there, and he said, number one, do not be at home on Friday night, number 2, pass it on. You couldn’t publish it anyway, you didn’t have any SMS or any of these things, so it was a problem how to make it known. So that was the happy circumstance Number 1. And Number 2 was that the Danish people were totally against this, there was no Jewish problem…so you celebrate Saturday instead of Sunday…good for you. And you could go into almost every house, there were of course exceptions, but you could go into any and say, will you hide me? They would of course be a bit afraid for their own life, and rightfully so, but somehow out of 8,000 Jews, they managed on that Friday when the raid was carried out, to get 250.”

To understand what he had said I repeated the figures: Only 250 were captured out of 8,000 members of the community.

“Yeah. Of Jews. Of all of Denmark. But the great majority is in and around Copenhagen, and all of the others were hiding in non-Jewish places, in hospitals, and private houses etc. We were staying with a Priest that my father had met once. My father was lecturing around in Denmark, a Christian Priest, and we went to this Priest in a little village because we saw that we were 6 people, he knows his community, so he could place one here and one there, but he said ‘you are all staying with us.’ We stayed with him and the kitchen was made a kosher kitchen, and only served things we could eat, and people were marvelous, the young people went out and started organising boats to take the Jews from Denmark to Sweden.”

I remarked whether Sweden was safer.

“Sweden was safe. They had actually invited at that time the Jews of Denmark to come. And if you go up to the northern part of this island, Sjælland, you can see Sweden. It’s not far […] when it came to it, we went south, which is a different story altogether, because you’re already in the Baltic Sea. And we had a very dramatic trip because the fisherman that we used was not an honest man. […] Not with the Germans, betrayed us with the money, the fishermen got paid, and he did it for the money, but he never had been out in the sea where he should navigate. So, he actually was about to bring us to put us on land which was Denmark, he had gone in a circle. He didn’t know how to use a compass. At first we thought he was a traitor, but he was as much afraid as we were—when the sun started to rise then we knew that the sun rises in the East, and Sweden is East of Denmark, but the sun was over here, so only then we found out this was Denmark and the firehouse that had been searching the water all the time, that’s where the Germans were sitting. So we went according to the sun, and I don’t know how many miracles were needed […]”

When I asked how old he was then, he said, “14.”

“Sure sure, I remember. And there was a little boy there that was playing and was seeing our little boat from afar, and his father was also a fisherman, and he went into get his father, and his father and a colleague came out and took us into land, and I’m still in contact with this little boy who by now is 77,” the Rabbi recalled with a smile, ”but I’m visiting him and he lives in the same house where we entered of October ’43. Alright that was perhaps a deviation but it tells something about, yes, not only were we integrated, but the Danish Jews have contributed to Danish culture, to Danish business, to Danish political life. I have a brother who was a member of Parliament here for more than 25 years, a member of several governments, Minister of Transport and other…and it was accepted that when he went out representing Denmark, came to other countries and they made a dinner in his honor or something, that he asked for special foods and they made special foods for him, that was accepted.”


On the King

There was a letter in a frame hanging on the wall which I noticed and asked about. It was a letter from the King of Denmark. “This is dated as you see on the 31st of December 1941. That was during the German occupation of Denmark. The King was in the tents, my late father was not Chief Rabbi at the time but he had gotten together with a colleague and had written a little book, commentaries on the weekly portion of the Torah and during the occupation the King was a symbol of being Danish, his birthdays were celebrated as I don’t know what, and he went around with small symbols on his jacket with the Christian sign on, so in a special binding, my father and a colleague would present the King this book. Now normally when you give the King something, the secretary gets it to the King, he hardly sees it, and you get a message, telegram that says ‘Thanks, Christian X,’ and that’s it. That was how the King answered a very long telegram for one of his birthdays, when Adolf Hitler wrote him a very long letter on how our nations should work together, blah blah blah, and the King gave it to the secretary, and the secretary sent a cable, ‘Thanks' and a big crisis came out of that…Oh it was absolutely against any protocol…Anyhow, my sister who, at the time was 14, went to the palace now the palace is sometimes difficult to find out which door you should go through and so on, so I was looking around on the square of this palace and saw one of the gates open, and there was the Queen! And the Queen sees the little girl with a little parcel, and the Queen asks, ‘Is that for my husband?’ and the girl stammers, ‘Yes your grace’ so she took it, and therefore the King actually got the gift into his hands! …

That was my father’s book, and then the next day, on New Years Day ’42 this letter arrived, handwritten, the King was not a hand-writer, his daughter or granddaughter who is the current Queen is more into writing letters, he didn’t write it so, this letter arrived and it says will you please thank you for the book and please also convey my thanks to your colleague, and then there had been an incident at the synagogue where someone tried to throw some fire bomb over at the synagogue, but actually he didn’t throw it very well, thank God, so the king writes, 'With concern I have heard about the fire at the synagogue and I am happy that the damage was not so big,’ and then what was his purpose really, and then ‘wishing you and your community a happy New Year, I remain yours Christian X.’ It is historic, that’s his personal signature, and my father, after the war, some Americans he told that to offered him 10,000 dollars for the original letter. But it was not for sale…” he said with a chuckle.

I asked him whether it is the original letter: “No,” he replied, “it’s a copy. When my mother died, my brothers and sisters said that I should have the letter because I see more international people, etc. I said no, we have to preserve the letter so that it will keep, so we have actually given the letter as a gift to a museum, which unfortunately is not open at the moment, Resistance Museum from the period of the Occupation. But there was a fire there so therefore it’s not open at the moment but it’s being rebuilt, and the letter’s there, and myself and all my brothers and sisters got a copy of it.”

The author and his team at the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen


On faith

Rabbi Melchior explained the integration of the Jews in Denmark:

“Not only were we integrated, but the Danish Jews have contributed to Danish culture, to Danish business, to Danish political life. Some of the biggest names of Denmark in the various fields were Jews. The name of Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of the atom bomb. Victor Borge was an old Danish Jew. And some of the biggest architects, the first head of the Institution of the Ombudsman was a Jew, a leader in Danish literature was a Jew. You go into any field you find Jews as quite important.

The Danes …we say Denmark is a Christian country. I make a little bit fun of that because in which sense are they Christian? Officially the state is supporting the Lutheran church here in Denmark, but if you ask a person which Christian values do you have? So the values that they mention are the ones that come from Judaism. It’s a question of love your neighbour, it’s a question of social justice, it’s a question of country with course, where you cannot use bribery, and things like that, these values are all from the Old Testament, but they think these are all from Christianity. Ok, fine with me, I don’t want to say in any way…. But in the religious sense the birth of a virgin and eternal sin, and some of these theological basic ideas of the Christian faith…Yeah and they are now, since Christmas is this month, they are celebrating Christmas and they happen to know why they have that, but if you ask they have Easter, and they have Pentecost and that is all very doubtful…”

I asked him about the remnants of the Old Viking culture in Danish society.

“I mean the Vikings go far away, and the idea of being a big power is forgotten. We have accepted that Denmark is a small country,” he said with a chuckle. “Funny that you are mentioning it, I started in London, and I was already at that time with my wife and with my eldest boys who then went to English schools. We had to accept that in English schools you learn about English history, and my eldest boy was very much ahead of his time really, he was very ahead in school, he was a little boy of 5, 6 years at the time, he was very happy with the school, but one day he comes home and says ‘I will never go to school again!’ And we got out of him why he doesn’t want to go to school, well they had a lesson on British history, and they were told about some terrible people that had come to the peaceful country of England, and had robbed and raped and done terrible things, and then one of the children in his grade there asked the teacher where did these people come from? And the teacher said, from Denmark. Now every child in the class knew that our Michael had come from Denmark, so nobody wanted to play with him anymore. I mean this tells you a little bit about anti-something. That was 1,000 years ago – there were no Jews in Denmark at the time, so he wasn’t even a descendant, but it gives me a feeling that when Jewish children have been in classrooms where they were told that the Jews killed Jesus, of course nobody wants to play with the Jewish child again. No Denmark is not especially since the war we had in 1864 with Germany, this was the big war before where we lost very badly, still 150 years ago, that has been important for Danish policy since then. We were shivering afraid of Germany even when Hitler came to power, nobody loved Hitler here, and the Nazi party was never able to gather any support, but we wouldn’t speak loudly about it because we wouldn’t want to draw attention, but thanks to that we didn’t have any military when the Germans came in 1940 so we couldn’t even fight a bit so we had no army really because we were afraid if we would put up a fight then they would use that as a reason to conquer Denmark.”


On the next generation

In concluding, Rabbi Melchior appreciated the work we were doing especially its aspect of promoting interfaith understanding. He also made it a point of acknowledging the presence of my daughter Dr Amineh Hoti underlining the importance of transmitting this kind of work to the next generation.

'That work is so important, that you devote your life, that you put yourself into this hardship of traveling around, and I know what it means. I cannot think of more warm feelings than I have towards your work and . . . I think it’s wonderful that you have another generation following up. So you have really my most heartfelt feelings to succeed.'

The courtesy, humility, learning, and compassion of Rabbi Melchior explained why he was widely considered a legendary figure. Just as his father was a Chief Rabbi, his offspring are Chief Rabbis; his grandson is the present Chief Rabbi of Denmark. Without doubt they would carry his virtues and vision far and wide.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland