Reflecting on the Danish Jewish Experience through Architecture

Matthew Shulman Matthew Shulman

Last week, Copenhagen became the most recent city to experience the damaging effects of a wave of anti-Semitism that has proliferated across Europe starting last month. Two people were killed and five police officers were injured as a result of an attack that left Denmark in complete shock; one of those killed was a Jewish security guard who worked for one of the capital’s main synagogues. The devastating event has sparked a global debate over Europe’s relationship with it’s Jewish inhabitants, with some global leaders going so far as to suggest a mass migration to Israel.

A Danish woman lights a candle outside of the main Synagogue in Copenhagen. Image via bbc.com

Immediately after the incident, both the Prime Minister of Denmark and members of the Danish Jewish community voiced their commitment to maintaining a strong Jewish presence within the country. In fact, for centuries, Jews in Denmark have experienced an extraordinary amount of support and protection from the small Northern European nation. For example, during WWII, Danish citizens facilitated the exodus of almost 8,000 Danes to neutral Sweden, ensuring their safety from the Nazi regime.

To understand this famously harmonious relationship, one could simply travel to one of Copenhagen’s oldest neighborhoods, Slotsholmen, and visit the Danish Jewish Museum. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the building memorializes the Jewish experience in Denmark by combining aspects of Danish Jewish culture with a Nordic approach to design.

© Studio Libeskind

© Studio Libeskind

The Danish Jewish Museum was built within the existing bones of one the city’s older buildings. Decorated with ornate windows, elegant cornices and protruding towers on both sides of the main entrance, the massive brick building is a perfect example of Danish Renaissance architecture. Originally purposed as Denmark’s Royal Boat House for 17th-century king Christian IV, the building was renovated by leading Danish architect Hans Jørgen Holm in 1906 as part of a larger design for the Royal Library. It wasn’t until 1985 when the Society for Danish Jewish History decided to establish a museum in Copenhagen dedicated to Jewish Danes. Daniel Libeskind, who was already well known from the recognition he received for the Jewish Museum of Berlin, was chosen as the architect for Denmark’s museum. Following over a decade of planning, the historic building underwent yet another transformation, and after a little more than a year of construction, the museum opened in 2004. According to Libeskind, the museum “creates a dynamic dialogue between architecture of the past and of the future — the newness of the old and the agelessness of the new.”

© Studio Libeskind

© Studio Libeskind

The physical structure’s metamorphosis reflects the layered and transformative nature of the Jewish Community’s experience in Denmark. Just as the museum itself is a “building within a building,” the exhibition space is a “text within a text.” At the core of the building’s design concept is the Hebrew word “Mitzvah,” which translates into an obligation of sorts or a good deed, and the building’s plan is a literal manifestation of the word’s Hebrew text, writ large. The meaning of this feature is clearly a representation of the Danish obligation to its Jewish community. At the same time, the experience of actually walking through the space’s narrow, low-ceilinged corridors symbolizes the trials and tribulations that Jews endured throughout 20th-century Europe. Even so, the metaphorical oppressiveness of the exhibition space is mitigated by the classic Danish aesthetic: cream-colored wood paneling, pale brick, and glowing beams of light that travel along the walls.

© Studio Libeskind

© Studio Libeskind

In a speech made following the attacks, Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt stated that the Jews “belong in Denmark. They’re apart of the Danish community and we wouldn’t be the same without [them.]” The Danish Jewish Museum is a perfect representation of this fact, and its unique design and poetic concept should serve as a reminder of the profound benevolence shared between Denmark and its Jewish citizenship.

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