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Mr. Spira, Mr. and Mrs. Warren, Mrs. Luci Baines Johnson Citizens of the great city of Houston, Ladies and gentlemen,
60 years ago the people of Denmark pulled together to rescue their Jewish fellow-Danes from Nazi persecution. At that time they carried out this action with no thoughts of future awards or glory. It was, for them, the right thing to do.
So it is with especial pride and a sense of honour, on their behalf, that I have pleasure in accepting the Lyndon Baines Johnson award for Moral Courage here, in Houston, today.
For although the Danes are not ones to boast of their achievements, we regard the rescue of our old and respected Jewish community in October 1943 through the efforts and bravery of countless compatriots as one of our greatest accomplishments in recent times.
To a great extent, the rescue of Denmark’s Jews came about as a result of a widely felt urge to protect a segment of our population and because they were, and are, perceived truly to be part of our nation.
Sometimes we don ́t always recognise the significance of our actions at the time. It is only when we look back and see them in their true perspective that we can see what they really meant. And, when seen with modern eyes, I think that this can be said to be true of the actions of Lyndon B. Johnson. I believe that his “Great Society” of 1964-65 can be numbered among the great achievements in 20th century U.S. history.
He was a man endowed with unusual gifts in the art of politics, of making things happen in your Congress. The Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid were all landmarks in fighting prejudice, poverty and protecting the rights and dignity of the individual citizen.
He saw the needs of the minorities, those living in poverty, on the fringes of society, and those forced to remain on the outside because of the colour of their skin, or their beliefs, and brought them into the mainstream of American life. This took a very special kind of moral courage. And this son of Texas was a very special man.
Although the two events to which I refer are far apart in time and circumstances, they each display what can be done for the oppressed and the persecuted if only we have the courage and the vision to try. In both instances particular communities were treated as fellow-citizens should be and awarded the protection, respect and aid they needed and deserved.
Sadly, many contemporary events show the need for such active measures against various forms of discrimination and persecution.
Unfortunately, other events from the dark years of the Second World War are an illustration of what happens when we fail our fellow-man. So, lest we forget, Denmark has established a national annual day of remembrance, Auschwitz Day, on 27. January, to actively maintain awareness of these events and prevent them from ever reoccurring. The same purpose as written into the mission statement of your impressive Museum.
Last October, a very moving commemoration service was held in the presence of our Queen at the Copenhagen Synagogue. I said then that the organised persecution and unprecedented systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, its culture and traditions, is a shameful and indelible stain on European history.
But, unfortunately history has a habit of repeating itself. Again and again minorities have been victims of persecution. And, from ancient times until the present day, Jewish communities have suffered more than most. Denmark, unfortunately, has not always been free of anti-semitism. Although this never reached excessive levels. The Jewish community has become successfully integrated in society while avoiding total assimilation. They regard themselves as Danes, as indeed they are.
In fact, in 1814, Danish Jews were granted the right by Royal decree to seek any lawful employment. Under the first democratic constitution, in 1849, they were granted full civil rights. They were, and are, accepted as Danish citizens in all respects regardless of their religious and cultural distinctiveness.
So when their fellow-Danes were threatened, what could be more natural than that the population in general felt that the only possible action was to save them from the fate of other, less fortunate, European Jews? What made the successful rescue action possible? Some warning was given of the impending Nazi crackdown. There was the proximity of neutral Sweden and the readiness of its authorities to receive thousands of Danish refugees. These were certainly important factors.
As were the German setbacks on the battlefields. The resignation in late August of the Danish government in response to unacceptable demands by the occupying power. The resistance movement’s increased sabotage and other activities. All contributed to a growing sense of defiance in the population.
But the urgency and spontaneity of the widespread reaction to the news of an impending Nazi action against the Jews is still remarkable. People from all walks of life, high and low, contributed in various ways, in many cases at considerable personal risk, to warning, sheltering, feeding, transporting their Jewish compatriots to safety and watching over their property during their absence.
A prime example of this is the rescue action of 1943.
Out of approximately 7000 Jews, 481 were arrested by the occupation forces and deported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Bohemia. There, 52 of them perished while the survivors were brought back home at the end of the war. During the flight to Sweden, 17 died.
In commemoration of this event I have brought with me a special gift. But first I would like to relate a particular example of the rescue action:
Ejner Larsen was born in 1911 in a fisherman’s family in the small picturesque seaside village of Dragør, close to Copenhagen. In 1941, he aquired the cutter “Elizabeth K571”. During the rescue operation, he and his Dragør friends, at great danger to themselves, transported between 600 and 700 Jews to safety in Sweden. Ejner personally sailed 70 fellow-citizens to the port of Klagshamn, where they were welcomed and sheltered.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the Gestapo discovered his role in this secret operation, including his rescue of several downed British airmen on the run. But, when the Gestapo went to apprehend Ejner Larsen, they found that he had himself escaped in the nick of time.
And today, as a token of appreciation for this special award, I am pleased to present to the museum this model of “Elizabeth K571”. It has been carved from timber from the actual cutter, which is in the process of being restored at the Dragør Museum.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The action in October 1943 to save the Danish Jews was like a ray of light in the darkness of the five years of Nazi occupation of my country. An event in which we can feel pride despite the fact that a number of our Jewish citizens regrettably did not escape persecution and death. Let us pay tribute to their memory.
The Holocaust in its enormity must stand as constant warning of the abyss into which mankind may be plunged if the flames of ethnic prejudice and hatred are allowed to burn out of control. They must be quenched at source. It takes moral courage to resist such evil. I am happy and proud that my country played its part, and that you chose to reward it.
Thank you for your attention and your generosity.