Friday, April 08, 2011

Bispebjerg Hospital -- A place in history

Here is a touristic Copenhagen interlude, although with a medical tilt, thanks to a tour given by Dr. Peter Skanning. The site we will discuss is Bispbjerg Hospital, built between 1907 and 1913, with a marvelous layout of buildings and gardens. I present more on the architect, Martin Nyrop (1849-1921), and the architectural features in the post below. Peter is an anesthesiologist who runs the hospital's poison center, but he has a strong interest in architecture and history, and he kindly gave me and others an extensive tour.

Let's start with the history lesson. After the Nazis took over Denmark, they tried to round up all the Jews to send them to concentration camps. The people at this hospital played a special role in foiling that attempt. Here's an excerpt from one presentation:

In September Hitler approved the deportation of the Danish Jews. Werner Best of the SS, Hitler's chief in Denmark, received the final order to proceed with deportation of Jews to death camps, on Sept.28, 1943. The Nazis were prepared to deport the 7,500 Jews, starting at 10 PM. on Oct. 1, 1943. Georg F. Duckwitz, a courageous German maritime attaché and Best's confidant, at great danger to himself leaked out the order to a leading Danish Social Democrat, Hans Hedtoft. Hedtoft later recalled:

"I was sitting in a meeting when Duckwitz asked to see me. 'The disaster is going to take place', he said. 'All details are planned. Your poor fellow citizens are going to be deported to an unknown destination'. Duckwitz's face was white from indignation and shame."

According to Duckwitz, 1 October was set as the zero hour and Hans Hedtoft immediately warned C.B. Henriques, the head the Jewish Community, and
Dr. Marcus Melchior, the acting chief Rabbi of the Krystalgade Synagogue.

On September 29th, two days before the projected round up on Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, Dr. Marcus Melchior implored his stunned congregants and the whole Jewish community to go into hiding immediately.

Two German passenger ships, docked in Copenhagen’s port, were ready to ship approximately 5,000 Jews to Germany on their way to kz camp Theresienstadt. Buses were to take the remaining 2,500.

The word was passed and the Danes responded quickly, organizing a nationwide effort to smuggle the Jews by sea to neutral Sweden. The Danes dropped everything to help family members, neighbors, or friends and offered their support, conveying warnings and finding places for the Jews to hide. The Danes felt that persecution of minorities was a breach of Danish culture and they were not prepared to stand for it.
From all strata of Danish society and in all parts of the country, clergymen, civil servants, doctors, store owners, farmers, fishermen and teachers protected the Jews.

Dr. Koster, who was in charge of Bispebjerg Hospital, was instrumental in arranging for hundreds of Jews to be hidden at the hospital before they made their escape to Sweden. The psychiatric building and the nurses' quarters were filled with refugees, who were all fed from the hospital kitchen. Virtually the entire medical staff at the hospital cooperated to save Jewish lives. Once it became known among Danes what the hospital was doing, money was donated from all over the country. The Danish police and coast guard also took sides with the oppressed by refusing to assist in the manhunt. To make their escape, many refugees were driven to the coast in ambulances belonging to the hospital.

One reason it was possible to hide all these people is the layout and architecture of the hospital. See the model in the photo at the top or the architectural drawing to the right. The hospital has thousands of rooms, almost impossible to count. It also has dozens of buildings connected by miles of underground tunnels. It is virtually impossible for anyone unfamiliar with the buildings and the tunnel system to find people who are hidden throughout the campus.

But, let us not understate the bravery of those involved in this rescue attempt. This was a spectacular humanitarian mission carried out by the populace of an occupied country. They truly risked their own lives for the sake of others. This was a mitzvah of the highest order.


J. Bakke said...

The idea of separate buildings connected by long hallways or tunnels or breezeways, common to most large hospitals in the late 19th century, was that the agents of contagion (germs) could not walk very far. Though the reasoning was simplistic, the architecture in fact did help reduce nosocomial infections.

Anonymous said...

Cool. My daughter (10) just read a great book in school about this escape effort: "Number the Stars," by Lois Lowry.

Anonymous said...

INcredible story. The Wikipedia entry on this story contains a fascinating vignette about the role of Neils Bohr in pressuring the Swedish government to accept the Jews from Denmark.


George said...

Very interesting and inspiring. Thank you.

Robert said...

I am continually amazed by the depths to which human beings can descend; the Shoah is evidence of that. But I am also heartened by the extraordinary heights to which the human spirit can aspire and often reach, as shown by the breathtaking beauty and artistic sophistication of the Bispebjerg Hospital, as well as the courage and bravery of the Danish people during a time of uncontrolled insanity.

Anonymous said...

Great song about this courageous national effort:

"Denmark, 1943" by Fred Small

Paul Levy said...

Thanks, I hadn't heard it.