By Paul Berge
Many people know the story of how the King of Denmark donned a yellow star to identify with his Jewish subjects. But few people know that the story is a myth.
The tale is probably best known because of a scene in Leon Uris’s “Exodus,” published in 1958, in which an underground radio transmission reports that King Christian X “himself will wear the first Star of David and he expects that every loyal Dane will do the same.”
In 2001, the story made it to Congress, when Rep. Gary Ackerman lauded the Danish king and his fellow Danes for donning a yellow armband to foil the Nazi roundup of Denmark’s Jews.
“They were not Jews,” Ackerman said of Denmark’s citizens. “They were human beings.”
The myth has several versions. The most inspiring image has King Christian riding on horseback through the streets of Copenhagen while wearing the yellow star.
In fact, Danish Jews were never required to wear a yellow armband or a star, so the Danish king had no need to wear the star either.
No one knows where or how the story originated, but it predates by at least one year the attempted roundup of Denmark’s Jewish community.
As early as September 1942, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that King Christian was informed that Danish Jews might have to wear the yellow star.
According to JTA, the king replied, “When this happens, I shall wear the yellow star on my uniform in public and I shall order the entire Royal household to follow my example.”
The story was repeated many times in various forms over the following years in European and American newspapers.
On October 12, 1943, the Forverts, in New York, ran a story quoting a Danish refugee who was reported to have been told personally by the king: “If the Germans demand the Jews must wear the Star of David, I and my entire family will also wear the Star of David. This sign will be a great honor.”
Bo Lidegaard, editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Politiken, says he believes that the story of the king and the star originated in a private conversation between King Christian and a Danish official in 1942 over what to do if Germany requested that Danish Jews wear the yellow star.
“If the Nazis insist that the Jews will have to wear the yellow star, I guess the only response will be for all of us to wear it,” Lidegaard claims the king said.
But Vilhjalmur Orn Vilhjalmsson, an Icelandic historian, believes that the story is a fabrication.
Vilhjalmsson says the story of the yellow star was created by The National America Denmark Association, which was established to improve Denmark’s image after the country’s speedy capitulation to Germany and its policy of cooperation with the Nazis.
“The story can be seen as a response to the criticism Denmark received in the Allied press between 1940 and 1943,” Vilhjalmsson wrote in “Denmark and the Holocaust,” a book published in 2003 by the [Danish Institute for International Studies. “King Christian, wrongly accused [of giving in too easily to the Nazis], became a symbol of the lack of Danish resistance to the German invasion.”
Whatever the story’s origins, and whether or not the Danish king ever vowed to wear the star, the tale did contain a kernel of truth.
The Danish king, like many of his subjects, believed that he had a responsibility to protect Denmark’s Jews, as the rescue of almost all the country’s Jews, in October 1943, proved.