11/01/2013 12:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

'A Message From Denmark About Humanity From the Past and for the Future'

With the 24-hour news cycle and an increasingly interconnected world, it is tempting to resort to the view that modern global challenges will resolve themselves, just because they get attention. To think that if someone's heard it, someone will solve it. Yet this view conflicts with the current violation of human rights en masse and with the persecution of individuals based on bigotry in many parts of the globe. On the contrary: it takes conscious action and courage. Modern problems of persecution have roots that are as old as humankind itself, and we in turn have some experience overcoming such challenges. It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

If there is one moment in history we cannot afford to repeat it is the Holocaust, which stands as the historical epitome of human rights violations, with gross persecution and systematized slaughter.

Seventy years ago in October 1943, Hitler's top henchman, Heinrich Himmler, stood before the Posen conference and said for the first time in plain language what some had known for a while: That the goal of the "Final Solution" was the extermination of every Jewish man, woman and child in Europe. Himmler vowed that this would come to pass "before the end of the year". As we now know, Himmler's words largely came true. The genocide of nearly all of the 6 million European Jews is embedded in our common consciousness, and is one of the darkest moments in world history.

What the Nazi regime did not yet know, was that while Himmler was giving his speech, the people of neighboring Denmark was working to save its Jewish population. A few days before Himmler spewed hate at Posen, the Nazi regime had given the order to round up and deport the Jewish population of Denmark. Occupied in 1940, under Nazi control, the Danes had managed to maintain a governing mandate in their country, and when the Danish authorities were warned of the imminent deportation, they let word slip to community leaders in Danish Civil Society. In a matter of a few days, large swaths of the Danish population came together and facing all odds and retaliation managed to conceal and illegally ship more than 7000 Jews, almost the entire Danish-Jewish population, to safety in Sweden.

The "Danish Rescue," as it has since been known, saved 95 percent of the Danish Jews from the Holocaust. Neighbors, ordinary citizens, the resistance movement and aid organizations all took part in these efforts. The peculiarity of the situation was that Danish Jews were in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Danish society, just Danes, who deserved the support of their homeland. Their faith did not matter. Their customs, different from most of their countrymen, did not make a difference. Their fate, their dignity, their security became one with that of Denmark and the rest of society. It was a sign of national unity and a strong and exceptional message to the Nazi occupiers.

There is an iconic story of King Christian X. riding on horseback through Copenhagen, wearing the Star of David in solidarity with his Jewish countrymen. Though this never occurred, the myth has an element of truth. The roots of the myth are in a conversation the King held with the acting Danish head of government, in which the King expressed that if the Danish Jews ever were forced to wear the Star of David, then it would only be the natural response of the King and the entire Danish people to also wear the Star of David.

These and countless other examples make the Danish Rescue shine as a rare ray of light in the horrors of the Holocaust. It is a testament to the inherent power of civil society and a human inspiration for standing up to doctrine and the powers-that-be.

Today, gross violations of human rights globally and the destructive war in Syria remind us that inhumane atrocities are not a thing of the past. Anti-LGBT laws in Uganda and Russia and a hateful anti-homosexual speech by Gambian President Jammeh at the UN show that intolerance still rears its ugly head. Backsliding of democracies, rise of extremism is a real threat. To combat these tendencies requires more than knowledge; it requires courage.
Acknowledging this courage, the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution commemorating and honoring the bravery of the Danish people, finding that "it is imperative that future generations continue to remember." We therefore must recall these events seventy years ago: it is likely we will be unable to prevent the next genocide from happening, but the Danish Rescue should remind us that with a strong will and determination, it is indeed possible.