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Lessons From a Copenhagen Bat Mitzvah Celebration Turned Tragedy

After deadly synagogue attack, fighting terrorism by daring to be kind

David Bentow
February 20, 2015
Flowers and candles honor the shooting victims outside the main Synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark on February 15, 2015. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Flowers and candles honor the shooting victims outside the main Synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark on February 15, 2015. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

In October 1943, Adolf Hitler tried to kill my entire family, simply because they were Jewish. He did not succeed, because kind and caring Danes warned, hid, and evacuated my grandfather, grandmother, and then-5-year-old father to safety in Sweden.

On February 15, 2015, a 22-year old Danish-born self-described radical Muslim tried to kill what is left of my father’s family. Simply because they are Jewish. He did not succeed, because of the sacrifice of an unarmed Jewish volunteer security guard and two policemen.

This past weekend was to be a time of joy and pride for my family and me. My cousin’s only daughter, 12-year-old Hannah, was to celebrate her bat mitzvah.

It started out so well. At the entrance to the synagogue in central Copenhagen we were greeted by two unarmed Jewish volunteer security guards. It has been like that for years, and although the police made regular rounds, no armed policemen were assigned to the synagogue. Not even after the horrible terrorist attacks in Paris a month ago, despite pleas from the Jewish community.

Inside, the Saturday Shabbat service was underway. We heard the prayers and the sermon. What we were really waiting for, though, was Hannah’s customary bat mitzvah speech.

It was poignant. She talked about the need to be kind to others. To be grateful and respectful. She told us how she treasured being a Dane, and a Jew:

Almost everybody in our congregation has at some time experienced being a stranger. Maybe in Denmark, maybe in Sweden during the war. Maybe one was made a stranger by circumstances.

As a stranger in a new country, you have the responsibility and duty to become part of that society and contribute what you can. In turn, society has an important duty to accept and support strangers.

I’m grateful that Denmark was the country my family arrived in more than a hundred years ago. And that Sweden greeted them with open arms when they needed it most. Because my great-grandparents escaped and were welcomed in Sweden, and because my grandmother was born in Sweden, I’m alive today…

My parents raised me according to the rules and laws of Denmark and of Judaism. It’s crucial for me to have both elements in my life — the Danish and the Jewish. And it makes me very proud.

A few hours later, a terrorist struck a free-speech meeting with the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. A man fired upwards of 40 bullets from a military semi-automatic rifle into a community center, killing a 55-year-old film director and wounding three policemen. Lars Vilks survived, unharmed, but certain that he was the intended victim, due to his 2006 cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s face on a dog’s body.

A few hours later again, I walked with my youngest son through central Copenhagen towards the Jewish community center, located right behind the synagogue, for the bat mitzvah party. I told my son about the terrorist attack, and he became nervous, and said that he was afraid to go to the synagogue.

I told him he had nothing to fear. That the synagogue and the community center were the safest buildings in Copenhagen that Saturday. And so we went.

As usual, there were two unarmed Jewish security guards when we arrived, who carefully checked our names against the guest list and then let us in. A short while later, armed policemen arrived, due to the earlier terrorist attack.

We had a wonderful time at the party. There were speeches, laughter, and good food. At midnight, my son was tired, so we went home. On the way out, we greeted the Jewish security guard and the heavily armed Danish policemen, and wished them a happy and quiet night. They thanked us and wished us the same.

Some 40 minutes later, a gunman feigning drunkenness came up to the guard and two policemen. He pulled out a gun and fired straight at the guard’s head. He was so close he couldn’t even stretch out his arm. Afterwards, he fired wildly at the two policemen, then fled.

Police say it was the same terrorist that tried to kill Lars Vilks some hours earlier. He was later that Sunday shot and killed by police.

I was at home, watching in horror as the news broke. I was so close to the synagogue, but could do nothing because the entire area was locked down. My family and my friends had been led by a resolute Jewish security guard to a panic room in the synagogue, which I only learned when I finally reached one of my cousins via text message.

That night is still hazy in my mind. When the bat mitzvah party was evacuated, I drove to the police station to help get people home. It took hours, because their cash, credit cards, house keys, jackets, everything, was still at the synagogue. But the police were kind and professional, and in the morning all were home. Except the two policemen, who were in the hospital, and the 37-year-old security guard, Dan Uzan. He was dead.

On Sunday, everyone from the Danish Queen and Prime Minister down to the ordinary Dane condemned the terrorist attacks. And I cried when I realized how close I was to losing my family. All of them.

The following day, I wrote an email thanking the Copenhagen police for their amazing professionalism, kindness, and compassion. I wrote that every single policeman and woman on duty that night was “ein mench”, that Yiddish word for a person of honor and integrity. The same word my grandmother had used to describe the Danes who helped her family in 1943.

A few hours later, I received a personal reply from the Copenhagen police commissioner. He wrote how glad he was for my kind words. How sad he was for the events that unfolded, and especially the death of Dan Uzan. And he wrote that it was his firm belief that things could have turned out even worse were it not for Dan Uzan and the two policemen.

That same Monday, the Uzan family set up a memorial website for Dan Uzan. It was, and is, very important for the family to spread the message that he always tried to convey. It is a simple one, written in Danish, English, French, and Hebrew:

Daring to be kind – Evil can never be vanquished through force, it can be overcome through human kindness alone. It is the only hope for mankind and for our world entire.

My family and I, along with all Danish Jews, will not be afraid. Danish Jews will need more security. But we will heed what Hannah Bentow and Dan Uzan have taught us. We will be kind towards all, regardless of their gender, religion, sexual orientation, skin color, or political beliefs. That is our answer to the terrorist who wanted to destroy us.

David Bentow, a Copenhagen-based journalist, is a co-editor of the Danish financial news service He previously lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in New York City.

David Bentow, a Copenhagen-based journalist, is a co-editor of the Danish financial news service He previously lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in New York City.