Louisiana, Libeskind’s Labyrinth and the Jews’ escape across the Sound

I meander through a maze of narrow, winding passages framed by walls of huge grey slabs. They entrap me; slope and slice across my path; disorientate me. There is no mistaking the architecture. It has to be Libeskind. The design is a miniature version of the Jewish Museum in Berlin but encased in the old Royal Boat House of Christian IV of Denmark.

The old Royal Boat House of Christian IV of Denmark. Entrance to the Jewish Museum of Denmark to the left. 

But neither the architecture nor the layout, modelled on the Hebrew word, ‘mitzvah’ meaning the ‘duty to do the right thing’ or a ‘good deed,’ work for me. But then Daniel Libeskind’s architecture was always more of a statement showing little regard for curators or exhibition designers who have to negotiate his tortuous angles. Perhaps it is just as well the V&A never raised enough money to build Libeskind’s Spiral designed as the Museum’s contemporary space.

There is some rationale for locating the Jewish Museum in the Royal Boat House as it was Christian IV who first invited the Jews to settle in Denmark as merchants.

Interactive showing images of successful Jewish Danes

Many became integrated and successful within Danish society but felt threatened by the arrival of 3,000 Jews at the beginning of the 20th century, escaping the pogroms in Eastern Europe. These Jews were poorer. Some had socialist ideas and spoke Yiddish.

Interactive showing images of East European Jews who were ‘workers or labourers’

Such tensions between the established Jewish community and new arrivals from Eastern Europe surfaced similarly in Britain.

Work tools of the Jews from Eastern Europe in small cases embedded at the base of the slanting walls

The ‘good deed’ that inspired Libeskind to model the museum on the word ‘mitzvah’ alludes to the flight and rescue of the Jews in 1943. It is a deed Denmark can be rightly proud of. 99% of Jews, living in Denmark at the outbreak of the World War 11, survived. A temporary exhibition Home in the hall adjacent to the Museum, and free from the constraints of Libeskind’s labyrinth, tells me more.

Exhibition of the Home in adjacent hall

When the Germans occupied Denmark in 9 April 1940 the Government chose to cooperate with the occupying forces. This meant Jews were not subject to the same humiliating treatment as elsewhere. There was no yellow star, no confiscation of property or exclusion from business. But when Denmark withdrew their collaboration on 29 August 1943 this agreement ended. The Jews were no longer protected.

On October 1st 1943 the Nazis began to arrest and deport Danish Jews. 481 were captured and sent to the concentration camp, Theresienstadt where 51 died but 7,742 managed to escape to neutral Sweden. Ejnar Larsen rescued 70 Jews in his fishing boat, Elizabeth and had to flee to Sweden himself when the Gestapo got wind of his activities. The Danish Resistance systematised escape routes and established fixed tariffs. Thankfully Sweden relaxed its strict immigration policies and accepted the refugees but at least 148 children were left behind in the care of fellow Danes. The youngest was six days old and the oldest 17. Most, like Tove Warchaffsky who at the age of 3 was left with a couple she didn’t know, were separated for one and a half years. Many parents never spoke to their children about such experiences. The belief at that time was that silence was best.

Tove Warchaffsky, one of the 148 children left with fellow Danes by Jewish families who fled

The Danish authorities put measures in place to protect the property of Jews who had left and even sent food parcels to Danish Jews in Theresienstadt. Half of the Jews who returned after the war were able to reclaim their property but others were not so fortunate. Their property had been rented out and their possessions lost. There was some financial compensation for the returnees but some were stateless and only supported for a limited time.

The return was not always smooth.
“What we came home to and what we should do. We had no idea about that. But we did not care. It was just about getting home to Denmark.”
Paula Unterschlag on returning home from exile in Sweden.

“When you have lived in a camp for 18 months you become a different person.” Ida Eerbstein on returning home from Theresienstadt.

I take the train  up the East Coast to Humlebaek  and follow the crowds to the most popular museum in Denmark, Louisiana, named after three wives of the owner of the original villa, all called Louise. The setting is wonderful. A clever interplay of modernist architecture inspired by German Bauhaus and California Bay Area with the surrounding landscape. I walk into the Giacometti Gallery with floor to ceiling windows that look out over the garden. Lean, purposeful Walking Man faces a leaner, more upright Standing Woman. They are framed by weeping willows that trail the reflections of their tears in the stream below.

Giacometti’s Walking Man

Outside I watch shadows fall over Henry Moore’s Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 5, resting against a slither of  Swedish coastline sandwiched between the blue of the sky and the blue of the Sound.

Henry Moore’s Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 5 

.I stumble across famous art works and sculpture as I glance through a doorway, walk down a light filled passageway, stumble through undergrowth or enter a grassy glade. Pop art or Pablo Picasso; Francis Picabia or Francis Bacon and less familiar Danish artists. Much of the permanent collections are not on display as there are several major exhibitions on offer. I have a choice – the dazzling work of the Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, A Closer Look at Lucien Freud or Africa: Architecture, Culture and Identity. I choose Africa and am drawn to the photography. Images of ‘one day sculptures’ by Nigerian, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere – intricate cornrows and braids of Nigerian women’s hairstyles from 1950s to 1990s.

One day sculptures by J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere 

Images by Dillon Marsch of mammoth nests sculpted out of twigs and grass by sociable weaver birds dressing telephone poles in the southern Kalahari.

Nests made by sociable weaver birds photographed by Dillon Marsch 

Images of houses, decaying monuments from the colonial era, and their new occupants, by Patrick Willocq, a Frenchman, who lived in the Congo as a child.


Images of colonial houses with their new occupants by photographer Patrick Willocq

There is a mesmerising film by South Korean artist, Che Onejoon of social realist monuments and buildings made by North Koreans across Africa.


Che Onejoon’s video of social realist art by North Koreans

The Black Scream by Anton Kannemeyer, whose work critiques South African politics, cannot fail to stop you in your tracks.

The Black Scream by Anton Kannemeyer


An impressive range of architectural initiatives draws on local materials and traditions. Wooden floating tent-shaped schools suspended over water in Nigeria; a woman’s centre in Rwanda inspired by the original royal palace – a woven circular hut with smaller units in a snail like pattern but built in locally made perforated bricks.

IMG_9948 (1a)
Floating schools in Nigeria

And then I see it. Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire. The text reads, ‘A national project if ever there was one. The most glamorous hotel of West Africa or beyond 1963 – 1970.’ With some embarrassment I remember the night I stayed there in 1970 when it had just opened before travelling to Bouake in the interior. My room was on the upper floors of the tower block, unique at the time. I could look over the swimming pool and, in the days before cordless phones or mobiles, make phone calls from my bath! What luxury! What excess!

Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan that opened in 1970

I sit in the café recovering from the reminder of my troubled early 20s. I flick through pages of the catalogue and read that the Louisiana is about `maintaining the elite as a benchmark of quality without becoming elitist …. popular without becoming populist.’ It is a magical place and yet as I look towards the Swedish coastline all I can think of is the 7,000 Jews that escaped across the Sound to safety. Of the fishermen and the Danish Resistance who helped them. And of the 23 who did not make the crossing. It must have looked so tantalisingly close.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.