Denmark: A museum about refugees – politics is being built in Oksbøl

Oksbøl is a small place on the Danish North Sea coast, not 3000 souls: a school, a church, a train station. But sometimes such a place hits “world history right in the heart”, as Claus Kjeld Jensen says. Jensen, museum director by profession, enlightener by calling, is standing in the middle of a burial ground with gravestones, all of which have German names, 1800 in number. He explains how he intends to expose the rendezvous between Oksbøl and world history, which has been forgotten for decades, and make it fruitful for the present. His theme is historical and it couldn’t be more topical: it is escape.

Why do people flee? Why are they leaving the place that has been their home for a lifetime? Are they being sent back? Will you survive the escape? Or are they like little Hiltrud Lohrenscheit? Stranded here in this place with her mother in the spring of 1945, buried here in this place on August 13, 1945, she was less than eight months old. There are many children in the cemetery, the children are always the weakest.

World history overtook the hamlet of Oksbøl in the last days of the Second World War. Denmark was still occupied by German troops. Hitler had ordered the German refugees from the eastern regions of the Reich to be transported to Denmark across the Baltic Sea. 250,000 arrived in the occupied country – and they only stayed there once the Third Reich was defeated and the war was over.

A barracks outside Oksbøl swelled to become the largest refugee camp on Danish soil. 36,000 Germans lived here at peak times, almost all of them women and children. “The fifth largest city in Denmark was built here in just six months,” says Claus Kjeld Jensen: a city with its own school, hospital and theater. A city behind barbed wire.

Attached are the photos of me, they show museum director Claus Kjeld Jensen at the cemetery of the German refugees from 1945-49 and in the construction site of the new camp-museum building

“A wonderful story of reconciliation,” says museum director Claus Kjeld Jensen about the Danish-German cooperation.

(Photo: Kai Strittmatter)

Initially eyed with suspicion by the Danish authorities, who would have liked to get rid of the Germans immediately after the end of the war, which the British and Americans initially prevented. “There was a huge fear that the women would find Danish husbands,” says Jensen. But then there were also great efforts on the part of the Danish side, especially to organize the camp school in a surprisingly progressive way, “with teachers who wanted to teach the children about democracy and who wanted to be friends”, as Jensen explains. “The same people who tried this approach here in the camp were those who reformed the Danish school system in the 1960s.”

“A beautiful story of reconciliation”

The cemetery in Oksbøl is still visited by 20,000 people a year. Beyond the families of the relatives, however, the history of the German refugees in Denmark was long forgotten.

That will now change: An escape museum is being built here, an ambitious project. Designed by the office of star architect Bjarke Ingels, financed by both countries. When Queen Margrethe II arrives on her state visit in Berlin on Wednesday, she will also visit the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation, one of the cooperation partners of the museum makers in Oksbøl. “How the two nations work together here is a wonderful story of reconciliation,” says museum director Claus Kjeld Jensen.

What Jensen does not say: The development of the flow of refugees and the Danish refugee policy in particular will turn his museum into a lively commentary on current politics after it opens next summer. Actually a godsend for museum makers. And at the same time delicate. Yes, the director says, he has felt nervous at times from some politicians in Copenhagen.

Jensen and his team decided right from the start not to limit themselves to German-Danish. “The refugee crises today are much bigger and more important,” he says. So they will not only tell the story of the young woman who fled Königsberg in 1945, but also that of the Bosnian mother from Sarajevo and that of the Syrian woman who had to leave Aleppo. “There are so many parallels,” says Jensen. You want to show the faces behind the numbers. “We want a conversation, we want information and we want the visitors to feel empathy.”

Denmark wants to send all asylum seekers to Africa in the future

Hard-heartedness was recently an accusation that was often heard against Denmark’s social democratic government, and it was not the only one: Denmark acted on its own, incompatible with EU rules, complained the EU Commission; the government is undermining “the international protection system for refugees,” warned the UN refugee agency. At first, Denmark was the only EU country to declare parts of Syria a safe return area for refugees. It later passed a law that should allow the country to send all asylum seekers to Africa in the future, to a camp in a state yet to be determined; among other things one probed in Rwanda, Egypt and Ethiopia. The Prime Minister’s stated goal: “Zero asylum seekers” on Danish soil.

Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod once stood for a value-based foreign policy, which, among other things, should serve as a compass to respect human rights. In a conversation with German journalists shortly before the Danish Queen’s visit to Berlin, Jeppe Kofod defended his government’s policy. Everyone agrees: The existing asylum system is “broken” and only serves criminal smugglers. “We are fighting for a fairer, more humane asylum system.” One that doesn’t mean thousands would have to die in the Mediterranean. Hence the search for a camp in Africa.

However, many do not want to follow the minister in their own country either. As the conservative newspaper Berlingske last month took stock of Kofod’s term in office, when the right-wing populists applauded the loudest, otherwise many of the judgments were somewhere between “cynical” and “hypocrisy”. It read that the minister had “lost his compass”. And the Norwegian top diplomat and Social Democrat Jan Egeland attested to the Danish comrades that their stance on the refugee question was “the most selfish and hypocritical thing I have seen in Nordic politics for a long time”: “So the next time you flee to Sweden, like it as many Danes did between 1940 and 1945, should the Swedes send you to Africa too? “

The museum in Oksbøl, says director Jensen, also wants to deal with the misuse of words: make it clear what a refugee is at a time when many only speak of “migrants”. A separate room will be dedicated to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, which Denmark was one of the first countries to sign. “We should be proud of that. There are rules, international obligations.”

No, says Claus Kjeld Jensen when he leaves, they don’t want to join forces with any political camp. “But we want to show that there is a huge problem here. And that won’t go away just because we close our eyes or pull up a fence.”

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