June 14, 2024

How an award ceremony reunited descendants of two saviors of Denmark's Jews - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

King Frederik X of Denmark agreed to be blessed. With a black kippah on his head, neuroscientist Haim Sompolinsky of Jerusalem recited the blessing Jews say when we meet a king – first in English, then in Hebrew, and then in Danish: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who hast given of Thy glory to a king of flesh and blood.” 

This is the blessing that Israeli author Shmuel Yosef Agnon recited before the king of Sweden in 1966, when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

There is no Nobel Prize category of neuroscience. Instead, the Lundbeck Foundation in nearby Denmark awards the world-recognized accolade called the Brain Prize, which is considered the “Nobel Prize in neuroscience.” This year, Sompolinsky, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Harvard University, was one of the three scientists to be named a Brain Prize laureate. 

Sompolinsky uses tools from physics to decipher the complexity of the brain’s structure and dynamics. Early on, his brain research was treated skeptically by scientists who were seeking – albeit unsuccessfully – to unmask the brain’s mysteries with microscopes. But today, there is universal appreciation that mathematical and computational modeling are essential for understanding the workings of the brain. Computational neuroscience research has played a pivotal role in the development of artificial intelligence that mimics the neural networks of the brain in its billions of interactions. 

The Lundbeck Foundation representatives notified Sompolinsky in a Zoom call, recording his reaction for posterity. 

If he was surprised by the call, so were the callers. Sompolinsky told the Danes something they didn’t know: “I was born in Denmark, and so was my father, who saved hundreds of Danish Jews in the Holocaust, enabling them to reach Sweden. For me, to celebrate my scientific work with the Danish royalty and Danish people is to celebrate the amazing richness of humanity the Danes represented in the darkest period of my family’s life. This closes a circle in my life.” 

The family members skipped visiting Copenhagen’s famous Tivoli Gardens, National Museum, and Design Museum to pursue their own quest. 

Although Sompolinsky’s research has enormous implications for the future of humanity, retracing the past, specifically the life of Haim’s father, absorbed them. Haim’s father, David Sompolinsky, who died in 2021 in Israel at age 100, finally recorded his heroic story for Yad Vashem when he was 97. Still, there were unanswered questions. 

The Sompolinsky family immigrated to Denmark in 1914, when Haim’s grandparents fled Poland. Haim’s father, born in 1921, grew up in Denmark, attending high school in Copenhagen’s Christiansavns Gymnasium, before matriculating in medical school. At the time, Christian X, great-grandfather of Frederik X, was king. 

The Nazis invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940, initially allowing the Jews to continue their lives. But on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, September 29, 1943, information was revealed that the Nazis were going to round up the Jews on the holiday, when they were expected to be at home with their families. The Jews immediately needed to go into hiding. 

Young David Sompolinsky grabbed an unlocked bicycle left outside by a neighbor and set off to alert his fellow Jews. When he returned, the neighbor, divinity teacher Aage Bertelsen, was irate over the unapproved use of his bike. But as soon as he understood Sompolinsky’s mission, Bertelsen and his wife, Gerda, became prime movers in hiding Denmark’s Jews and later facilitated their rescue on fishing boats to Sweden. The Bertelsens would eventually be forced to flee Denmark themselves, leaving their children behind for two years. 

David Sompolinsky visited the Danish hospitals and placed quarantine signs on the Jewish patients’ beds. He stopped at the prisons and found sympathetic jailers who let the Jewish petty criminals go free. 

Still, not everyone was ready to leave. One Jewish woman artist named Fanny (Fradche) Samson was pregnant after seven years of unsuccessful trying. She refused to get on a boat and endanger her unborn child. Arrangements were made for her to hide in an attic until her baby was born. 

An intriguing part of the story is David Sompolinsky’s assuredness that his high school principal, Frederik Bogh, and teachers would come to the aid of the Jewish community. On September 30, 1943, Sompolinsky approached the principal and found an open door and an extended arm for immediate assistance. Twenty- four Jews needed immediate hiding places. The fishing boat ride to Sweden wasn’t free. Destitute Jews couldn’t afford the passage. Christiansavns Gymnasium staff members raised the funds. 

Why were they so helpful? 

Missing pieces of the story began to fall into place. 

While in Copenhagen for the ceremony, Haim and Elisheva’s daughter, Deputy Attorney-General of Israel Avital Sompolinsky, delivered a guest lecture on legal ethical issues to the Jewish community. After the lecture, researcher and author Eva Ravn Moenbak approached her. It turns out that Christianshavns Gymnasium is celebrating its centennial, and Ravn Moenbak is writing the book of the school history. From her research, she recognized the Sompolinsky name in the lecture advertisements. In the anniversary book, the compassionate and valiant behavior of the staff of the school, the building of which was also used for a safe house for Jews, takes pride of place in its history. The roots of the school activism in saving Jews, according to Ravn Moenbak, lay in its history of unshakable commitment to moral values and democratic principles. 

When the Nazis came knocking on Jewish doors on Rosh Hashanah 1943, few Jews were at home. Most were hidden among Danish Christians. Reportedly, 474 Danish Jews were transported to Theresiendstadt (where they received food parcels from Denmark), while 7,200 Jews and some 700 of their non-Jewish relatives sailed in fishing boats to safety in Sweden over a three-week period in October 1943. 

The 18th anniversary of the Danish rescue took place last October and doubtlessly would have received more attention if Israel had not been at war. 

David Sompolinsky was among the last Jews to leave Denmark, risking his own capture. He continued his medical studies in Sweden and bought the Bible-believing Bertelsens a 1602 edition of the Bible and inscribed it as a thank you gift from the Jews of Denmark. 

After the war, David met his wife, Ilona Malik, a survivor of Auschwitz, while volunteering in a rehabilitation camp in Sweden. They returned to Denmark, where Brain Prize recipient Haim Sompolinsky was born. He is one of his late parents’ 10 children. In addition, there are 83 grandchildren, hundreds of great-grandchildren, and at least 30 great-great-grandchildren – not counting the thousands of offspring of the rescued Jews. 

David Sompolinsky is given credit for saving at least 700 Jews of the 7,000. 

While in Denmark in May, the Sompolinskys located one of a series of four paintings by artist Fanny Samson of her boat escape. A similar painting, gifted by Samson, has adorned the Sompolinsky family homes for 80 years. 

When Prof. Haim was asked to write a paper for a Danish scientific journal in honor of the Brain Prize, the editor turned out to be the grandson of a fisherman who sailed the Jews to safety. 

This is just part of the rich backstory of compassion and heroism of one of the world’s most renowned neuroscientists and his family traveling to Denmark to receive his award. 

Denmark’s King Frederik X can also look back with pride and gratification at his heritage. Although the story of his great-grandfather King Christian X and the Danish people wearing a yellow star is just a legend, King Christian X played an essential role in freeing arrested Jews and supporting all aspects of rescuing his Jewish citizens. His Royalty’s intervention saved innumerable Jewish lives. 

Hence, in addition to the pomp and circumstance of the Amalienborg Palace formal ceremony of the 2024 Brain Prize on May 30, the meeting of the son of David Sompolinsky and the great-grandson of King Christian X deserved to be marked by a blessing. And so it was.