Denmark : Finding Meaning in the Unexpected

I have grown to be a spiritual person, most often times inspired by nature and on occasion moved by mankind.

By spiritual, I don’t mean religious, but what I am referring to is a belief that everything that happens in this powerful and potent world of ours serves as a purpose and is worth drawing meaning from.

I arrived in Denmark a bit over two weeks ago. My time in Scandinavia is the nucleus of this journey; Denmark is the country that saved my grandmother, not just once, but twice, and here reside the people who gave her not only a home, but a glimmer of hope during a dark time in history. It was in October 1939 that she arrived in Copenhagen as a naive child ready for adventure. She was brought to safety here through an initiative with the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom, whom in collaboration with the Danish government, agreed to take in 150 Czech Jewish teenagers and place them with foster families on farms. Their goal was to learn agricultural skills and eventually make their way to Palestine, which only a few ever succeeded in doing.

Hana with her fellow Czech chaverim (friends) in Denmark. Each teen was placed on a different foster farm, often times very far away from each other. But, every Tuesday they gathered to talk in their native language, practice their Judaism and forget about the realities of war.

Hana with her fellow Czech chaverim (friends) in Denmark. Each teen was placed on a different foster farm, often times very far away from each other. But, every Tuesday they gathered to talk in their native language, practice their Judaism and forget about the realities of war.

Denmark offers a unique lens to the history of World War II. The Danes were occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940, but for nearly three years, the presence of these soldiers were not much more than additional bodies patrolling the streets. It wasn’t until 1943 when martial law was placed upon the Danes and the deportation of the Jews became a formal proposal. The plans for the roundup of the Jewish population leaked to the public and as quickly as the rumors circulated, escape strategies were devised. It was a spontaneous act of human decency that resulted in nearly 99% of the Danish Jewish population surviving the war. The majority, including my grandmother, escaped to neutral Sweden thanks to the help of hundreds of Danish fisherman who risked their lives transporting Jews and members of the resistance movement to safe shores.

During my first days in Copenhagen, I was in a state of undisturbed joy. I explored on my own and reacquainted with a city that I admire. On my second day, I met with the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark, Rabbi Bent Melchior, who was just a young boy when he sailed to safety in Sweden on the same boat as my grandmother in 1943. And over the weekend, I was hosted by the descendants of Dasa Bergmann, my grandmother’s very good childhood friend from Czechoslovakia who was sent to Denmark with her in 1939. He remained there after the war and that is where his children, grandchildren, and great grandchild still reside.

Ruben Bergmann, Dasa's grandson, sits with his son and his step-mother, Let.

Ruben Bergmann, Dasa's grandson, sits with his son and his step-mother, Let.

The stories here embrace a theme of survival and offer a strong lesson about what principled people can accomplish.

On February 14, I sat in the window of a Copenhagen cafe, so perfectly content, drinking my steaming cup of coffee and nibbling on a buttery pastry. I watched the world in front of me. New faces, of all different shades and all ages, passed by me on bike and I admired them for choosing such a healthy and environmentally friendly mode of transportation even in the cold winter months. I smiled to myself as I listened to the people around me speak in Danish, picking up on a word here and there which resembled English. Periodically checking my phone, appreciating the wifi, I looked down and saw a text from America. My friend from home was checking in with me to find out if I heard about the shooting in Copenhagen.

Now, I am going to be honest here, I didn’t look at a single article or ask even one question about what happened until I got back to where I was staying. I know what the over-saturated media did to my sanity during the Boston Marathon bombings and I didn’t want to relive that heightened state of confusion and fear. But, I did know that if something really happened, I should get back to my neighborhood as the entire city would soon feel chaotic.

I am sure that you already know the details that I would eventually learn – there indeed had been a shooting and it was not so far from where I had been sitting at the time. The attack was aimed at Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who stirred controversy in 2007 when he published drawings depicting Prophet Mohammed as a dog. The shooter fled and a manhunt was underway.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I would fall into a rhythmic, quiet breathing for 30 minutes here or there before being startled by my own imagination. Around four in the morning, I learned that another victim had been shot dead, but this time, rather than being a controversial figure, it was a volunteer guard at a synagogue. The perpetrator was caught by the time I crawled out of bed.

I couldn’t help but immediately find symbolism in the timing of this event. The next day I had plans to begin my stay on a farm in rural Denmark. I was to spend a month living, working with, and documenting a family who are descendants of Jensine, one of the Danish farmers who fostered my grandmother in 1942.

Jensine Nygaard with Janet, Hana's daughter and my mother, in Naestved. September 2013.

Jensine Nygaard with Janet, Hana's daughter and my mother, in Naestved. September 2013.

This weekend marks two weeks since that event and in that time I have found a home in the country. Similar to Hana, I have found a family who has taken me in with open arms and warm smiles.

A few days ago I attended school with the two oldest children in the family, Lauge and Liva, aged 9 and 11. I helped in their English classes, answering questions for them about American high schools and tried to explain to them in simple English why I don’t listen to Justin Bieber. Then an 11 year old asked me if I knew about the terror in Denmark and followed up with curiosity about if I had ever experienced a school shooting or a terror attack in the United States. I was caught off guard by these questions and overwhelmed with sadness that these young, innocent children are beginning to see the immorality that too often manifests in this world.

Lauge (far right)

This tragic event offered me a sobering perspective which brings me back to my admission of spirituality. Taking a step back into history while experiencing the present has led me to draw a great amount of meaning from the random and the unexpected.

In my conversations with Danes after the attack, I felt a tenderness and heard repeated worries, as well as hope, that a terrible event such as this will not cause any racism or hatred towards Muslims. It is a humanistic response that continues to reverberate around me. This world is always going to be contaminated by evil and violence, but the way that we as a caring, diverse community come together will be the root of what unifies us and leads to our survival as well as our success. It is because of that wholehearted mentality that my grandmother lived to tell me her story.