Roz Leiser has worked as a grief counselor, research coordinator, RN, non-profit director, staff member for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, waitress and movie theatre janitor. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Common Ties, The Noe Valley Voice, The Sun, and Moment Magazine. She has also authored or co-authored work in the Journal of Nurses in AIDS Care, JAMA (Journal of the AMA), and other medical journals. She lives in San Francisco and is currently at work on a memoir.
I didn’t realize I was waiting for the story until the guide finished her tour and hadn’t told it.
Slightly queasy from the crooked floor in Copenhagen’s Jewish Museum, I was a little annoyed that Daniel Liebeskind had used this architectural ploy twice. I had already walked on the uneven floor he designed in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. According to the Danish guide, the reference was to the sea voyage to Sweden, which had saved the Jews of Denmark, and also a nod to this building’s original maritime function. But yes, it was also symbolic of the Jews always being a little off kilter, never knowing what to expect.
I didn’t need a tilted floor to feel the impact of the centuries of persecution. My refugee parents had installed the constant anxiety and grief in our apartment, which felt like a haunted house visited by silent, spectral relatives. I was frightened by all those lost relations, but at the same time, curious to understand their lives and deaths.
My father tirelessly watched documentaries about World War II, and read histories of the Third Reich and biographies of its leaders. Images of emaciated corpses piled behind the “Arbeit Macht Frei” inscribed gates of Auschwitz, stories of babies thrown against walls, the endless catalogue of sadistic acts and futile deaths were an ironic backdrop to the “Father Knows Best,” American 1950’s of my childhood. Although I knew that Eisenhower was the president of the country I lived in, Hitler seemed just as alive and powerful. The horror of “the war,” as my parents referred to that time drew me toward it with the force of gravity, and at the same time led me to search for a booster rocket to launch me out of its atmosphere.
And so, I swung like a pendulum, toward and away, from coming face to face with my personal historical nightmare. I watched all the films from “The Sorrow and the Pity” to “Schindler’s List.” When I was seventeen, a lampshade constructed from human skin in Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, sat next to a bar of soap that might have originated from one of my distant relatives. As I struggled not to vomit, I wanted to run but had to look. When friends asked me if I had been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I said I felt no need. I had grown up in a Holocaust museum. Finally, I decided I’d had enough and swore off Holocaust-related movies and books. From Hannah Arendt to Elie Wiesel, nothing was going to make this comprehensible or bearable.
But years later, when I traveled in Europe, I felt compelled to visit sights commemorating this history, if only to bear witness. In Paris I climbed down steps that led through a white passageway on an island where I watched the Seine flow by through barred windows. In Venice, where the term ghetto originated, I stood in the leafy square where the deportations began. In Amsterdam I climbed the narrow steps to Anne Frank’s attic. In Prague I viewed the artifacts that the Nazis collected for their planned museum of the extinct Jewish race.
Each time I visited one of these places I swore it was the last time. I knew enough. Leave it to those who were unfamiliar with these events to learn about them.
But because the story was different in Denmark, which unlike much of Europe did not annihilate their Jewish population, I convinced myself to visit Copenhagen’s Jewish museum. I admired the young guide’s even-handed presentation that did not portray the Danes as saints, that stuck to the facts, which included a German officer who leaked the news of the plans for Jewish deportation possibly to save his own neck after the war, (which he did). And he cleverly succeeded in making Denmark Judenrein (free of Jews) without massive murders.
Almost 8,000 Danish Jewish lives were saved, with the help of the Danish people, some demanding huge sums for the use of their boats, others risking their lives and asking for nothing in return. In either case, they transported the Jews to Sweden where they lived through the war.
I had known this history, without the details, since childhood. Like many other Jewish children of my generation I was told, among the horror stories, the heroic exception story of Denmark’s Jews, and of the Danish king who in solidarity with his Jewish subjects had appeared in public wearing the yellow star that marked them. That such people existed shone a small beam of light into the seemingly unending darkness of cruelty and betrayal.
I imagined the Danish king, seated high astride a big white horse, with a huge yellow star sewn onto his regal garb. I imagined people cheering him in the streets; people I imagined were outraged at the idea of killing their innocent neighbors. Imaginary Danes led by their imaginary king provided me with a model for resistance instead of capitulation without which I might never have imagined resistance at all.
As the tour through the small museum concluded, I waited for the guide to use this story as the climax of the tour. But she made no reference to this event. So, as the few people in our group stood talking, I asked her about it. The guide looked at me and then looked down at the crooked floor. “Sadly,” she said, “that didn’t happen.”
The king did go out on his horse and served as a symbol of Danish sovereignty during the German occupation. He took some risks, didn’t praise Hitler enough on his birthday, which caused a major incident, but, as for the yellow star it never graced his lapels.
I stood there on the verge of tears. A tale that had been a beacon of hope for me had suddenly become an urban legend. As I tried to absorb this new version of reality, a dark-haired man stepped in front of his family and began to berate the young guide, saying that what had happened to the Jews of Denmark was not a big deal.
“Jews were hidden and saved in other countries too,” he insisted.
The guide looked at a portrait hanging across the room as if it could tell her what to say. The man and his son as well as the rest of our small group drifted away.
That young part of me that grew up clinging to the legend of the heroic king drew me toward the guide. Now that I knew the truth, I still wanted her to know that man did not speak for me. I thanked her for the information she had given us.
“What happened in Denmark is important,” I said. “It mattered to me all my life.”