In the mid-1970s I was the proverbial Wandering Jew. Born and raised in Atlanta, my younger sister and I had an erratic upbringing, having lost our mother to cancer when I was 10, then raised by a series of governesses. Though my mother was Jewish, my father was Protestant and a churchgoer, and consequently I never was bar mitzvahed. My sister adjusted well, eventually marrying and raising a family. As for me, after making the rounds of private schools, I dropped out of college and, after a couple of years on the West Coast, was bumming around Europe. I had seen all the trademark sights: London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, the Alps. People I’d met had spoken well of Copenhagen. The few specifics that stood out appealed to me: Copenhagen was on the concert circuit, weed was easy to get and, most appealing, there were blondes. Lots of blondes.
On the surface, Copenhagen looks rather generic European, a city of brick and concrete and tile and verdigris dulled by leaden skies. It’s also a flat city, with a flat skyline pierced by church towers and the occasional high-rise. Being flat makes Copenhagen a city of bike riders. Everybody bikes here, from kids peddling to school, to suited businessmen and women peddling to work.
But looks are also deceiving. Behind the historically weathered facades and bicycling commuters is a modern city, a city that works. Public transit—buses, subway, suburban train lines—obviates the need for cars. Healthcare and education are provided at no cost. Well, there is a cost. Taxes are high in Denmark, with a sales tax of 25 percent and a marginal income tax of 56 percent. While taxes seem exorbitant, Danes can see them at work, administered by a government that is rated the least corrupt in the world.
Perhaps most relevantly to me at the time I moved there, Danes party on any pretext—birthdays, anniversaries, mid-summer, mid-winter, assorted religious holidays which they observe every way but piously. On Sunday mornings, even in winter, smashed beer bottles cover the walking streets, left by Swedish marauders taking the Øresund Bridge—built in 2000, the first land link between Denmark and Sweden since the last ice age—to party Saturday nights in Copenhagen.
I lived in a nice part of central Copenhagen called Frederiksberg—a bit like Brooklyn Heights—then moved to the suburbs north of town. At the time, Denmark was transitioning from decades of Social Democratic rule toward the right. Meanwhile, North Sea oil and gas came online, and Danes had a share that for the first time made them energy independent. Denmark then entered the European Union, which was also a good deal for the Danes. The triumph of market capitalism made Denmark an entrepreneurial nation. However, Social Democrats made periodic comebacks albeit in the business-friendly style of Tony Blair’s “New Labor”. Denmark became and remains a rich little country, with a capitalist economy combined with social welfare. In fact, even with Social Democratic (abbreviated as “socialist”) governments, neither Scandinavia nor the rest of Western Europe, has ever been truly socialist: private capital has always driven the economies.
Because Jews are so assimilated in Denmark, it took a while of before I found out about the place of Jews in Denmark. I found out that Victor Borge was Børge Rosenbaum, who fled Denmark when the Nazis invaded. I found out that the greatest Wagnerian heldentenor of the 20th century Lauritz Melchior, though not Jewish, had the same surname as generations of Copenhagen rabbis.
I also found out that unlike other Europeans, Danes never regarded Jews as aliens but as fellow countrymen. It is why saving Danish Jews from transport to the death camps by the Nazis was a no-brainer for them. When the Gestapo came to take the Jews, the Danes, though occupied and unarmed, yet still one of Hitler’s Aryan Übermenschen, stood up, looked them in the eye and said, “No.”
When I lived in Denmark, there were lots of people still alive—Danes tend to live long—who took part in the saving of the Jews, but I didn’t know them that way because it was never discussed. It was never discussed because, like others who practiced tikkun olam during that fearful time, they believed that not having done what they did would have been shameful. This is not to say that the Danes I met were free from anti-Semitic prejudice. I overheard comments made by friends about Jewish acquaintances, and even had tussles—mainly about Israel—with some. But I’m certain that none of these people would have hesitated, during the Nazi occupation, to save me or my family.
Outside the cities and suburbs of Copenhagen lie beautiful preserved wooded areas, with well-tended trails. It’s a rambler’s delight. But it is not wilderness. I found, to my annoyance, that it is impossible to be completely alone in Denmark. No matter where I went, how deep in the woods, there were other people—not crowds, just other solo ramblers or couples or families with kids. It was this way when I rambled through the Black Forest in Germany or the Jura in Switzerland or the Salisbury Plain in England. Simply put, Europe is a crowded continent.
Europeans see America’s diversity as one of our strengths, but the truth is that, in our vast country, tolerance of diversity is comparatively easy. Europeans don’t have the luxury of space. And tolerance is the sufferance of what one doesn’t like. It is far easier to tolerate what you don’t often see than what’s in your face every day.
As in other European countries, with the rise of Denmark’s immigrant population came the rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant political parties. The nationalist Danish People’s Party is the third largest party in the Danish parliament and the largest Danish party in the European Parliament. I expect its popularity to spike after this week.
Interestingly, the Danes are no strangers to problematic minorities. Greenland is a self-governing part of the Danish realm. The Greenlanders are mostly Inuits and, like most aboriginals in the world who have been forced to adapt to modern life, Greenlanders have difficulty undoing what millennia of evolution have done. For them, Greenland has become a vast reservation; they cannot live the old ways, nor, when they move to Denmark, can they adapt to the modern. Alcoholism, the number-one health issue for Greenlanders in Denmark, is their self-destructive behavior. (I know two Greenlanders who have adapted to Danish living; both are caseworkers for other Greenlanders.) I’ve sometimes wondered whether immigrant Muslims are inhabiting a reservation of their own: unable to adapt, yet unable to escape. Since alcohol is not a part of their mores, violence is the chosen form of self-destruction.
Not long after deciding to put down stakes in Copenhagen, I met another restless kid, a Dane who was half-Jewish and looking for his spiritual roots. We traveled down to Israel and worked on a kibbutz. It was a Nahal in the Negev, not far from Gaza. At night we could hear distant gunfire and explosions. The soldiers who parked their armored vehicles behind our gates would say insouciantly, “The Palestinians are just playing their games.” The work was hard, and, in my Bermuda shorts I wasn’t taken very seriously. After a few weeks I moved back to Denmark. But the experience stayed with me. I discovered a kinship between kibbutz life and life in Denmark: in both places people were more important than things. I realized that like a kibbutz, Denmark is not so much a place as a living experience, an experience of living with other people in harmony, and that social consciousness is not socialism.
I eventually moved back to America to finish college, with a couple of years of grad school in the U.K. I now live on the West Coast, but I return to Denmark every year to visit friends and tend a small apartment outside Copenhagen. I may have been born in the conservative American south, but I grew up—and into a person—in liberal Denmark. Long may it live.
Jack Rice is a freelance writer based in Southern California.