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O My America: I’d Never Survive

July 7, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

[caption id=“attachment_37978” align=“alignleft” width=“225”]Viking rune stone Viking rune stone[/caption]

I’M A TERRIBLE, anxious traveller. So many decisions to be made, preparations to be endured, questions and directions to be asked; so much faith in the fundamental benevolence of civilization to be tapped, for this fundamentally faithless person.

I’m not a stimulation-seeker, but a safety-seeker. What I’ve done so far in Copenhagen, therefore, is to walk until I find some music (it’s jazz fest here), then sit and listen while reading a book. I generally get to read very few books (lots of magazines, few books) in the course of my working year, so during vacation I become voracious.

The problem with reading books on vacation, however, is that they can really absorb you and shape your experience. So right now I’ve been reading about the Holocaust, while flitting around in a country that surrendered to the Nazis in only two days (or was it two hours?) — yet united to save nearly all of the Danish Jews over the course of two nights. On the way from my hotel to the metro is a brown stone memorial from Israel to Denmark that honors that rescue.

I’ve been reading Marie Syrkin’s Blessed Is the Match, a 1945 book about Jewish resistance to Nazism based on her discussions with partisan survivors in Palestine immediately following the war. I’m reading her book in preparation for our autumn issue of Jewish Currents, which will be entirely devoted to that reality of resistance (so I guess I’m not really acting like I’m on vacation, says Reb Din, or I guess I really love my work, says Reb Smileyface). Syrkin’s book is one of the indispensable works that are based on sources contemporary to the resistance itself. The other is Yuri Suhl’s They Fought Back, which I’ll be re-reading next. Doing her research in Palestine, Syrkin focused primarily on the many young heroes and heroines of the socialist-Zionist world. Suhl’s book focused primarily on Communist and Bundist resisters.

BE THAT as it may, sitting round listening to Danish interpretations of Black American music while reading about anti-Nazi fighters and righteous gentile helpers makes for a strange stream of thoughts.

Right now, for example, I’m sitting in the Copenhagen Central Train Station, waiting to buy tickets to Amsterdam for next Saturday morning. It’s a “take a number and wait” system, so I’m waiting for my number, and thinking about trains and underground railroads.

Immediately before arriving here, I was accosted on the metro by a young Danish man who flashed ID at me and commanded me in Danish to do something, which I figured out was to show him my metro ticket — they have freelance agents like him walking around checking on people in what is otherwise a turnstyle-free honor system. I asked if I could get off before showing him my ticket, and he got off with me, then thanked me for showing him and moved on, leaving me thinking about guards and trains and language differences...

The Danes were very smart in smuggling the Jews off to Sweden. It would’ve been impossible to hide us in Copenhagen (as it was nearly impossible to do in Amsterdam): too orderly and well-documented a culture, too neat and low-slung a housing stock, too small a population (half a million in today’s Copenhagen), to withstand all the Nazi tricks for capturing Jews.

But would I have been able to survive anywhere with my safety-seeking personality, I wonder. My survival virtues would be: I’m quite observant, like a good hunter; I have a decent sense of direction; I usually look calm and self-confident, even when I’m not; I’m smart, although not always about commensensical matter (I overthink things); I’m reasonably fit. My survival deficits: far, far too many to list.

Syrkin describes a type of survivor she calls “woodmen,” who went into the forest as loners, to survive, not looking to fight or sabotage the Nazis, as the partisans did, just to looking to survive the war, survive the Central European winters, survive starvation, survive anti-Semitic peasants. That’s me, I think. In the woods, or in some burrow under a barn. Waiting for it to end.

ENOUGH MORBID stuff. Now I’m in the Danish National Museum, founded in 1810, where I’m wandering among exhibits about paleolithic, neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age Denmark. I am overwhelmed by the ingenuity by which human beings mastered their environment and developed civilizations. Smelting iron? Who figured THAT out? Turning tree trunks into boats with stone tools? Who had the patience and endurance for THAT? Fashioning musical instruments out of reindeer antlers? Genius!

I’ll tell you, though, if I’m a typical Jew, I have no idea how my people have survived these thousands of years. Waiting and worrying do not seem skills enough.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.