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Denmark, the Black Diamond, Yiddish and me

I went to Copenhagen to find a Europe that didn't have death camps and discovered a vast Jewish cultural heritage that changed my life
Inside the Black Diamond- July 2000. (courtesy)
Inside the Black Diamond- July 2000. (courtesy)

“I was like a kid in a chocolate shop — I didn’t have enough.”  Saul Chapnick, Copenhagen, Denmark, Journal Entry, July 7, 2000

It was early Friday morning. I was enjoying European coffee at some outdoor café in Copenhagen. The Dane sitting next to me was curious as to why an American was situated in a nondescript part of her city.

I gave the Dane the same spiel I gave a security guard late the night before, which convinced the guard to allow me access into Memorial Park, hours after closing time:

I am the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. I haven’t been to Tivoli or any other tourist spot in Denmark. I wanted to go to a country in Europe that did what Poland did not do — I came here, to Denmark.”

The Danes are very accommodating to everyone. They virtually gave the Germans permission to stay in their country believing the Nazi request that they need to be in Denmark to be on the lookout for British ships on the Baltic Sea.

This accommodating Dane wanted to hear about my adventure. I told her about how my friend Bjarne from New York, a Danish tourist agent, connected me with the Danish consulate. For the previous two days, through their support, I had rented a car and was able to trace the exact escape routes the Jews back then took, with the help of the citizens of this great country, to sail to Sweden.

I also visited Memorial Park where the Nazis executed members of the Danish Resistance and toured the Resistance Museum, where the curators gave an unfiltered, demythologized account of Denmark during the occupation.

Water view of the Black Diamond

“You owe it to yourself to go to the Black Diamond,” my coffee partner told me.  She was of course referring to the magnificent National Library of Denmark, similar to The Library of Congress in the United States.

After noticing my initial facial expression, she continued, “You have been stressing too much about the Holocaust and must see other Jewish sites. The Black Diamond,” she continued, “has a comprehensive Judaica library, and it was the only national collection in Occupied Europe that the Nazis did not destroy.”

On that very day, I took advice from a total stranger. Imagine going into a library of such stature and allowed total access into a vast and valuable collection. The librarians directed me to the section which contained Yiddish books that were hundreds of years old.

I was in for a shock. Up until that year, scholars, by and large, wrote that Yiddish was not taken seriously over the centuries and this was reflected in their literature.

How wrong they were. There were Yiddish books of science, serious literature and history that dated back to the early 18th century and beyond.

I was reading them and shaking. Time was lost during those moments. I must have spent six hours in the library, and the librarians were more than accommodating.

My view of Ashkenaz, the 1,000 year old history of European Jewry, changed at that moment. My journey, which had begun nearly 10 years before my visit to Denmark in 2000, took a whole new direction that lasts till today.

Inside the Black Diamond, July 2000

Since then I have frequented Europe, namely Poland and Ukraine, spoken with community leaders, rabbis, politicians, teachers, grassroot organizations to uncover more about this vanished world…as well as about myself.

About the Author
For over twenty-five years, Saul passionately devoted and immersed himself studying Jewish life in interwar Europe. Overnight, not only did this 1000-year-old community vanish, but so did its complex communal infrastructure. What piqued Saul Chapnick’s interest and curiosity was finding out exactly what it is that disappeared. In talking to politicians, survivors, scholars, Jewish communal leaders from Eastern Europe, and making trips there, Saul Chapnick was able to uncover the richness and the tragedy of interwar Jewish life in Europe. At the same time, Mr. Chapnick has discovered a rebirth of Jewish life in his parents’ and ancestors’ native land, Poland. Saul Chapnick has talked in various venues such as Limmud whether Yiddish still has relevance today, and has also spoke about the contemporary themes of the 19th and 20th century Yiddish writers and musicians. He also prepares the adult participants of The March for the Living about modern day Jewish Poland
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