It was a bit of a personal mystery, and one that I never exactly articulated. I’ve always felt what I thought was an inexplicable but powerful pull towards all things Scandinavian. My background is Irish and French-German. I love the idea of leprechauns guarding pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, but beyond that, I never really embraced being Irish. I like the idea of having ancestors from the French-German border better, but there’s very little information about that part of the family. Though it never made a shred of sense, I always felt, when someone said they were from Norway, Denmark or Sweden, that there was something profoundly wrong with the arrangement of the world that I hadn’t been born with a genetic allegiance to a Scandinavian nation, too.
It didn’t make a shred of logical sense, so placed it at the feet of the many friends I had while growing up who were lucky enough to have been born honest-to-goodness Scandinavians. I also had a gifted and memorable sixth grade teacher named Anne Tobiassen whose family hailed from Norway. During the sixth grade at Victor Mravlag School 21 in Elizabeth, NJ, mystery lover that I am, I found the children’s book The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of The Little Mermaid by Jerry West in the tiny school library. It was a tale set in Denmark involving the theft of Copehagen’s famous Little Mermaid statue. Author “Jerry West” didn’t really exist. The books were a product of The Stratemeyer Syndicate, a publishing group that also produced Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and The Bobbsey Twins mysteries, among a host of others. All of the books contained cliff-hangers at the end of most chapters to keep kids riveted and interested in reading more. Ones that were set in “exotic” locales like Copenhagen were part mystery and part children’s travelogue. That particular little volume was definitely one of the best, perhaps because the real name of the pseudonymous writer “Jerry West” was Andrew E. Svenson, as gloriously Scandinavian a name as can be found. West/Svenson’s love for Copenhagen shines through the entire story. It’s now 39 years later, but never forgot how a part of that story was set in a Danish amusement part with the intriguing name of Tivoli Gardens. When I first obtained Internet access and found it was possible to check out websites from all over the world, Tivoli was one of the first I joyfully looked up.
In the seventh grade there was another book I loved, I Remember Mama. That one was about the warm-hearted, strong matriarch of a Norwegian-American family. As an adult, the DVD of the movie based on the book was among the first that made it into my ever-expanding movie collection. That collection sometimes threatens to take over my apartment. Oh, my furniture? Will you be shocked? It’s from Sweden.
By far the best book of them all that was set in my favorite region of the world became available in 2000. A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During World War II by Emmy E. Werner was so fantastic a read that I bought several copies to give away as presents. It detailed how the Danish people put up a quiet united resistance, at first, to the Nazis who occupied their land by not speaking to them when they came into the shops. It was a simple gesture but one that made a powerful statement: you interlopers are just not welcome here! Then when it became apparent that the Nazis planned to round up the Danish Jews, in order to deport them and kill them, the Danes, as a nation, stood up and took positive action. They alerted the Jews, hid them temporarily, got almost all of them safely into fishing boats, and transported them to another Scandinavian nation, neutral Sweden, where they stayed until the end of the war, perfectly safe. When the Danish Jews returned home, the Danes had bands waiting for them at the wharf, playing music to welcome them back. Many of them found out that, while away, their neighbors had cared for their property and pets, and even painted their houses as a welcome home surprise for them! I think A Conspiracy of Decency is therefore one of the most appropriately named books in the history of literature. How fabulous it would be, I recall thinking as I read it, to be Danish or Swedish. To be connected to people as wonderful as these.
I even loved the Norway pavilion at Disney World. Whenever I’m there, you’ll find me riding Maelstrom, the water ride about the Vikings, the trolls, and the fjords that ends with a movie on modern Norway, and eating in the little Norwegian cafe. My mother came along to Disney World with me on year that ride opened and asked me just what was going on that I felt such an attraction to that particular country. I didn’t know. I’ve never been there. I’ve only been to the pavilion, but I adored it at once.
Well, guess what? The other day I found out that my love for this part of the world where I’ve never been is not an accident or a result of reading books set in the area after all.
Ancestry.com has a new DNA test that can reveal your family’s ethnicity. Your family’s full ethnic background and migrations can be traced. I can’t trace my Irish ancestors beyond the 1800’s and I have no information at all about the French-German part of my family, whose surname seems to have been changed. Yet I know DNA doesn’t lie. Any tiny bit of new information, I figured, could only help.
I was hoping for a surprise when I took the test – and got one. To me, it’s the best one imaginable. It turns out the DNA reveals that I’m 43% Scandinavian! That’s a rather high percentage for an Irish girl. Apparently I’m a descendant of the Vikings who “settled” Ireland, whether the Irish wanted them there or not. I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleasantly surprised in my whole life. No wonder I love an area of Northern Europe that I’ve never seen so much. It’s not a just some place on the map.