Muammar Gaddafi’s demise brings back a memory etched most deeply in my mind related to the late dictator’s influence on the nation of Libya. It was 1974 and, I was concluding a trip through Europe, staying in Copenhagen. A native of Copenhagen suggested I visit Bornholm, an island off of the coast of Southern Sweden owned by Denmark. It was a trip that was hardly direct but I was up for the adventure: hitchhiking from Copenhagen to Ystad and, from there, taking a ferry to the island of Bornholm.
At my arrival, I met three American males about my age who were about to leave Bornholm. They suggested that I rent a motor scooter and take a trip around the perimeter of the island. They also told me that the youth hostel was a good place to stay inasmuch as it was clean and not too noisy. I followed up on both of their suggestions.
When they left, I realized that, at that time, I was the only American on the island. The youth that were staying there for the summer, some of whom were working, invited me to participate in the community meetings they would have each morning. When I told them I didn’t speak Danish, they told me not to worry as the meetings were conducted in English. However, they did not explain the reason this was so, leaving me quite puzzled. I wondered why young Danes would speak in English, a language that was not their native tongue. I had recalled, some weeks earlier, on this same trip, at the University of Amsterdam in Holland, I had heard some Dutch students at lunch speaking in English with one another. They told me that they enjoyed practicing speaking in English. So, naturally, I immediately thought that the Danes wished to speak in English to improve in their ability to express themselves in English.
However, when I attended the meeting the next morning, I discovered that there were both Danish and German youth all speaking in English. Bornholm was a favorite vacationing spot for Germans often thought of as a Northern Riviera. Inasmuch as I was the only one present that spoke English as a first language, although, I was a guest, I had no difficulty understanding what was going on.
After the meeting I noticed a German youth speaking to a Danish youth in German, but the Danish youth replied in an angry tone telling the German to speak in English. This interaction caused me to ask the Dane if he could speak German. He said “yes.” So I asked him why he didn’t speak to the other fellow in German. He said that “we Danes all speak German but that the German do not speak Danish;” he continued by saying that “we Danes still feel anger toward the Germans due to WWII when Germany occupied Denmark.” Suddenly, the irony dawned on me: A Jewish American male visiting from far off being accommodated in his own language, in part because of what had happened in WWII, and namely, what had happened to Jews. A further irony was my awareness of the King of Denmark, who, rather than giving into the Nazis, unlike other European nations, refused to hand Danish Jews over to them.
During the three days I spent at Bornholm, there was a black male who worked at the hostel I was staying at that appeared to be staring at me in a most unfriendly way. Since he appeared to be doing his job and was polite to everyone he came in contact with, at first, I simply thought I was imagining what I was seeing. But whenever I came back to the hostel, those eyes would beam down on me like lasers with anger and what felt like hate. Inasmuch as I have tendencies to be overly sensitive, I began to dwell on what I might have done to this man, who appeared to be well-liked by the rest of the staff, that was causing the apparent hostility between us. And so, the final day of my stay, as he stared at me relentlessly, I approached him and asked him why he appeared so angry at me. He looked at me and with blood in his eye asked me: “Where do you come from?” Without giving me a chance to respond, he said: “You have no home or place that is yours. You are a stranger.”
When he asked me again where I come from, I decided to give him as concrete an answer as I could, perhaps to add levity to the situation with the hope of decreasing his anger and replied: “My mother.”
He looked surprised for a moment as I repeated, more clearly, “I come from my mother.” He looked at me and said: “No you don’t, you’re a Jew.” When he said that, my first impulse was one of relief inasmuch as I understood that I had not committed any action causing his ire. Somewhat shaken, I asked him where he came from. His response was Libya and that Colonel Gaddafi was his leader. The little I knew about Gaddafi was that, as a leader, he was not particularly friendly toward Israel or Jews, in general.
What happened afterwards is memorable. He offered me a beer and suggested we go for a walk and talk. I have no idea what I did to cause this with the exception of offering my mother up as my birthright and, who knows, perhaps a peace offering. And so we walked and talked and, at the end, shook hands just prior to my departure from Bornholm. Perhaps in seeing me in the flesh, I no longer represented the ENEMY but was now, like him, just another human being and, to my amazement, a human connection appeared to dispel a lifelong ingrained stereotype.