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Summaries of papers from previous international HCA conferences
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Summaries of papers from previous international HCA conferences

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Summary of Erik Dal:

"Jødiske elementer i H. C. Andersens skrifter".

This paper has been published in Andersen og Verden, Odense 1993.

Jewish Elements in Hans Christian Andersen's Writings

Erik Dal

(summary for pages 444-52)

Exceptionally, anti-semitic riots took place in Copenhagen on the very day in 1819 when the fourteen-year-old Hans Christian Andersen arrived in the capital. Otherwise, Danish Jews lived under tolerable conditions, and by the Constitution of 1849 they, like other minorities, gained full civil rights.

In Andersen's literary production, three novels, one story among the Fairy Tales and Stories, and the verse drama Ahasuerus are the main examples of his interest in Jewish themes and people. During his lifetime, and especially in his later years, distinguished Jewish families in Copenhagen were among his closest friends.

Only a Fiddler, 1837, like works by other writers of that decade, broke with a literary tradition ridiculing Jews. In the novel, Andersen opposes two persons from a minor town: the exotic Naomi and the poor Christian. Christian's musical talent never leads to anything remarkable, while Naomi becomes an international lady of fashion, married into the nobility. But she remains rootless and unhappy, a Byronic passionate type, and a wanderer. The fact that she is Jewish is not emphasized.

The Jewish Girl, 1855, is a story about Sara, a poor servant girl who necessarily hears about Christianity at school and from her mistress. She acquires the conviction that God has acted through his Son, but she does not convert, because her father promised her dying mother that she should never leave their faith. She is buried outside the churchyard but the words of resurrection are heard also there. Andersen balances tactfully between his own faith and the respect for the faith and the promise described.

To be or not to be, 1857, opposes the young Niels Bryde who loses the faith of his childhood, and the Jewish Esther who reads the holy books of all religions and converts but dies young. The loss brings Niels back to his belief in immortality. The author goes into the contemporary discussion about materialism and science versus traditional faith, and Esther, like the Jewish maid Sara, are examples of the conflict.

Lucky Peter, 1870, is Andersen's late novel about a boy whose musical talents lead to the first performance of his own opera with himself in the title part: Aladdin, after which he dies during the applause. Towards the end of this short novel it turns out that the singing master who promotes Peter is a Jew, and he quotes proverbs from Talmud. His Jewishness has no artistic function and can only be seen as an expression of Andersen's feelings for Jews of high human quality.

Scattered examples from other writings and from the voluminous diaries of Andersen are mentioned.

Ahasuerus was published in 1847 but had occupied its author for years, and part of it had been printed earlier. It is a work of extraordinary ambition but - not without reason - had little afterlife and few readers. Andersen follows The Wandering Jew Ahasuerus from his own time and that of Jesus through historical periods and past main figures in history, until he lands in America with Columbus! The work combines the writer's curiosity when faced with historical events and places and his respect for the wanderer and for some of his antagonists; but basically it displays the solidarity of the lonely man and untiring traveller, Andersen, with the damned figure from legend.

In Andersen's faith, Providence and Grace are predominant, Perdition and Immortality less clear. But immortality is able to balance what remains unbalanced in this world. In a late draft of a Hymn to Christ he says, however, that Christ did not want to demolish the Law and the Prophets; the old Jewish religion should emanate from the power and the love of God.

Though not central in Andersen's literary output Jewish people and problems are of importance in several works. He always shows respect. But the theme is, after all, more of a poetic than of a religious nature, though he struggled with the concept of Immortality.

Note

Rambam, Tidsskrift for jødisk kultur og forskning, No. 31, Copenhagen 1991, includes a paper written in Danish by the American scholar, Prof. Dr. Bruce H. Kirmmse, about The Jewish Girl, or, as he prefers, The Jew-Girl, with a derogatory implication. He characterizes Andersen's attitude as one of condescending ('nedladende') tolerance, and, finding the story offensive he fails to understand that Andersen was considered philosemitic in his own time, as demonstrated once when he mediated between Jewish friends and a non-Jewish friend who had written plainly anti-semitic remarks in a review. He analyzes the trend of the epoch also mentioned above; the tension between romantic and scientific views of Nature and the opposition of Faith versus Knowledge. Such ambiguities are felt behind Andersen's attitude to the problems here discussed, and Bruce Kirmmse considers it typical though Andersen was, personally, neither anti-semitic nor anti-scientific, on the contrary deeply committed to technical progress.

I am most grateful to Mr. Ulf Haxen, Head of the internationally renowned Judaic Department of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, for enabling Prof. Kirmmse and me to include cross-references to our papers in due course. It goes without saying that we consider certain things in different ways, but also that Prof. Kirmmse is able to develop a much fuller discussion, dealing with just one short story.

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