A prolific author of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875) is renowned for his beloved 156 fairy tales, which have been translated into more than 125 languages and are still much beloved, particularly by children. He has gained an unparalleled level of international acclaim, with his works representing a foundational element of classic Western literary culture.
Although he viewed himself as a serious novelist and dramatist who disdained being known for his fairy tales, his best-known stories include The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, The Princess and the Pea, The Red Shoes, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Snow Queen, and The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was based upon a medieval Spanish story with Jewish sources. Many of his stories were semi-autobiographical; for example, The Ugly Duckling reflects his feelings as an outsider having to overcome obstacles to show his true inner nature, and The Little Mermaid is a reflection of his unrequited love.
Many authorities note that, unlike most fairy tales at the time – and, in large part, since – Andersen’s stories do not all have a happy ending but rather reflect the reality of life where characters do not always “live happily ever after.” As one conspicuous example, in The Little Mermaid, the mermaid commits suicide because she cannot be loved by the handsome prince but, reflecting Andersen’s deep theological Christian beliefs, she rises from the dead, is transformed into a spiritual form, and works toward earning her salvation. Not surprisingly, the Disney version – which is how most people now know the story – ends very differently.
Less known, however, is that Andersen had deep affection for the Jewish people; that he was very familiar with Jewish tradition and culture; that Jews and Jewish issues played an important role in many of his works; and that he maintained very close relationships with Jews and with the Jewish community.
The early 19th century marked a dramatic turn for Danish Jews, particularly in 1819, when King Frederick VI instituted several reforms recognizing Jewish civil rights. Nonetheless, there were brutal antisemitic riots in Copenhagen that, ironically, commenced with the arrival there of the 14-year-old Andersen in 1819. Revolted by the hatred and cruelty of his own countrymen, the events of that day remained with him throughout his life, and thus began his great sympathy and affection for the Jewish people.
On September 3, 1819, leaflets circulated throughout Copenhagen disparaging Frederick VI as ”King of the Jews” and urging citizens to rise up against the Jews. During this ”Danish Krystallnacht,” the most serious popular unrest and violent ethnic conflict ever seen in Denmark, rampaging rioters destroyed Jewish shops and homes. When the police and the military failed to quell the violence, the government blocked the dissemination of the antisemitic circulars, imposed a curfew, and announced the creation of a commission with authority to impose death sentences (which it never did). Finally, a state of emergency was declared and additional military troops were sent in with swinging swords, which wounded many citizens, including some Jews, but the uprising continued to the end of the month.
Although the brunt of the anti-Jewish rampaging occurred in Copenhagen, where most Danish Jews lived, the rioting stormed throughout Denmark, including in Andersen’s hometown of Odense. The town had a small Jewish Congregation of 111 members, most coming from Germany and, as discussed below, a Jewish school that Andersen attended. In 1819, Odense, a hotbed of antisemitism, barred its Jews, who were primarily merchants, from membership in the local merchants association. In the wake of the bloody uprising that year, a seminal event in Danish history deliberately downplayed by its historians, many traumatized Jews converted to Christianity, including Mendel Levin Nathanson, the head of the Jewish congregation, who also baptized his eight children.
It is against this background and at a time when most Jewish characters in Danish literature were rendered through antisemitic caricatures that Andersen’s remarkable philosemitism and his portrayals of Jews as moral and noble must be considered. Although Jewish themes and characters were not fundamental to his literary oeuvre, Jews and Jewish issues did play an important role in many of his works.
The most important example is arguably The Jewish Girl (1855), a story with some autobiographical elements in which Andersen successfully walks the fine line between fidelity to his own Christian faith and his deep respect for Judaism. The narrative tells the story of Sarah, an exceptionally bright little Jewish girl whose father enrolls her in a Christian charity school after the death of her mother, where she becomes eager to learn the Gospels. When the school advises him that his daughter must convert or be expelled from the school, he bursts into tears and says, “I know very little myself of our own faith, but her mother was a daughter of Israel, strong and steadfast in her faith, and on her deathbed I promised her that our child should never receive Christian baptism. That promise I must keep; for me it is like a pact with G-d.”
Years later, Sarah becomes a maidservant for a Christian family. Although Christianity “penetrates like a sunbeam into my heart,” she regularly reads the Old Testament, “the treasure of my people”; she is depressed about being unable to keep Shabbat; and she promises her departed mother, “I will not bring you sorrow in your grave and I will not betray the promise my father made to you.” She decides that she can outwardly live the life of a Jewess while being true to her Christian faith internally.
When her master dies, Sarah kindly and voluntarily undertakes the monumental task of earning support for his widow and caring for her but, worn out by the burden of labor and nursing, she dies. Because she had rejected conversion, the community refuses to bury her in the Christian cemetery and a grave is dug for her outside its walls, but Andersen makes a point of observing that Christian words of resurrection can nonetheless reach the site of her grave from the church, earning her a place in heaven.
Because the story ends with Sarah’s being included among the “blessed” only because she had taken Christianity into her heart, some commentators maintain that The Jewish Girl was “condescendingly tolerant of Jews.” I strongly disagree because his extraordinarily sympathetic depiction of her – indeed, she is portrayed as noble, loyal and utterly heroic in both deed and spirit – and his admiration for her faithfulness to both a Jewish mother and a Christian master stand in stark contrast with the prevailing antisemitic ethos of the time.
It is also intriguing to note the similarities of the story to Andersen’s own life. He had tender memories of the Jewish school he attended in Odense after he was beaten by a teacher at a state school. He left the Jewish school only because it closed in 1811, and years later, after he had already achieved fame, he wrote a letter of gratitude to Fedder Carstens, the headmaster of the school.
The experience of being an outsider who was treated so well by the Jewish school made an indelible impression on him and was an important factor in his becoming a passionate defender of the Jewish people. Some commentators contend that Andersen’s experience at the Jewish school as “a stranger in a strange land” was, at least in part, the genesis for The Ugly Duckling (1843), who so desperately wants to be beautiful and fit in with everyone else. Finally, the young author fancied a young Jewish girl named – wait for it – Sarah Heimann who, ironically, broke off the relationship because she thought he was too wrapped up in his world of stories and fantasies.
In Lucky Peter (1870), a promoter – who we find out at the end of the story is a Talmud-quoting Jew – sponsors Peter, an extraordinarily talented young musician, in the debut of an opera that Peter composed and in which he played the lead role, but he dies on stage after taking his bows in response to the enthusiastic applause of the audience. Most telling here is that the promotor’s religion is wholly irrelevant to the story and that Andersen’s identification of his character as a Jew worthy of admiration and respect reflects his own personal esteem for Jews. In an intriguing parallel to real life, Andersen promoted a number of Jewish writers, including the German playwright Herman Mosenthal, whose works he not only personally translated into Danish, but also arranged to be performed on the Danish stage.
In Only a Fiddler (1837), Andersen movingly describes the dark and squalid Jewish ghetto in Rome and the pitiable conditions under which the Jews there are forced to live. When an old and frail Jew is attacked by a thug, the hero of the story comes to his rescue. Andersen tells the story of two characters: Naomi, a brilliant and beautiful girl whose abandonment of her Jewish roots and poverty to marry into nobility nonetheless leaves her an unhappy and rootless wanderer, and the poor tailor’s son, a fiddler with prodigious musical talent who is smitten by Naomi and dies of heartbreak when she rejects him because of his lower class. Though Naomi is a highly unsympathetic character, Andersen does not emphasize her Jewishness and he refuses to follow the longstanding literary tradition of holding Jews in contempt.
In Ahasuerus (1847), Andersen narrates the infamous story of The Wandering Jew – the prominent antisemitic character of legend cursed to travel through the world for all time as punishment for jeering Jesus at the crucifixion – from the time of Jesus to the time of his arrival on the American continent with Columbus. Although the Wandering Jew is a damned figure in Christian theology, Andersen treats him as a sympathetic figure and empathizes with his eternal lonely ordeal through all of time fending off his never-ending succession of tormentors, perhaps an autobiographical reflection of Andersen’s own loneliness.
In To Be or Not to Be (1857), Andersen tells the tale of Niels Bryde, an impoverished young man who, after the death of his father, becomes the ward of a benevolent pastor. He wants to become a pastor himself, but he loses himself in modern science, loses his childhood faith, and is rejected by his adoptive family as a heretic.
Niels marries the Jewish Esther, a religious pluralist who studies the holy books of all faiths and who, unlike Niels, believes in the immortality of the soul. When she dies young, he returns to his Christian faith, having learned from Esther that it is possible to be a religious man of science. Through Niels, Andersen examines the tension between science and faith with an emphasis on the concept of the immortality of the soul and attempts to harmonize faith and knowledge into a single non-contradictory theology.
The Tallow Candle, a previously unknown fairy tale believed to be the first one ever written by a very young Andersen, was discovered in 2012. It tells the story of a little candle that had been overlooked until a tinder box sees its inner beauty, lights it, and it provides light for a long time, pleasing everyone near it. Andersen wrote in the story in the years of his youth after he attended the Jewish school . . . and it sure sounds like a Shabbat candle to me!
Exhibited here is a very rare envelope addressed to D. (Dorothea) Melchior and signed by Andersen in the lower left corner. At the back (not shown) are Andersen’s initials and a Copenhagen postmark.
Andersen was a frequent traveler who relied upon extensive correspondence to preserve his important friendships. He wrote many hundreds of letters to close Jewish friends, including Martin Ruben Henriques, a stockbroker, and his wife, Therese (nee Abrahamson), who were the first to open their door to him when he was a young struggling writer. When the much-respected Henrique would walk to the shul in Krystalgade with his ten sons every Shabbat, he would be greeted with calls of “There goes the King of Jews and all his sons.”
However, the recipients of at least 415 known Andersen letters were Moritz Melchior (1816 – 1884) and his wife, Dorothea (1823 – 1885), who was Ruben Henrique’s daughter. She was descended from Portuguese Jews and was raised in a strictly Orthodox home and, although she was not herself a religiously observant adult, she married Moritz in a Copenhagen synagogue in 1846.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Copenhagen, Moritz joined the family firm just after his bar mitzvah and went on to become a successful Danish merchant who served in various important public offices in Copenhagen, including alderman on the Copenhagen City Council (1851 – 1869); a member of the Maritime and Commercial Court (1862 – 1883), and a member of the Upper House of Parliament (1866 – 1874). He was one of the founders and a director of the Danish free-trade society, led the Chamber of Commerce from 1873, and reorganized the Copenhagen Police Force.
Moritz was also a prominent member of the Jewish community, serving as a member of its representative committee and later as its chairman. He was a great humanitarian and a philanthropist who provided much support to needy Jews and others, and his charitable activities were always performed in secret and without seeking public recognition.
The Melchiors entertained a variety of famous guests, including Andersen, who became a very close friend to the point that they all considered him a member of the family. After he became increasingly ill after a fall in 1872, the Melchiors moved their lonely friend (he never married or had any children) into their home and gave him his own room, where he wrote some of his final works, including Lucky Peter, discussed above. He dedicated his final collection of stories to the Melchiors, who cared for him over many years until his death from liver cancer in 1875.