Archive for August, 2010

The Key

August 25, 2010

When we decided to turn David’s philosophy conference in Copenhagen into a vacation, we wanted to include a day at the beach. An online search turned up the Hotel Villa Strand in Hornbaek, a village of 6000 not far from Copenhagen, on what the guidebooks call “The Danish Riviera.”

The inn was reasonably priced and just feet away from an unspoiled beach. Photos on the website reminded us of Truro, on Cape Cod. When we noticed Villa Strand advertised a kosher kitchen, the deal was sealed. It’s not that I keep kosher or search out  Jews in foreign places. But it made me feel welcome. And intrigued. Kosher in Denmark?

Maybe it had to do with the Danes’ famous rescue of its Jews during the Second World War. Fishermen in Gilleleji, not far from Hornbaek, smuggled more than 7000 Jews across the water to the safety of neutral Sweden. Maybe the area had become a destination for Jewish tourists.

While David was at his conference, I spent two days exploring Copenhagen on  my own. I kept an eye out for answers. At the Danish Jewish Museum (a seven-year-old facility designed by WTC reconstruction architect Daniel Libeskind), I learned that the Danes’ legendary love for its Jews was largely that: legend. The King of Denmark never wore a yellow star. The Jews were saved in large part in exchange for Danish appeasement of the Germans. At the Museum of the Danish Resistance I learned more about the Nazi occupation of Denmark and the freeing of the Jews, but nothing that explained the kosher kitchen at Villa Strand.

Our confirmation email had said we could check in anytime after 2. It was just about that when we climbed off the train in Hornbaek and walked the few blocks to the hotel.

“Ruth Horowitz,” the woman who checked us in announced before I introduced myself. “I know because you’re the only ones checking in today. Keep your key,” she instructed as she handed it over. It had a heavy fob attached with our room number etched on one end. “The hotel will be unstaffed for the rest of the day.” Although we were staying in one of the “garden houses,” our key would unlock the main house, where we were welcome to use the living rooms. In case of an emergency, we could call the posted number. “Someone will answer,” she promised. “It will be me, actually.” She seemed annoyed that it would be her, and in a hurry to get away. Chit-chat about the hotel’s origins would have to wait.

Our room was immaculate but tiny, with white-washed walls and chaste twin beds. A mezuzah hung on the door post. A brochure provided a little history.

The property served as a bakery and a laundry before the Nazi occupation, when the local Gestapo used it as their headquarters. In the early 2000s the buildings were renovated as a Jewish hotel. The kosher kitchen is certified by the Lubavitcher rabbi of Denmark. Breakfast is included with the room, as it is at most Danish hotels. Lunch and dinner are also served, but only with advance notice. Friday night dinner costs extra.

We hadn’t arranged for meals, so we walked back into the village. Then we hit the beach, which lived up to its press: unspoiled dunes covered with roses, fine white sand, crystalline water. The clear air and slanting light felt like September. In fact, Danish schools were already in session so, like our hotel and the rest of the town, the beach was nearly empty. Groups ranging from babies to grandparents quietly walked, sat, swam and sunbathed. Nudists were scattered among the clothed, and people casually changed in and out of bathing suits.

We swam, explored, and found dinner at one of the few open restaurants. Then we returned to the beach. At 9:00, the light lingered. The sky was a fading blue with a deepening salmon near the horizon, where the lights in Sweden were just coming on. The water was silver, the long, low waves edged in black.

At about 9:45, we were afraid it would get too dark for us to find our way back to the hotel, so we climbed the path over the dune and let ourselves in through the gate. Then we walked around the main building and sat down to clean our feet.

That’s when David realized he’d lost the key.

We checked the door, but he hadn’t left it in the lock. We checked the room’s windows, but we had been careful to close them. The key must have fallen out of his pocket on the beach. But by now it would be too dark to find it. We didn’t have a flashlight. Our phone was locked in our room, re-charging. In the main house, the living room lights were on, but the rooms were empty. The only other light in the entire hotel was in one of the guest rooms upstairs. It had been warm enough for a quick swim earlier, but the air was cooling.

We tried the door to the main house. Luckily, it was unlocked. We found where the promised emergency phone number was posted, but no phone. We crept up the stairs and knocked on a door. Luckily, a young man answered. Luckily, he spoke English. Luckily, when we explained our situation, he offered to let us use his phone. No one answered. We left a message and hoped someone would call back or come to our rescue. No one did.

We returned to the living room and stretched out on two sofas to sleep. Another group of guests came home around midnight, and they also let us use their phone. Again, no one answered. They wished us good luck.

On our separate sofas in our separate rooms, David and I tried to sleep. David worried that we would be charged not only for the lost key, but also for the cost of a locksmith who would have to come all the way from Copenhagen, as well as the hotel’s lost income for the time it would take to change the lock. Then he reminded himself that at least we were indoors, which was a lot better than spending the night outside.

I imagined the Gestapo walking around in these rooms and enjoying the beach during breaks from their invasion of Norway. I imagined that the promise of a kosher kitchen was a ruse to lure unsuspecting Jews, who would lose their keys and have to spend the night on sofas. Then I reminded myself that at least I was lying down, which was a lot better than trying to sleep on the plane.

The sofas were actually quite comfortable and in the end we both did sleep, and surprisingly well. And at around 7 a staff person came to prepare breakfast. She was not a Nazi. And she did not charge us for the lost key. In fact, after many, many apologies, she said we wouldn’t have to pay for the night. When the woman who had checked us in arrived, she also apologized. She’d been fast asleep and hadn’t heard the phone, she said, looking sheepish.

No shower ever felt better than the ones we took when we got back into our room. And no breakfast was ever more welcome.

The morning meal in Denmark follows a standard pattern: fresh breads and rolls; soft-boiled eggs, a spread of cheese and cold cuts; fresh fruit; yogurt; lots of strong coffee. Villa Strand’s kosher kitchen substituted cured fish for the meat. The pickled herring was delicious, and the smoked salmon was to die for: buttery, mild and extremely fresh.

We didn’t have to be back in Copenhagen until later in the afternoon, so we returned to the beach for one last walk. We were still hoping to find the key, but knew it was a long shot. We assumed it had fallen from David’s pocket when he squatted to photograph the waves lapping the sand. We thought we knew the particular curve where he had taken his picture, but we weren’t sure about the tide. If it was farther out than it had been the night before, we were looking in the wrong place. If it was farther in we were also looking in the wrong place – and the key was underwater. Maybe it had floated to Sweden by now.

Or maybe it was buried in the sand. When David removed his jeans to go swimming the day before, a shower of Danish coins had rained from his pocket and disappeared into the soft sand. We’d had to look carefully for bits of the coins’ silver or gold edges poking up and dig the coins out.

In the end we gave up and walked back towards the hotel. That’s when David found the key. It was high up on the beach, close to the dunes, nowhere near the place where he’d squatted to take that picture.


We never did have a chance to ask about Villa Strand’s Jewish connection. After we got home I did some more research, and discovered that in nearby Gilleleji there’s a museum with exhibits related to the saving of the Jews, including one of the fishing boats used. In the park outside the museum, a statue of a man sounding a shofar commemorates the event. It also turns out that Hornbaek has a synagogue. It’s just around the corner from Villa Strand.