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Rosa Grinberg - learning the lesson of history

Rosa Grinberg was born in Poland in 1951. As a Polish Jew, she was granted political asylum in Denmark in 1972 due to anti-Semitism. Rosa became a qualified medical doctor from the University of Copenhagen in 1981. She has met prejudice and believes in learning the lesson of history.

Rosa tells her story in "The Invisible Success", a series of portraits of ethnic minority women living in Denmark.


KVINFO/16.5.2008 Both my parents are Polish Jews. During the Second World War my mother and her family fled from Poland to Uzbekistan in the then Soviet Union. Apart from my maternal grandfather, who died on the journey, they all survived. My father’s family had a different fate. Of five siblings, only my father and his younger brother survived. The others died, presumably in a concentration camp. My father and mother come from the same provincial town in Poland, but they didn’t become a couple until after the Second World War.

When war ended in 1945, my parents moved back to Poland and in 1946 they settled in Olsztyn, a town in the north-east of the country. Here my father was reunited with his younger brother, who had survived the war serving in the Polish Army. Like so many other impoverished Jewish people, my parents thought they could help build up a society in which there were better future prospects and room for everyone irrespective of race and religion. My father worked in the security service for some years, and he was later the manager of the best restaurant in town. My mother didn’t work outside the home. In the meantime, my older brother and I were born.

Family tragedy of World War II
I loved looking at old photographs when I was young, and one day I found a picture of a woman I hadn’t seen before. Who is the woman in the photograph, I asked? My mother never lied, and she told me that the woman in the photograph was my father’s first wife. She had been nine-months pregnant when war broke out. My father’s parents and his wife had persuaded him to leave Poland on his own in order to find somewhere the family could escape to when the baby was born. They never managed to get away from Poland; they vanished like so many others during the war. My father never forgave himself for leaving his wife, and it pained him for the rest of his life. When he returned to Poland after the war, he sought in vain to find out what had happened to his family.

My parents never made any secret of the fact that we were of Jewish descent. Even though we weren’t religious, we celebrated Pesah [Passover. Eds.], and every year my mother went all the way to Warsaw to buy the matza bread [unleavened bread. Eds] that is eaten at Pesah. Christmas Eve was not a festive occasion for us, but just a normal day. I became interested in Catholicism when I was older, and one of my classmates and I went to religious instruction, but I soon stopped when the priest tried to convert me to the Catholic faith. Today I think it was a fine thing that my family kept its own traditions.

Polish anti-Semitism
I enjoyed my schooldays, both in junior and senior school, and I had a lot of friends and took part in lots of social activities. After the Six Day War – the 1967 war between Israel on the one side and Egypt, Syria and Jordan on the other – being a Jew in Poland became problematic. The state conducted a campaign against Jews, they were accused of being Zionists and many lost their jobs and fled the country.

My father was also accused of being a Zionist and he was transferred to one of the worst restaurants in town. The neighbour asked my mother if it was true that Jewish matza bread was made from the blood of innocent Polish children. She really did ask that! Even though both my parents’ families went to Israel between 1946 and 1958, I felt that Poland was my country: it was where I had been born and where I grew up, and it was hard constantly to be told that Jews were to blame for everything.

During the student unrest in March 1968 the newspapers wrote that Jews had instigated the discord. Jews were increasingly used as scapegoats for Poland’s ailing economy and political mistakes. Being a Jew was problematic; not least for the children and young people who hadn’t known they were Jews until the outside world drew attention to the fact. In order to protect them, their parents hadn’t told them about their "unfortunate origins".

In 1969 I took the entrance exams at the university in Warsaw, but I didn’t get in, even though I had enough credits. I was given no reason for being turned down. I complained about the ruling and was told that I could start the following year on condition that I found employment for six months. Through my father’s contacts I got a job with the Olsztyn local authority, where I gained an insight into Polish xenophobia, which was not only levelled at Jews but also at people of German descent. Many people wanted to leave Poland, and in order to get an exit permit they had to sign a document in which they gave up any land they owned without receiving financial compensation. It was my job to work out the size of their small plots. I was shocked to see how they were treated.

Political asylum in Denmark
In 1970 I started reading biology at the university in Warsaw. The negative feeling towards Jews escalated, and my brother and I could see that our future did not look good. In 1972 we decided to leave Poland along with our parents. They were frightened about starting from scratch in an unfamiliar country, but nor did they dare stay behind in Poland by themselves. As soon as we were on the train heading for Denmark, I realised that I had now taken over the parental role.

We arrived at the central station in Copenhagen on a cold February day, and we applied immediately for political asylum. The condition set for our departure from Poland had been that we gave up our Polish citizenship, and we were therefore stateless when we arrived in Denmark with our travel permits. A few months later, I started attending The Danish Refugee Council Language School. Our class was a mixture of highly-educated people and people who had hardly ever been to school. We were taught by young students who had no teaching qualifications. I was despondent because I wasn’t learning anything, and therefore I accepted an offer to attend a "folk high school" [school of adult education. Eds.] on the island of Funen. At the school I had the opportunity to speak Danish with Danes, although I would have liked to have had professional and intensive Danish tuition.

At that time, I found it liberating to live in a country where freedom of speech was a fundamental right. It was a lovely feeling to be able to say what I thought without being afraid of reprisals in the form of imprisonment, expulsion from university etc. Over the years I have come to realise that freedom of speech, equality, democracy etc., are relative concepts and have their limitations. It is not, for example, without reason that a group of doctors set up a new association to safeguard doctors’ right to freedom of expression in the public debate [Dansk Selskab til Sikring af Lægers Ytringsfrihed: Danish Association for Doctors' Right to Freedom of Expression. Eds.]

After my time at the "folk high school", I went to visit family in Israel, where I met my maternal grandmother for the first time. My grandmother was the only member of my family to practice her religion. Religion played a major role in her life, but she saw it as private matter and never attempted to influence others. Meeting my grandmother was a wonderful experience, and we had time to develop a very special relationship before her death in the late 1980s.

Student of medicine in the 1970's
In 1973 I began reading medicine at the University of Copenhagen. I was impressed by the arrangements: students were given curricula and could buy compendia and textbooks. When I studied biology in Poland, the students had to share textbooks, and in some subjects we could be as many as ten students sharing one book, so I couldn’t understand why my Danish fellow students complained that the course was so hard. Not only did we have good conditions for studying, but at the exams there was also an external examiner, unlike in Poland where your results were in the hands of one examiner alone. My student days were a lovely time, even though I was hampered by the language. I only opened my mouth when necessary, and I never put my hand up, not even when I was the only one in the class who could answer the question.

There were other reasons that I wasn’t keen to speak up: in the early 1970s the university environment was very left-wing, and when you said you were a political refugee from Poland you weren’t always met with sympathy and understanding. Many students saw the Communist countries as being ideal societies, and in their eyes I was a traitor. At that time the mindset at the university was very homogeneous. This applied to, among other things, the attitude to student loans. I couldn’t go along with the loan-culture prevalent in the 1970s’ university setting, and I never thought borrowing money was a serious option; I’d rather get a student job. Many people today are still paying off old student loans – some have even had debt rescheduling, which strikes me as paradoxical.

Doctor on the island of Bornholm
In 1981 I qualified as a doctor. There was high unemployment in the medical profession and I sent off about 100 applications before I got my first two-month locum tenancy. My name wasn’t markedly foreign-sounding, but my CV revealed that my upper-secondary school education had been taken in Poland, so I was neither in the first nor second pile when applications were sorted out. For the next couple of years I worked as a locum in various places around the country, and in 1983 I finally got a one-year locum tenancy at a hospital on the island of Bornholm, where I had the opportunity to work with anaesthetics, a specialist area that I wanted to know more about.

My time on Bornholm was rewarding both professionally and personally. For the first time I felt respected by colleagues as an equal, and only then did I feel like a real doctor. I learnt a great deal, made good friends and experienced a lot; for example, one day I went to talk with a patient, an elderly fisherman, who had never been in hospital before; when he saw me, he asked me to go away because he refused to be treated by a woman doctor! I succeeded in talking him round, which I felt was a personal and professional triumph. 

Lack of respect 
The employment situation for doctors had not improved when I returned to Copenhagen and applied for trainee posts in anaesthetics. Competition for the few vacant positions was tough, and in 1988 I decided to move to Sweden to train as a specialist in anaesthetics. This was a good move professionally. I learnt to stand up to my superiors if I considered something to be professionally unacceptable or out-and-out wrong. “You Danes are so bold and straightforward,” they said of me, which made me laugh a lot. While I was in Sweden I realised that my base was Denmark: I missed my parents and my friends, and three years later I returned to Denmark as a qualified specialist in anaesthetics.

I was fortunate in getting a flat and a job in Frederiksberg. Later I was appointed specialist doctor at Sankt Elisabeth Hospital in the Amager area of Copenhagen [in 1998 Sankt Elisabeth Hospital was amalgamated with Amager Hospital], where I still work. I’m content with my work, for better or worse, and I feel accepted and respected for the person I am. Sometimes, however, I meet people who can’t ignore my accent; for example, patients who cut short a consultation to ask where I come from: that shows lack of respect! It also shows lack of respect when colleagues make negative comments about, for example, foreign doctors who wear headscarves. That happened at my workplace, and so I told the well-educated person concerned that if they didn’t stop immediately I would put on a headscarf myself. We should be trying to understand people’s roots, rather than cutting them off.

Integration does not come free of charge
It’s important to hang on to your personal story; my story is shaped by growing up in Poland and by my adult life in Denmark. I don’t feel that I’m a Pole or a Dane: I’m Rosa Grinberg, and that suits me fine. Many of the Polish Jews who came to Denmark tried to be more Danish than the Danes themselves, and they repressed their own heritage: couples started talking in broken Danish to one another and to their children, who now blame the parents for the fact that they can neither understand nor talk with their grandparents because they didn’t learn Polish when they were young. Others hold on desperately to their "old culture" and isolate themselves in their own "‘hideaways".

A month after I arrived in Denmark, I fell in love with a man who came from the same background as me. When you go to a new country, it’s natural that you mix with people who share your language and background. It’s difficult to socialise with the majority society until you have learnt the language. Our parents didn’t put any pressure on us, but they didn’t like us living together without being married, so we got married in the synagogue. Over the years my husband and I developed in different directions, and we divorced before I had finished my studies. I have since had long and good relationships. I have experienced the profound love of my life, and he was the man with whom I felt I could "conquer the world". Sadly, he died of cancer.

When I had completed my studies, I promised myself that I would not be restricted by conformity: not make the excuse that I’m doing this for the sake of my family, my children or the money. Consequently, I’ve made sure not to be too tied up financially. In order to maintain my integrity and act according to my convictions, it is unavoidable that in certain situations I am in disagreement with my colleagues: my number one priority in my work is always the patient and never political correctness, populism or status. When I look at myself today, I think actually I do it rather well. 

Knowledge of the past 
For many years I’ve been interested in palliative treatment, and I use acupuncture as a component of palliative care – I am now a qualified acupuncturist. Besides my hospital work, I work as a medical consultant in a hospice. In the longer term, I would like to work with palliation on a full-time basis. On the whole, I am content with my life, both professionally and privately, but I look forward to having more time to pursue my interests, such as literature, art, experimental cookery and history.

I have a growing need to study world history and get a deeper understanding of underlying historical, political and social mechanisms. Many people berate nations and peoples without having any knowledge of them; for example, very few people are aware that in the 1950s the Danish authorities sent Greenlandic children to Denmark to be brought up according to Danish values, and thus deprived them of their families and their childhoods. That Pakistani parents living in Denmark send their children for re-education in Pakistan is therefore not a new phenomenon in Danish history, even though it is no less open to criticism. Knowledge of history is a necessary prerequisite for understanding the world in which we live. There can be no future without the past!

Translation: Gaye Kynock

Born in Poland in 1951 to Polish Jewish parents who had both survived the Second World War 
Granted political asylum in Denmark in 1972 due to anti-Semitism in Poland
Qualified as a medical doctor from the University of Copenhagen in 1981
Moved to Sweden to train as a specialist in anaesthetics in 1988
Now works as a specialist doctor at Sankt Elisabeth Hospital in Copenhagen
Qualified as an acupuncturist and works in pallitative care as a medical consultant at a hospice beside her hospital work

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