The Spirit of Scandinavia

by

11/24/2002

Finland, The Bronx

Neighborhood: Bronx

Ask Bronx resident Keshauna Sanders, 12, what the most remarkable thing about Finland is and she’ll tell you: it’s the pizza. “They put ham on it!” she says. “And pineapple!”

Her classmate Priscilla Mercedes concurs. “The food is real weird there,” she says. “But the people are so sweet. When you’re in Finland, you get hungry at twelve o’clock at night because of the time change. But it’s okay. The people there will get you food.”

Finland is a land of democracy and saunas, fine crystal and cellular phones, weird pizza and generous people. It is also a land of paradoxes, especially in terms of its recent history. During World War II, Axis Finland fought alongside Germany to fend off a Soviet invasion. But although Finland and Germany were allies, the country categorically refused to hand over its 2000 Jews to the Nazis and their death camps.

“Jews in Finland were citizens in a democracy,” explained Finnish-Jewish U.N. Ambassador emeritus Max Jacobsen, speaking via video last week to an assembly at the Sol Goldman YMHA in the East Village. “They had equal rights and equal freedoms.”

The Ambassador was speaking on the invitation of Thanks to Scandinavia, an organization dedicated to expressing gratitude to a part of the world which showed rare and precious decency during the Holocaust. Every year, Thanks to Scandinavia gives out a Spirit of Scandinavia award, bringing together an unlikely crowd of Jews, Nordic types, Y-goers, and hangers-on. This year’s ceremony was the first to focus solely on Finland; it was sponsored in part by (the surprisingly kosher) Finlandia Cheese.

The Spirit of Scandinavia award is meant to honor a Scandinavian who shows commitment to pluralism, tolerance, and peace. It seemed almost too perfect, then, to give the 2002 award to Johanna Grussner, a teacher from Helsinki who taught music to Keshauna Sanders, Priscilla Mercedes, and the other inner-city schoolchildren of P.S. 86. Ms. Grussner, twenty-nine years old and as blond and gorgeous as you’d hope, arrived at the Bronx elementary school in the late nineties. Music education in the New York City public school system was famously languishing, and the young Finnish woman was expected to do little more than baby-sit. Instead, Ms. Grussner created the award-winning P.S. 86 Select Choir, an outfit dedicated to singing old-fashioned gospel and the occasional Scandinavian folk tune. Last year, Ms. Grussner’s choir performed in her hometown in Finland. This year, the choir sang together at the Sol Goldman Y.

And so last week’s joyfully surreal evening: picture fifteen inner-city kids in a darkened auditorium, singing songs about their “Father Almighty, who has saved (them) by His loving grace” to a crowd of relatively older Jews and slightly baffled Finns. Some spectators winced as the kids sang about the ends of their earthly journeys; on the other hand, nobody in the crowd could help but smile when a shirt-and-tied fifth-grader reached wildly pre-pubescent notes in praise of his Lord. A Swedish folk tune, featuring solos by twelve year-old Jheanamen Hernandez, elicited murmured awe. And the extended final number, during which Ms. Grussner herself took the microphone, had the crowd enthusiastically (albeit arhythmically) clapping along. The ceremony was a shining display of pluralism at its giddiest.

Which was the point.

“We’re here to thank the institutions of the countries of Scandinavia,” explained Beth Mann, the director of the Y, at the evening’s end. “In a time when violence, hatred, and xenophobia seem rampant, sometimes we feel hopeless to affect any change. But tonight we celebrate the example of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

It was a moving speech. Nevertheless, the kids from P.S. 86 weren’t listening. Dressed up in their black-and-white outfits, out late already on a Wednesday night, they squirmed in their chairs or poked at each other and tried to hug their beloved music teacher. One of them, a slight girl who seemed a little like she’d been transported back to Finland, got out of her seat and danced toward the back of the room. Her classmate, another world traveler from the Bronx, followed a few steps behind, and continued to sing in the aisles.

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