Danish Hero: One Rosh Hashanah Burns Bright in Holocaust
By Robyn Dolgin
NEW YORK -- Mr. Knud Christiansen is one of the little-known heroes in Holocaust history.
At the advanced age of 93, Mr. Christiansen's tale of heroism has surfaced on an historic occasion: The 65th anniversary of the Danish rescue of nearly all of the country's Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis.
As a young man in his 20s, Mr. Christiansenfirst came across Nazi cruelty a few years before the war. A superior athlete, he competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a member of the Danish Rowing Team. He was among the athletes from around the world who watched Herr Hitler exit the stadium rather than stay and see a black athlete, the famed Jesse Owens, receive a medal.
Ironically his wife-to-be, Karen Rasmussen, was also living in Berlin during the late 1930s, attending a prestigious cooking school. In letters home, she wrote of the "terrible brutalization" of the Jews on the streets and left the famous institute early.
Germany invaded their country a few years later, along with the other Netherland nations of Norway and Finland, and occupied Denmark from April 1940 until May 1945. When asked about the length of time he spent in the Danish Resistance, Mr. Christiansen simply says, "I was there from the beginning until the end."
In the most frenzied days of the occupation, Mr. Christiansen played a dual role that earned him a prominent position on the Danish Nazis' "watch list." He was a member of the Danish Freedom Fighters,engaging in acts of sabotage to impede the Nazi war effort; and Danish Resistance, putting a rescue network in place to save mostly escaping Jews.
The greatest risk Mr. Christiansen took, he says, was putting his family in danger. In 1943, he had a beautiful wife and two small children at home (with two to follow after the war), and a successful business in an industry mostly dominated by Jews, manufacturer of leather goods, in which he acquired several Jewish friends.As for the risks, Mr. Christiansen offers: "It was something that needed to be done."
Ironically Mr. Christiansen's fashionable apartment on Havnegadein Copenhagen put him in close proximity to the comings-and-goings of the upper ranks of Nazis who typically selected choice real estate to serve as their headquarters. As a key resistance member, he was among the first to learn of the SS plans to arrest the Jews in one "convenient" mass roundup. It was planned on Rosh Hashanah, at 10 p.m. on Oct. 1 in 1943, an evening Denmark's 7,000 Jews were expected at home, almost all of whom lived in Copenhagen.
At first, Christiansen ushered large groups of Jews to farmhouses, churches and city apartments, using every available shelter to safeguard the Jews from immediate arrest. His youngest daughter, Jyttte, remembers her home was teeming over with guests in the living room, dining room and spare rooms in the back of the apartment, She was told to call the family's guests "Uncle David, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Adam," all ofwhom had decidedly Jewish names. One of the guests was the director of the Danish National Bank.
It isn't without a sense of nostalgia that she recalls a young woman from Amaliegade, whose name has long been forgotten, but not the "delicious soup" she made for all the guests.
Mr. Christiansen's own activities ranged from saving mostly "complete strangers" to rescuing close personal friends. One night in late September, Mr. Christiansen rushed to his weekly bridge game and urged two of his friends—Jewish brothers named Philipson—to immediately go into hiding. One of the brothers insisted on going home first, ignoring Christiansen's offer to make arrangements for the brothers and their families. The next day Christiansen learned his friend had been arrested and placed in a detainment camp. He told the Danish Nazi that his friend was "only one-quarter Jewish," hoping the perverse Aryan logic would convince the guard that his friend "really wasn't Jewish."
The commandant told Christiansen "too many Jews had slipped through the net," all the while refusing to release the friend. Taking considerable risk to his own life, Mr. Christiansen carried his request to the highest-ranking Nazi in Denmark, General Werner Best, who was better known as the "Blood Hound of Paris" for ruthlessly deporting Jews in France to death camps.
Though the friend’s release was never fully explained, it appears that Mr. Christiansen's status as a world-class Olympic athlete; and his father-in-law's position as the private physician to the King of Denmark's royal household may have factored into the turn of events. In addition General Best suggested to Mr. Christiansen, a handsome gentleman with Aryan features, that he "participate" in a Nazi propaganda film, "which would portray Germany as friends of Denmark," Mr. Christiansen recalled. "The film was never made," Mr. Christiansen added.
For the war's duration, many Danes made up the network that helped Jews leave the country, but Mr. Christiansen and his family still stand out. His physician father-in-law opened his substantial size home on the shoreline to shelter large groups of escaping Jews; his mother, the owner of a famous chocolate shop in Copenhagen, allowed her business to serve as a meeting place for rescue workers; and his younger brother acted as a lookout on the beachfront for Jews being ferried across the channel from Denmark to Sweden.
His wife was in fact one of the most heroic members. For five years, Karen Christiansen, a highly educated woman, sustained the risk of publishing a newspaper called "Die Warheit" (The Truth), which translated BBC broadcasts from Dutch into German to inform Weirmacht soldiers of atrocities being committed by the Third Reich and the more realistic accounts of the Allied advances in the war. "My wife had a backbone made of steel," says Christiansen, laughing. "She was tough and fearless." Her acts of heroism extended to protecting resistance members and even caring for wounded allied soldiers as the war progressed.
As the Christiansens’ story has come forward, so have details suggesting that many Germans could be counted on to look the other way. "A lot of the German (soldiers) didn't want anything to do with the war," Mr. Christiansen says. "They were very young and wanted nothing to do with the killing of Jews." Rescue workers and survivors have verified that boats were going back and forth under the eyes of the Germans, who did not attempt to block the operations. Still, the Gestapo made hundreds of arrests and Jews lived in dreaded fear of them.
One of the facts to slip through the historic cracks is the moral courage required by the Danes to act in unison as a nation. Ministers urged congregants to help their Jews neighbors; universities shut down the week of Rosh Hashanah to allow students to participate in the rescue operations; and (even) Danish diplomats negotiated with their counterparts in Sweden to arrange for safe passage for the fleeing refugees.
After 70 years, memories of the war now come to Mr. Christiansen in fragments. He recalls that he could "not bear to look" at the white buses of emaciated Jews returning from Theresienstadt detainment camp (not a liquidation camp); the bittersweet feelings at the more fortunate parade of Jews returning from Sweden and dropping flowers of appreciation at his mother's floral shop; and the scornful satisfaction of watching the Germans pack up and leaving Denmark on foot, after having confiscated all Danish vehicles for wartime use. The fondest memory Mr. Christiansen holds of that time is this: "The whole time people helped one another. People took risks they wouldn't normally take," he says. "People were so good to one another."
He immigrated to America with his wife and three of his four children in 1970, and still maintains close relations with members of the Jewish community. On any given afternoon Mr. Christiansen can be spotted at his local Jewish Community Center on the Upper Westside, where he likes to stay in shape on the rowing machine (for 10-minute workouts). Passersby would never suspect the elderly gentleman is a former world-class Olympic athlete who put his athletic prowess to use to save members of his community.
Just as you cannot un-ring a bell, not one cruel act of the Holocaust can be undone. But Mr. Christiansen's story is a reminder of the great moral courage displayed by one nation of people who were not left asking themselves whether they could have done more to stop the carnage.
In 2005, Knud and Karen Christiansen’s names were added to a list of legendary figures—among them Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler—as "Righteous Among Nations" at the YadVashem Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. While Karen died in 1992, Mr. Christiansen was 90 years old at the time of the honor. Each name on the memorial reflects an awe-inspiring saga of heroism, and Mr. Christiansen's little-known tale takes on a special significance on the one holiday that burns bright in Holocaust history, the Jewish New Year.