An aging righteous gentile recalls ferrying Danish Jews to freedom from the Nazis.
If God had divided the sea for us, even if we didn’t pass through on dry land, it would have been enough, Dayenu.
Perhaps the Haggadah was thinking of 1943, when the sea split yet again, this time the choppy and icy waters of the Oeresund separating Denmark and Sweden, through which more than 7,000 Jews escaped the Nazis in row boats and fishing boats rather than on dry land, but no less miraculous for that.
There was no Moses in 1943. In Yad Vashem’s honorarium for Righteous Gentiles, there is a single collective entry for the Danish resistance, though 22 members of that resistance were later enshrined by name. But if there was no Moses, perhaps we can point to one of those 22, Knud Marstrand Christiansen as something of a Nachshon Ben-Aminadav, the first ex-slave to defiantly enter the pre-split Red Sea, daring the waters to drown him.
Christiansen was not Jewish, and though the Nazis occupied Denmark he was not much of a slave, either, but a member of the Danish resistance. Once an Olympic athlete, on the Danish rowing team, he is now 94 years old, living in New York, his blonde hair now white and surprisingly braided in the back of his neck like a lanyard. He needs his daughter Marianne to not only translate his words but to give those words volume, his voice dimmed and cloudy with time. Heroes grow old, and there are not enough Haggadahs to tell each of their stories.
Knud and his wife Karen (also enshrined among the Danish 22), knew the Nazis well. As a student, she lived with a Jewish family in Berlin in the first year of Hitler’s Reich, when she’d write home about the smashed shops and the sudden screams in the Berlin nights. Knud was there with the Danish team in the Olympics of 1936.
Knud, 26, and Karen, 21, married in Copenhagen in April 1938. In April 1940, the Germans took the city.
The Christiansens lived in a spacious apartment on the Havnegade (Harbor Street) overlooking the canal, and by 1943 had three small children. Knud had a successful business, manufacturing ski poles and leather goods, and helping his widowed mother at her chocolate shop at 13 Bredgade. He’d adjust the placement of a soda pop bottle in the shop’s window – a signal to the Danish resistance.
The shop was a place to leave messages, to leave weapons. Karen, on her “fly swatter” home printing press, published an underground newsletter, “Die Warheit” (The Truth).
One day in 1943, says Knud, “there was a burglary in the synagogue but the only thing stolen was a list of Jewish names and addresses.” A few days later, Sept. 21, he remembers, he looked out of his window, and saw two German freighters, without freight, without a crew, transport ships as empty and ominous as empty boxcars. “I called my colleagues in the resistance and told them that I feared the Jews were going to be picked up.”
The resistance spread the word. Karen’s fly swatter churned out hundreds of leaflets warning Jews, “Do not go home tonight, go to friends, fire stations, hospitals but do not go home.”
That afternoon, he played his weekly bridge game with two friends, the Philipson brothers, both Jewish. After the cigars were lit and drinks were sipped, Knud got up to leave, warning his friends to go anywhere but home. They went home anyway, and woke up the next morning in the Horserød internment camp.
With more than 30 Jews hiding in his apartment, Knud drove up to the Horserød internment camp to intercede for the Philipsons, offering bribes and German-style logic, explaining that the brothers were only part Jewish. The Nazi threatened Knud with a hanging of his own if he ever came back.
And so Knud went directly to Werner Best, the ranking Nazi in Denmark, known as “the Bloodhound of Paris,” for his work there. He was “cold,” remembers Knud, who this time tried a bribe of promising to produce a pro-German propaganda film. Best may have been impressed by Knud’s impeccable Aryan bearing and his connections to the royal family. A few days later, the Philipsons were freed. The film was never made.
The Nazi round-up was scheduled to begin on Rosh HaShanah, the end of September, the beginning of October, when Denmark’s Jews, almost all of whom were Orthodox and lived in Copenhagen, would presumably be at home. As many as 1,800 new Gestapo agents arrived in the city. According to the Associated Press (Oct. 3, 1943), “strenuous work on eastern front fortifications appeared to be in prospect for [Denmark’s] Jewish men and boys.”
On Oct. 2, Sweden offered asylum to all of Denmark’s Jews. Some 25 miles north of Copenhagen, from Karen’s parent’s home near a beach, Knud — using his Olympic racing boat — began rowing Jews across the midnight waters to Sweden, two miles across, at its narrowest point. “It was something that needed to be done,” he said.
He remembers the silence, other than the rhythmic sounds — so loud! — of oars chopping the water. He remembers the blackout on the Danish side and the green and blue lights on the Swedish side. Over several nights, Knud made 17 trips with Jews in his rowboat, before enlisting larger boats that could ferry more Israelites to freedom. Some boats were sunk by German patrols.
The resistance wasn’t finished. The New York Times reported (Oct. 5, 1943), “Danish patriots blasted German troop barracks, two power stations and two war material factories in a reintensified sabotage campaign today that provided a military answer to Germany’s attempted purge of the Jews in Denmark.” The two transport ships first spied in the harbor by Knud were sabotaged, as well.
According to Yad Vashem, 7,200 Jews and some 700 of their non-Jewish relatives were ferried to Sweden in the course of three weeks in October 1943. Only 500 Danish Jews, mostly elderly and sick, were captured and sent to Theresienstadt.
Karen died in 1992. Knud worked in a Manhattan clock shop, fixing clocks and barometers, in anonymity.
In time, the Jewish community discovered the heroism of Knud and Karen Christiansen. Yad Vashem enshrined them in 2003. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous provides him with a pension. “We’re very grateful that the Jewish community has rallied around my father in recent years when he’s needed it,” says daughter Marianne, “the doctors, the foundations, individuals, and Hatzolah (“Rescue,” the Jewish volunteer ambulance service). It’s beautiful how life works. It really is a circle.”
The JCC, on Amsterdam Avenue, gave Knud a lifetime membership. “Up until a few months ago,” says Marianne, “when my father had more energy, going there was the highlight of his day, to sit in the lobby, seeing all the kids.” On a good day, he visits their gym. He likes the rowing machine.