Not all heroes get the recognition they deserve during their lifetime. But the extraordinary efforts of a Danish couple, who risked their lives to save dozens of Jews during the Second World War, did not go unnoticed, thanks to one of the men they rescued. Max Rawitscher, a Holocaust survivor, came out of hiding after the war and told how he and many other Jews evaded the Nazis thanks to the efforts of Knud Marstrand Christiansen and his wife, Karen. This is their story.
Karen Christiansen, the daughter of Denmark’s chief naval physician, Dr Holger Rasmussen, went to Berlin to study at a prestigious cooking school in the 1930s. There, she lived with a Jewish family where she came face-to-face with the horrors of Nazis´ brutality. She documented the rise to power in letters to her fiancé, Knud Marstrand Christiansen, a member of the Danish rowing team at the 1936 Olympics.
Due to the turmoil in the region, Karen left her studies midway through and returned home – she would go on to join the Danish resistance movement. Meanwhile Knud, then 21, travelled to Berlin for the Olympics and closely witnessed the Nazi-led horrors that Karen had mentioned in her letters. On his return, he joined an anti-fascist group that was quickly becoming popular among his fellow Danes. And there began the heroic saga of a couple who would go on to endanger their lives to rescue Jews from certain death.
Karen and Knud got married in Copenhagen in 1938, just two years before the Germans occupied Denmark, and by 1943 they had become a family of five. Their house, which would become a secret Jewish meeting place later, was on the Havnegade, overlooking the canal – an ideal spot for Knud to keep watch of the high-ranking Nazi officers.
In many ways, Knud was the ideal candidate for the task of sheltering Jews from the Nazis. Knud himself was a member of the Danish Freedom Fighters (the Danish resistance movement); through his flourishing business as a manufacturer of ski poles and leather goods (industries mostly dominated by Jews), he had made many Jewish friends; his widowed mother’s chocolate shop at Bredgade 13 was a resistance safehouse, where members left messages and delivered weapons; and Karen, his wife, for five years published an underground newsletter, ‘Die Warheit’ (The Truth), translated BBC newscasts from Dutch into German to update Wehrmacht soldiers of the atrocities being committed by the Third Reich and provided updates of the Allied advance.
It was no surprise, therefore, that Knud and Karen were being closely monitored by the Nazis – which makes their activities in 1943 all the more profound and heroic.
Thanks to his situation, Knud was the man in the right place at the right time, and was able to join the dots and work out what the Nazis had planned for 1 October 1943: the mass arrest and relocation of Denmark’s Jews, to either the Eastern Front or the death camps.
Through his contacts, Knud heard about a list of Jewish names and addresses that was the only item stolen during a burglary at a synagogue, and then, a few days later, spotted the arrival of two German freighters from his apartment window. “I called my colleagues in the resistance and told them that I feared the Jews were going to be picked up,” he later recalled in an interview with the New York-based newspaper, The Jewish Post. More digging revealed the details of the mass arrest, which Karen quickly printed on hundreds of leaflets that were distributed across the country, instructing Jews to seek refuge away from their homes.
In September of the same year, Knud went to a weekly bridge game with his Jewish friends, the Philipson brothers, and advised them to go into hiding. But the brothers ignored his warning and went home regardless. At home, they were met by a group of Nazis who took them immediately to the Horserød internment camp. As soon as Knud learnt about their arrest, he went to the camp to explain that the Philipsons were only partly Jewish, hoping it would convince the guard to release the brothers. But the Nazis sent him away, threatening him with dire consequences should he return.
Changing tack, Knud went to Dr Werner Best, the German Reich’s plenipotentiary in Denmark. Knud promised Best he would produce a propaganda film in which the Germans would be portrayed as the friends of Denmark. Best, notoriously nicknamed ‘the Bloodhound of Paris’ for mercilessly deporting thousands of French Jews to the death camps, was impressed by Knud’s Aryan appearance and connections to the Danish royal family (Karen’s father was the personal physician of King Christian X). The Philipsons were released a few days later, but the film was never made.
After securing the safety of the Philipson brothers, Knud became extremely proactive. With the help of Karen, his younger brother and Dr Rasmussen, he escorted Jews to farmhouses, churches and city apartments, using everything in his power to protect them from immediate arrest. More than 40 ended up at his own Havnegade apartment. They filled the living room, dining room and spare rooms at the back. One of them was the president of the Central Bank.
Meanwhile, more than 1,800 new Gestapo agents arrived in the city to implement anti-Jewish measures. The Nazi raid was planned for Rosh Hashanah, a holiday which marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar, when Denmark’s 7,000 Jews were expected to be at home. As Rosh Hashanah neared, the universities closed to help students take part in the numerous rescue operations. Ministers asked congregants to help their Jewish neighbours in every possible way, and Danish diplomats negotiated with their Swedish counterparts for a secure passage for the refugees.
Sweden, which remained neutral during the war, agreed to provide asylum to all of the Danish Jews on 2 October 1943. Dr Rasmussen’s villa in Espergaerde, a coastal village north of Copenhagen, was used as a drop-off point for Jews escaping from Copenhagen. A bit like Moses, who parted the Red Sea to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Knud too guided the Jews to safety, escorting them one at a time, using his Olympic racing boat.
Knud made 17 more trips on his rowing boat before the rescuers began to use larger fishing boats that could carry more people. In total some 7,200 Jews and about 700 of their non-Jewish relatives were ferried to Sweden over a period of three weeks. Even though Knud and others were successful in smuggling Jews out of Denmark, two of the boats were not so lucky, and were sunk by Nazi patrols. Never the less, official records show that only 102 Danish Jews had lost their lives by the end of the war.
Knud and Karen continued to battle Nazi tyranny until the end of the war, after which several Danish Jews who had survived the Holocaust returned home. They, and many others, paid regular visits to Knud’s mother’s shop, not to buy chocolate, but to leave flowers as a token of appreciation for Knud and his family.
The Christiansens migrated to New York in 1970, where they led a life of anonymity. Knud worked in a store and repaired clocks and barometers. Karen devoted her life to her family until her death in 1992.
In 2003, Knud and Karen Christiansen’s names were enshrined, alongside 20 other Danes and the likes of Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, on the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ list at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. This remains the highest honour that the State of Israel can bestow on non-Jews. Knud maintained close ties with Jewish communities until his death last February.