A story about karmaBy David Samuels
Knud Christiansen was not a big thinker or a person in the news. Still, I feel confident in saying that he was one of the greatest men or women I have been lucky enough to meet—and arguably, in terms of his personal impact on the lives of others, one of the greatest men of the 20th century, which awarded its highest accolades of fame and power to people who caused unaccountable destruction and suffering. Our sole encounter, which took place in either 1983 or 1984 in a clock repair store located on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 61st Street in Manhattan, may have lasted as long as 15 minutes, though it was probably shorter. I remember it was raining outside, which is why I took shelter in his shop.
To combat the tedium of my high school years, in the 1980s I had adopted the habit of time travel, whether via paintings in museums or novels and history books, which transported me to places far beyond the boringly familiar if not yet entirely manicured confines of the Upper East Side. The man behind the counter, with a long white beard, in a dark woolen watch cap, reminded me of an old sea dog in a Patrick O’Brian novel. He was smoking a pipe, and the smell of his tobacco in the closed space with the sound of the rain beating down against the plate glass window remains as vivid to me as the image of the man himself. The smoke from his pipe seemed to symbolize the passing of time, curling up toward the ceiling in front of a wall of broken clocks of all shapes and sizes, most with tags hanging down from one part or another to indicate the name of the owner and the nature of the repair that was needed. Given the significance of clockmaker iconography in 17th- and 18th-century European painting and thought with which I was familiar (my high school girlfriend worked at the Met), it is not surprising that this image remained fixed in my head as a kind of homespun illustration of the idea of God.
Knud Christiansen couldn’t actually make clocks. He could only fix them, and, as it turned out, even that talent was intermingled with a good-natured proclivity for the con. Yet the karmic wheel that his life set in motion, which my visit to his shop allowed me to glimpse through a keyhole only briefly, and which would become clear to me many years later, suggests that my youthful perception was perhaps not entirely wrong.
The hinge upon which my understanding of Knud Christiansen’s life turned was a device of the type that Alfred Hitchcock referred to as a “MacGuffin,” i.e. the random object or event that sets a larger plot in motion. The MacGuffin here was a winning $300 million Powerball lottery ticket that was cashed in 2002 in a remote county of West Virginia by a man named Jack Whittaker, known to his friends and family as Big Daddy. Despite being the largest single jackpot winner in American history up until that time, Big Daddy had refused to be interviewed. I convinced him otherwise by driving up and down the local highways until I spotted what I correctly surmised was the only gold-plated Hummer in the county, which was registered to Jack Whittaker. Spotting Big Daddy behind the wheel, I pursued him at varying speeds until he pulled into a convenience store parking lot, and, after entering the store and talking for a while with the cashier, agreed to give me an interview. My account of the serial tragedies that had blighted his life since he cashed his winning Powerball ticket led to a phone call from a man from New Jersey who complimented my article, and offered that he was working on a screenplay about Big Daddy’s life and downfall for which my input might be useful. Flattered, I agreed to meet him for coffee near an office I kept in the Flower District.
As it turned out, the screenwriter was in his eighties, and had not had a screenplay produced in 40 years. Nor had he ever met Big Daddy in person, even though he talked to him on the phone at least once a week. At the end of our meeting, he gave me a screenplay to read—a Holocaust revenge fantasy he had authored years earlier, about an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp brothel who seeks revenge on her tormentors after the war.
Oddly, despite its comic-book framing and hopelessly exploitative B-movie subject matter, or perhaps because of those things, I thought the screenplay was funny, and also strangely moving. So I sent it to my agent in Los Angeles in the hope that she would hate it, and I would thereby get the screenwriter, or would-be screenwriter—who in addition to being over 80 years old had a pronounced hunchback, which by itself seemed likely to ensure that any future pitch meetings would end in calamity—out of my hair.
The script went nowhere, but the screenwriter was grateful for my help. He wanted to thank me, he said, by bequeathing a story he had hoped to write himself for many years, but which he doubted he would ever have time to finish, or even properly begin. It was a true story, my guest continued, about a member of the 1936 Danish Olympic rowing team who began rowing Jews to Sweden—a personal act of incredible bravery and daring that led directly to the seaborne rescue of nearly the entire Danish Jewish community from the Nazis. If nothing else, he slyly suggested, it would make a great movie. Maybe Steven Spielberg would direct it.
Touched by his optimism, yet eager to flee (the normal response of any writer when presented with such gifts being a sincere “thank you” followed by a speedy exit), I suggested, gently, that there was no shortage of Hollywood movies about the Holocaust, beginning with Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List. The hunchback seemed disappointed, but only for a moment. The rower, he continued, had also helped bring Tibetan Buddhism to America, and smoked salmon to Zabar’s. Maybe those adventures could also be subjects for a movie. By my calculations, I had maybe another three minutes to get this man out of my life, before the glint in his eye triggered something in me that might lead us both down the road to God knows where.
“So,” I asked him, while beckoning for the check, “is this rower still alive?”
“Maybe,” he answered. “I’m not sure.”
“He’s in Denmark?” I countered. Surely, the Atlantic Ocean would be wide enough to protect me from any further engagement.
“Oh, he hasn’t been to Denmark for many years,” the hunchback answered airily. “He used to go swimming at the JCC on the Upper West Side, about 20 blocks from here. But he’s not been well.”
“That’s too bad,” I answered, with relief.
The hunchback looked downcast. Then he perked up. “I think I might have his daughter’s email address somewhere,” he suggested.
“Great, send it to me when you find it,” I replied, as I started to get up from the table.
Then, with only a hair’s breadth separating me from a clean escape, I felt an invisible hand tugging on my coat. “What else did he do in New York besides selling lox to Zabar’s?” I asked.
“Oh, lots of things,” the hunchback answered. “For one, he had a shop on Lexington Avenue for many years, where he fixed clocks.”
When I met Marianne Marstrand in her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, about 15 blocks away from where I went to high school, and 30 blocks from her father’s old clock shop, she told me that her father Knud had died a month earlier and was therefore not available for interviews and had left no oral history or other personal account of his life. I accepted a sheaf of papers and artifacts she offered for my perusal, including a copy of her father’s commendation from Yad Vashem, which confirmed that Knud Christiansen had been judged to be among the 27,921 Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust, and a mini-cassette recording of a speech by an Israeli diplomat at a ceremony honoring Knud. When I finally located a mini-cassette player at the bottom of an old duffel bag filled with magazine fact-checking materials from 20 years ago, when mini-cassettes, fact-checking, and magazines were all still in vogue, I found that the diplomat’s remarks were mostly inaudible.
Which is where the story might well have ended, if not for one final coincidence. While completing a series of portraits of the proprietors of Manhattan’s vanishing one-man shops in the late 1990s, a painter named Max Ferguson had glimpsed Knud Christiansen in the window of the same clock shop on Lexington Avenue where I had seen him perhaps 15 years earlier. Being in the business of painting eccentric small businessmen in Manhattan, and perhaps also affected by the same 17th-century motifs of clocks and the passage of time that had previously attracted my attention, he decided to paint Knud’s portrait—though he did not undertake the painting until late 2005, completing the work in 2006.
Ferguson knew nothing about Knud’s life in Denmark or involvement with rescuing Jews or Tibetan Buddhists. Yet the painting itself is oddly suggestive, with its overlapping clocks and clever distortions contrasting with the perfectly drawn, nearly Japanese wisps of smoke rising up from the bowl of Knud’s pipe. The back of the canvas, which I viewed last month at its home in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, gives almost the opposite impression, with the painter’s mastery of 17th-century portrait technique replaced by a teenager’s jumpy notebook scrawl, with random-seeming quotations about time (“When you kill time, you murder success” – the motto of Stiff Records, 1980; “will the person who keeps giving my clock amphetamines please cut it out”) interspersed with newspaper clippings about recent atrocities committed against Jews, such as the torture-murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris, as well as Olympian art-world jokes about the painting itself (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe – RM”). He titled the painting “Time,” adding a half-plaintive joke on the back: “It is somehow fitting that this painting, with its theme of time, took me longer to do (six months) than any other.”
Ferguson is an odd duck, who is possessed of an otherworldly talent for realist portraiture that, in a different era, and I am not exaggerating his talent by much, might have earned him a seat at the same table with Rembrandt and Vermeer, back when the ability to capture wood grain and fine finishes in oil on a two-dimensional canvas was an attainment much sought-after by princes and wealthy merchants. Max also painted a rather eerie portrait of Irving Chais, the proprietor of the famous New York Doll Hospital, which was located on Lexington Avenue diagonally opposite Knud’s clock shop. Chais, who in person was soft-spoken and kind, spent his life repairing children’s dolls on the Upper East Side after helping liberate the Dachau concentration camp as a young GI.
The two men were probably fated to be neighbors, I suggested to Max, who divides his time these days between New York and Jerusalem.
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
I told him what I had been told so far of Knud’s life. Knud Christiansen had become an alternate oarsman for the Danish national rowing team in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in order to visit his girlfriend Karen, whose parents disapproved of Knud because he grew up above a chocolate shop. In order to end their daughter’s unsuitable liaison, they sent her away to live with a Jewish family they met at a hotel on the Danish coast who happened to own one of Berlin’s most famous department stores, with the intention that Karen would study cooking. It was a particularly fateful and disastrous choice, one that alerted Karen and then Knud to the evils of the Nazi regime. Though no one seemed particularly interested in the teenagers’ perceptions of Nazi evil upon their return to Denmark, Knud and Karen did succeed in getting married. After the Nazis invaded Denmark, Knud and Karen became leading figures in the Danish underground, and each fought the Nazis—often not knowing anything about the other’s work—until the end of the war.
The way Knud helped save the Jews of Denmark was also more or less an accident. Knud had a workshop by the docks in Copenhagen, where he made ski bindings and motorcycle helmets and other leather goods. One day, a large ship arrived in Copenhagen from Germany, curiously bearing no cargo; when he inquired about the nature of the ship’s business, he was told that the return cargo would be Denmark’s Jewish population. As it turned out, a register of Copenhagen’s Jewish families had recently been taken from a local synagogue. Putting these two pieces of information together, Knud and Karen’s cell set out to warn Copenhagen’s Jews to stay away from their homes to avoid the coming roundup. Knud and Karen hid hunted Jews in their apartment, and then secretly ferried them northward to Karen’s father’s country house on the coast. From there, Knud began rowing their guests one by one to safety in Sweden.
When the war was over, Knud found himself targeted by the Copenhagen police, who had served the Nazis, and couldn’t abide the thought of a man who had flouted the law by hiding Jews, robbing banks, and engaging in other resistance activities, which also included the execution of Danish collaborators. The Christiansen family then left Denmark and became gypsies, moving from place to place in the family’s VW van.
At one of their stops, in the South of France near the town of Les Eyzies, they became neighbors of a flamboyant eccentric named Bernard Benson, who had invented guidance systems for early intercontinental ballistic missiles in California and drove his Rolls-Royce barefoot and had recently purchased a chateau in the Dordogne, where he housed many of the most prominent teachers of Tibetan Buddhism who had fled the Chinese Communist assault on their country. Knud and his family then helped the Tibetans to establish themselves in America, where one of Knud’s daughters met and married a Canadian oil and mining magnate named Maurice Strong. Partly as a result of the family’s varied influences, Strong became the father of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which began the climate change movement. Knud’s grandchildren, in turn, included members of what are arguably three of the world’s most important contemporary diasporas: Tibetans, Jews, and African Americans.
If what I had been told were true, I told Max, Knud’s life was a living example of how human goodness can reverberate through the cosmos through the webs of causes and effects in which we are always and inalterably enmeshed, and which constitute our reality. Or, to put it in Buddhist terms, Knud’s life was an illustration of the power of karma, a word whose root in Sanskrit includes the verbs do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare, and undertake.
“Well,” Max noted, when I was done. “I guess you don’t have much choice but to write it.”
Some facts about the rower’s life are more or less verifiable.
As a boy, Knud Christiansen indeed grew up above a famous chocolate shop in Copenhagen, which I have visited (the chocolates are excellent). The shop was run by his mother, Alida, who got her start in the chocolate business—this part gets fuzzier—when a relative in St. Petersburg, who may technically have been the husband of a relative or the husband’s brother, escaped with the chocolate recipes from the Czar’s kitchen during the Revolution. Arriving in Copenhagen just after a cholera epidemic killed Knud’s father, he gave the young widow the recipes that rescued her and her family from poverty. By the time Knud was nine, Alida was regularly delivering sweets from the shop to the King and Queen of Denmark, who lived just around the corner.
Alida was a redhead who drove a red convertible through the streets of Denmark and was rumored to have caught the eye of King Christian himself. She was by all accounts a beauty and a charmer, and Knud was the favorite of her five children. When Knud’s daughter Hanne asked him about his first memory of his mother, he remembered being two or three years old, and trying to dress himself in his sailor suit, and putting on the pants backward. “She was up against the window, and the sun was coming in through the window hitting her hair,” Hanne told me. “When she saw him putting his pants on the wrong way, she just broke out in laughter.”
On her way to school, Hanne would often stop by her grandmother’s shop and fill her pockets with marzipan and nougat, and bars of dark chocolate, which contained barely any sugar. “She was first of all very beautiful, and extremely generous,” Hanne told me of her grandmother. “I have never met anybody that had that kind of generosity. And she passed it to him.”
While accounts of a mother’s beauty that drew the youthful attentions of a king can in most cases be dismissed as fairy tales, they were confirmed for me in this case by a photo album that Marianne and Hanne’s brother Peter gave me during a visit to Copenhagen. In it, I was startled to find a photograph of a woman who looked like a young Greta Garbo, who spent time in Copenhagen at the beginning of her movie career. Except, according to Peter, the woman in the photograph was actually Alida in middle age, shortly after the birth of her first grandchild, Jytte.
Knud’s father never glimpsed his wife’s great beauty even once, having gone blind at the age of 18, before they met. According to Knud’s youngest sister Tove, their father was a tall and handsome adventurer who spoke many languages, did complex mathematical sums in his head, and dressed well. Now in her late eighties, Tove retains a vivid memory of the day her father died. “We stood five children all around, mother and five children. At the moment of death, he said he heard music. He said something to each of us. Knud was to look after the other children, Jorgen was not supposed to play with the tailor’s sons, they were naughty,” she said. Tove’s particular instruction was to help her mother. “Even if she toiled all night, and up early to send us off to school early in the morning,” she remembers. “She would be there in the morning ironing her clothes with her feet standing in a pan of hot water.”
Karen Rasmussen, Knud’s future wife and partner in resistance activities, had no magical or tragic childhood memories of her parents. She was the daughter of the royal physician Holger Rasmussen and his wife, Elva, though she was too shy and stubborn to spend much time at Court. The great love of her life was Knud Christiansen, who was in her brother’s class in school. “She was head over heels in love with him,” her daughter Hanne recalled. “He was just gorgeous. So physically gorgeous. He was exciting. He was just a person that had charisma and he had great compassion. Any woman would fall in love with that guy.”
Tove, his sister, has similar memories, though they center on a different quality of Knud’s. “The best thing about Knud was that he was modest and unselfish,” she recalled. “He never spoke about good things he did. We always found out from his friends. He did not care about money or worldly things.”
Elva Rasmussen did not approve of her eldest daughter’s feelings for the boy who lived above a chocolate shop. Early in the interwar summer of 1936, on the terrace of a resort hotel on the coast of Denmark, she and her husband met another couple from the upper echelons of European society who were also anxious about their child’s future. Just as the Rasmussens worried about Karen’s inappropriate liaison, the Fortentaub family of Berlin, if Karen’s later-life memory was correct, were concerned about the future of their eldest son, who wished to become a lawyer like his father, though the Nuremberg race laws, which had been passed by the Reichstag the previous fall, barred Jews from any access to higher education. While the Fortentaubs surely hoped that Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler’s outlandish racist diatribes might be tempered by the sobering responsibilities of real political power, they were nonetheless concerned about their son’s prospects in a country whose wobbly democracy had been hijacked by a Jew-hating would-be dictator. As the heirs to one of Berlin’s most fashionable department stores, they feared that the wealth and social position their family had earned over generations in Germany was in peril.
That afternoon, or evening, the two families, who had only just met, decided on a plan that might ease each of their most pressing concerns in a single stroke: They would swap children. The Fortentaubs’ son would come to live with the Rasmussens in Copenhagen and study law, while Karen would go live with the Fortentaubs at their palatial apartment in Berlin, where she would take a two-year course at a world-famous cooking school, the Lettestein. In addition to teaching her to cook, her absence from Copenhagen would also serve the purpose of putting her questionable suitor, Knud Christiansen, on ice—or so her mother hoped.
Life in Berlin with a Jewish family whose business and home were being targeted daily by Nazi violence came as a shock to Karen. “The Jews were shifted to concentration camps, and day after day their shops were looted and burned,” she remembered later in life. “People did not dare go out at night. They had a guard sitting down in the lobby checking everyone in and out. He knew what everyone in that house was doing, who was visiting whom, what they brought home,” she remembered. “Everybody tried to get their children out, buying tickets to South America, Japan, Australia.”
Back home, Karen’s descriptions of the terror and chaos of Jewish life in Berlin in the late 1930s struck her parents as most likely the wild exaggerations of a sensitive teenage mind. “No one believed me,” she recalled.
Karen’s mother’s plan to separate her daughter from her young suitor was unsuccessful, as Karen returned to Denmark with her feelings for Knud unaffected by their time apart. Still, Karen did fulfill one of her mother’s ambitions by marrying Knud at the Trinity Church, which was built by the Danish royal family. “It was stunning,” Tove recalled. “Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark [the present Queen’s father] was in attendance, as well as naval officers with their hats and regalia.” In honor of his daughter’s wedding, the royal physician and the Crown Prince played piano together for the guests.
Following the wedding, Knud set up a leather workshop in a less regal location near the docks, on Studiestraede. “The people who supplied the leather were Jewish,” Knud’s daughter Marianne explained. “So that was sort of his connection to the Jewish community in Denmark.” He joined the local rowing club, which helped him keep in shape. “He would row around the whole of Copenhagen,” Marianne remembered. “It would take days to do it.”
Though the young couple was perhaps at first glance not a natural match, they complemented each other well. Where Knud was open, humble, outgoing, and athletic, Karen was bookish and reserved. At the same time, she was also a champion swimmer and sharpshooter. “Above all, she had this acute insight into people,” her daughter Marianne recalled. “She used to tell my sister, ‘Be careful about this guy. He’s not what he says he is. Watch this one.’”
The German invasion of Denmark on April 9, 1940, became known to Danes as the Six Hour War. In fact, Denmark formally surrendered to the Nazi armies in less than two hours, but due to communications issues some units continued to fight for a few hours longer. As the German soldiers disembarked on the docks of Copenhagen, a Jewish doctor named Hein, a close friend of the Christiansen family, shot himself. His wife was already dead, and he had no surviving family left. “For him, it was clear that it was over for the Jews and he did not want be a part of it,” Tove remembered.
In later interviews, Karen remembered the Nazi takeover of Denmark as both ludicrous and shameful. “It was ridiculous,” she remembered. “The Germans went down and took the harbor and took the ships in. They went down and took the Commandant in his bed and marched him off. It was a disgrace.” Though the Copenhagen harbor was heavily mined, the Germans took the harbor and the city without losing a man or firing a shot—suggesting that the Nazi invasion had been choreographed with the help of at least some higher-level members of the Danish military and political classes.
Outside Copenhagen, I located the only living border guard who witnessed the Nazi invasion. A novelist named Sven, he was 98 years old when I met him and living in an old-age home, which was predictably outfitted in classic Danish mid-century modern furniture. Lying in bed, with pale, nearly translucent skin and deep blue eyes, he remembered the German invasion of Denmark with surprising clarity.
“I opened the window and saw that a friend of mine from the royal army and his soldiers were shooting with machine guns,” he remembered. “So, I went onto the street and said, ‘What in hell are you doing here?’ ‘Oh, some Germans are shooting on us,’” he recalls. “So, I peered around the corner and then a sergeant took me and pulled me back and at the same time, there was shooting. I should have been Swiss cheese.”
As the commander of the royal guard, Sven reported directly to the king himself. “King Christian and his wife sat there, and he was stunned. He said to me, ‘What do you want, lieutenant?’ So I said, ‘Your Majesty, I want to fight the last half hour.’” King Christian’s response was unequivocal. “‘Lieutenant, there will be no fight. Denmark has surrendered.’”
For both himself and for his king, Sven remembers, the German invasion came as a profound, otherworldly shock. “We didn’t dream of it,” he answered. Immediately, he says, he joined the resistance, where he commanded a unit of professional soldiers whose job would be to attack the Germans from the rear when the Allies invaded. His best friend from childhood became the Resistance executioner known as The Flame. “Many were taken by the Germans and tortured,” he remembered. “They tortured them in terrible ways.”
When our discussion turned to the fate of Denmark’s Jews, he told me something I had already heard many times from men and women who were alive during the war, but which I had not fully absorbed until now because of its strangeness. “We considered them all like ordinary Danes,” he said, with a shrug.
When I pressed him and his friend Marie, who was also visiting, and whose father, like Sven, was also a noted resistance commander, to tell me what they knew about Jews, they explained that in Sweden, Nazi ideology did gain a foothold, because there was pre-existing prejudice against Jews. But Denmark was different. Why? Because Denmark has always been different, they explain, just as Germany is different, England is different, and France is different, each according to its national character. The Germans followed Hitler because of an instinct in the German people, Sven said. “They wanted to be masters of everything, and when Hitler came, he touched a place in the German psyche.”
In addition to writing novels, Sven is also one of Denmark’s leading experts on the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of re-incarnation. In his understanding, he explained, there are two ways of apprehending reality. There are the flat, technical codes by which people learn to make money, build houses, and master other people. And then there is the apprehension of the unity of all things, which involves the understanding that when you hurt others, you are also hurting yourself. “My understanding of God is that everything is contained in God,” he explained. “So, as a matter of fact, when we evolve, the nearer we come to God, the nearer we recognize we are both one and the other.”
Whatever their feelings about Jews or the essential and inherent unity of God and his creation, many Danes, especially those who were younger, had no intention of living quietly under German rule. Karen ran the Danish underground printing press and edited its propaganda newspaper aimed at German soldiers, Die Warheit (The Truth). Alida’s chocolate shop became a weapons drop and a messaging center. As the area commander of the Holger Danske resistance group, Knud filled the chocolate shop with weapons and explosives that were air-dropped by the British. “It was enough to blow up all of Copenhagen, when they came to pick it up after the war,” Tove, who ran the shop together with their mother, remembered. “I had the back room full of weapons, and saboteurs sitting in another back room having a meeting, and I stood there with my legs shaking.”
Once the back of the chocolate shop was filled, Knud stashed resistance weapons in his mother’s apartment. “They sat on her parquet floor, cleaning weapons,” Tove remembered. “Knud had to instruct the Danish police’s arms division on how to use the weapons that had been dropped. They were unfamiliar with them, and if they had tried on their own, they would have blown themselves up.” Eventually, the local resistance members moved their meetings to an antique bookshop, where they placed an exceptionally ugly vase in the window. When the vase was turned one way, it meant danger; turned the other way, it meant it was safe for members of the resistance to enter. If a copy of Three Men in a Boat was displayed, that was the signal for the transport group to pick up a message.
By 1942, the Danish resistance had graduated from printing leaflets, robbing banks, and assassinating collaborators to large-scale acts of industrial sabotage. Knud was able to use his waterfront connections to smuggle in enough explosives from his stash to blow up a large section of the Burmeister & Wain shipyard, which was essential to the German naval war effort. “Knud knew someone there and they managed to get the bombs in,” Tove remembered. “He was the brain behind the activities.” Heightened resistance actions brought a furious response from the Nazis, who launched an all-out war against the resistance, killing hundreds of Danish resistance fighters and imprisoning, torturing, and killing their families.
* * *
At this point, Denmark was home to between 8,000–10,000 Jews, who were protected by the Danish government, which collaborated with the Nazi occupation in exchange for a measure of control over domestic policy. As the Danish resistance, now regularly supplied by the British, stepped up its attacks on German officials, soldiers, and shipping, the collaborationist government resigned that August, and the Nazis took full control of the country.
For the Jews of Europe, the hour was already late. At the Wannsee conference, held in Berlin in January of 1942, the Nazis had adopted a concrete program to exterminate every living Jew under their rule. “The bizarre tortures and the freakish, brutal murders that have been invented for us by the depraved, perverted murderers, solely for the suffering of Israel since the middle of 1942, are, according to knowledge of the words of our Sages of blessed memory, and the chronicles of the Jewish people in general, unprecedented and unparalleled,” wrote the diarist Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known to posterity by the title of his eponymous book, the Aish Kodesh (Holy Flame). Along with the rest of the remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto, Shapira was murdered following the Jewish uprising in the spring of 1943. Now, in the fall of that year, Danish Jews were to be added to the pyre.
Knud and Karen’s daughter Hanne, who was bombed out of her baby carriage during the German invasion, now learned to live with new “uncles” and “aunts,” who slept under tables and on couches, at times taking up nearly the entire apartment. An unfamiliar knock meant that everyone had to leave by the back door, and head for either the large basement or the escape path across neighboring roofs. “They were a little bit withdrawn, but very nice,” Hanne remembered. “I remember one of them—and this was before, of course, I went to school—would bring up a book, and sit down, and show you the alphabet.” The visitors wore dark clothing, she remembers, and often left in groups at night. “I could feel the fear,” Hanne remembers. “That’s one thing that sticks in my mind: the fear. I couldn’t figure out why.”
Fear was not particular to Danish Jews or to other Danes who hid them in their apartments. It was especially acute for those involved in resistance activities, like Hanne’s parents. While Karen ran the underground’s printing press, Knud’s duties involved more direct forms of physical risk. He sabotaged trains, included one carrying 40 or 50 members of the Copenhagen police who refused to collaborate directly with the Nazis and were being sent to concentration camps in Germany. Instead, the escaped policemen made their way to Sweden. “That’s why the chief of police always hated my father,” Hanne remembers. Knud’s resistance work included robbing banks, often with the foreknowledge of Danish authorities. Knud also executed collaborators; it was said within the family that his target list at one point included Karen’s brother-in-law, who like many Danes from prewar elite circles worked closely with the Nazi-backed Danish collaborationist government.
The violence of the resistance effort made its way into the Christiansen home. One time, Hanne remembers, a resistance fighter arrived at the apartment riddled with bullets; his life was saved on the spot by emergency surgery conducted by her grandfather, the royal physician. The fighter, a former chess champion named Jens Enevoldsen, “had a cool head, a ‘chess’ mind,” Knud’s sister Tove recalled. His job in the resistance was also to murder informers. As he recuperated in the Christiansen apartment, he taught the young girls to play chess.
When I asked Tove how Knud and Karen remained so calm in the face of such overwhelming danger, especially with three (soon to be four) young children at home, she gave me a typically understated Danish shrug. “We all hated the Nazis,” she said.
When danger came too close, the family decamped to the Rasmussen family hunting lodge near the coast. Well-stocked with rifles and fishing gear, the house was a rustic refuge, overlooking a pond. “In the summers, it was just out-of-this-world beautiful,” Hanne remembers. In the family album I took from Peter, bound in what looks like ancient burlap, there are pictures of the pond, and of the family enjoying themselves, as well as photos of the forest and of the estuaries that led from nearby the house to the sea. I also found a solitary photograph of Knud rowing a boat, from his days with the Copenhagen rowing club. The album is a document of a rescue foretold, in which those whose lives were to be saved are present through their absence.
The Nazi roundup of the Jews of Copenhagen was scheduled for the evening of Oct. 1, 1943. It was a Friday, a day chosen by the Nazis in the hope of finding Jewish families gathered together for Sabbath dinner. Yet the Nazi roundups, conducted by Danish police and 50 Danish volunteer members of the Waffen SS, together netted fewer than 300 people. The rest of Copenhagen’s Jews, who numbered somewhere around 6,000 souls, out of an estimated population of perhaps 9,000 Jews in Denmark, were already living in the storerooms, living rooms, and attics of friends, neighbors, and total strangers, having been warned in advance of the Nazis’ plans.
Postwar histories of the Danish rescue effort do not credit Knud Christiansen or his colleagues in the Danish resistance for warning Denmark’s Jews about the deportation order. Instead, they mostly credit a naval attaché at the German embassy in Copenhagen named Georg Duckwitz, the right-hand man of German occupation governor Werner Best. According to this history, which remains still widely accepted, Duckwitz tipped off Hans Hedtoft, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, to the upcoming roundup, and Hedtoft in turn warned Marcus Malchior, Denmark’s acting chief rabbi, on Sept. 28, 1943—the day before the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. On Sept. 29, Rabbi Melchior canceled Rosh Hashanah services.
Whatever roles were played by Duckwitz, Hedtoft, and Melchior, there are some obvious holes in the accepted story. First, there is the fact that Danish Jews were so thoroughly assimilated that only a small minority practiced traditional forms of Jewish religious observance, attended synagogue, or were otherwise connected to Jewish communal life, which makes Jewish institutions an unlikely mechanism for swiftly warning Danish Jews of impending disaster. Second, there is the fact that Duckwitz remained in his post with no penalty or demotion despite having blown the whistle on a roundup that was a secret to which only a few German officials would have had access, making the source of the leak rather easy to trace. Third, there is the fact that Duckwitz’s boss, Werner Best, was an SS Obergruppenführer and hardline Nazi ideologue who organized SS Einsatzgruppen killing units at the behest of his direct boss, the sociopathic mass murderer Reinhard Heydrich, earning himself the title “The Butcher of Paris.” It is odd to imagine Best knowing of Duckwitz’s treasonous activities, at a time when Nazi power was at its zenith, and allowing him to continue in his post, instead of sending him to Dachau or Buchenwald.
Paradoxically, then, the only way the story of Duckwitz being the salvation of Denmark’s Jews makes sense is if he was acting at Werner Best’s instruction—which is exactly the scenario proposed in a play titled The Tailor’s Tale by Alexander Bodin Saphir, based on accounts given by the playwright’s grandfather, an Eastern European Jew who was Best’s wartime tailor. Saphir is also the cousin of the Danish actor Kim Bodnia, star of the first two seasons of the hit television police drama The Bridge, making him the most famous living Jew in Denmark in the 2010s—which one imagines didn’t hurt the popularity of Saphir’s conjecture.
In reality, the wide acceptance of the Duckwitz-Hedtoft-Melchior rescue theory probably has as much to do with postwar Danish politics as it does with what actually happened during the war. It is hard not to notice that the Duckwitz narrative, while making heroes out of a leading Social Democratic politician, a Danish rabbi, and a good German, pointedly excises the activities of the Danish underground, which included many active communists—who unlike the Social Democrats were actively hunted by the Nazis. It therefore seems fair to suggest that the construction of the postwar Danish rescue narrative may have had less to do with scholarly fidelity to the historical record than with the all-too-human desire to close the book on the messy and unpleasant reality of official Danish collaboration with the Nazis—while at the same time shoring up the legitimacy of the postwar Danish political order and the larger NATO order in which it was contained, and delegitimizing its communist rivals.
One answer to who gave the original warning of the impending roundup of Danish Jews on Oct. 1, 1943, may be found in these pages. It may also be true, as often happens in such cases, that warnings were received by several people, from different sources. Whatever the case, it seems clear that it was the Danish resistance that spread the word of the roundups throughout Copenhagen, found places for Danish Jewish refugees to stay with their neighbors, and organized the great flotilla that would ferry the vast majority of Danish Jews, along with other Jews who were then resident in Denmark, to safety.
The mass rescue of the Jews of Denmark from the Nazis by their countrymen, a feat that is unique in the history of World War II and the Holocaust, is worth retelling an endless number of times, especially because there are so few stories like it. The urgency of such retellings can only increase as living memories of that event disappear into pious recitations of received narratives and silent memorials. The point of all memorials, whether carved of stone or presented in exciting new audio-visual formats, is to allow victims and collaborators as well as their children to go on with their lives by putting whatever terrible events they memorialize safely in the past. If a memorial is successful, then the agonized stone figures or talking holograms approved of by museum boards and prize committees can take their proper place as family amusements and roosts for pigeons.
Faced with the reality of shattered worlds in which victims and perpetrators must continue to walk the same streets, shop together in the same stores, and send their children to the same schools, it is hard to argue with the idea that the needs of the living should be privileged over the repetition of agonizing and unsettling truths. Yet the more guilt and victimhood are insisted upon, the more the contradictions of the larger enterprise of public memorialization become plain. If the point of memorialization is to remember the dead, then why build memorials—whose not-so-hidden purpose is to license forgetting? If memorials fail to put horrible and disturbing events in the past, in the interests of social peace, then why build them at all? Clearly the buck has to stop somewhere. But where?
One answer can be found by highlighting the difference between memorialization and memory. Memorialization asks us to forget the past on behalf of the living, but memory requires us to forget ourselves in order to allow the ghosts of the past to speak. Hearing the voices of ghosts first requires us to resist the natural impulse to paper over the strangeness of such encounters.
Knud Christiansen rarely spoke to his children about his wartime experiences in the Danish resistance, some of which were no doubt frightening and dark in an internal war that pitted Danes against their own countrymen and families. He displayed less reticence when it came to the Nazi attempt to murder Denmark’s Jews. “He heard that there was a robbery at one of the synagogues,” his daughter Marianne remembered. “The only thing that was taken was this book with all the names of the Jewish community.”
That night, looking out the window of his apartment on the docks, Knud saw two large steamships in the harbor. The ships appeared to be empty, with no passengers or crew on board.
Knud Christiansen loved ships. He was a boat fiend, who spent nearly all his spare hours on the water, rowing and sailing. “So he thought, ‘This is very interesting,’” Marianne remembered. “‘Why would these big, empty steamships be in the harbor? They’re not bringing arms. They’re not bringing people. What are they there for?’”
Anyone involved in the Danish resistance would not have had to think very hard to come up with a possible or even likely answer to that question. By 1943, everyone in Europe knew what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. The deportation of Jews from neighboring Norway to Nazi death camps the previous fall suggested that a similar fate awaited Danish Jewry. Now that the Nazis were in direct control of Denmark, only the date of the deportation order remained a mystery. In Knud’s telling, at least, that date was now clear.
Knud brought his news of the empty ships to the resistance. Flyers and handbills were soon printed up on Karen’s press and posted across Copenhagen, warning Jews not to return to their homes. Resistance groups also instructed bus drivers, taxi drivers, and others to help spread the word.
On the night of Oct. 1, 1943, Knud played his usual game of bridge with the Philipsons, the two Jewish brothers from whom he bought leather. (Marianne has a photograph of Knud playing cards with the brothers, with everyone looking dapper in their suits.) After the game was over, Knud warned them both not to go home. However, one of the brothers disregarded Knud’s warning and returned to his house, where he was promptly arrested by the Nazis and put into a detention area, from which Jews were to be transported to the ships, and then to concentration camps. Knud made repeated visits to the detention area until he convinced, or bribed, or threatened a guard, who finally released the Philipson brother.
Was Knud Christiansen in fact the source of the warning to Danish Jews to stay home, in order to avoid deportation? In the case of the Philipson brothers, he surely was. And perhaps for hundreds or thousands of others also. The only real knowledge we have of these events comes now from the voices of ghosts.
Perhaps the most famous story or legend connected to the attempted deportation of Denmark’s Jews is that of King Christian’s ride. On the morning of the scheduled deportations, the King is said to have pinned a yellow star to the chest of his jacket before going out on his usual morning jaunt around Copenhagen on horseback, to emphasize that the Jews were Danes. While there is no firsthand evidence to suggest that King Christian ever wore a yellow star on his morning rides or elsewhere, latter-day attempts at debunking King Christian’s ride as a myth often transmit more historical falsehood than the anecdote itself. Indeed, if anything, the story may understate both the King’s feelings and the importance of his actions in saving Denmark’s Jews from slaughter.
In his diary, several weeks before the scheduled roundup, the King wrote:
When you look at the inhumane treatment of Jews, not only in Germany but occupied countries as well, you start worrying that such a demand might also be put on us, but we must clearly refuse such this due to their protection under the Danish constitution. I stated that I could not meet such a demand towards Danish citizens. If such a demand is made, we would best meet it by all wearing the Star of David.
In the days and weeks following Oct. 1, the King’s actions continued to match the words he wrote in his diary. The royal palace, which included Karen’s father, found a particularly ingenious way to support the population of Copenhagen in the work of hiding Jews in private homes, a solution that saved the Jews from immediate deportation but created difficulties of its own—beginning with the logistics of feeding unexpected guests. “Big pots were needed to feed many people,” Marianne recalled. “So, on a certain day, all these pots were put out the back of the Palace, as if they were being thrown out.” Danes who needed large pots could go around to the palace and take a pot from the King’s own kitchen to feed their new aunts and uncles and cousins.
Knud and Karen needed plenty of new pots: At one time, the sisters recall, the Christiansens had 29 fugitives staying in their apartment. The fact that the Christiansens’ guests were Jewish was not, as Knud’s older daughters remember, a point of any particular note. “In Denmark, we didn’t know the difference between a Christian and a Jew,” Hanne remembers. “They were just all neighbors and friends. We didn’t say, ‘Are you Jewish?’”
Among the guests in their apartment was a German Jewish refugee named Max Ravitzer. “I remember the way he looked, a short, stout fella with a big, smiling face,” Jytte recalled. “He was just kind, somebody you could have confidence in. We never saw him after the war.”
Max Ravitzer would stand out from the dozens of other Jews who passed through the Christiansens’ apartment not just because he was German but also because his story was documented in the aftermath of the war and then again decades later. It was these records that led to Knud’s recognition in the closing years of his life by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations—gentiles who had demonstrably risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
As editor of the underground newspaper Die Warheit, which targeted German soldiers in Denmark, and also as Knud’s wife, Karen’s life was in constant danger, which she routinely played down in her later years with her characteristic dry humor. “I had murderers and whatever staying with us. They were very nice,” she remembered. “They would carry wood out for me, darn my husband’s socks.” Her father, the court physician, who was both proud and afraid of her underground work, treasured his copies of Die Warheit, which he buried in a metal box in his garden. For her part, Karen recalled, “I never thought about it. That is why war is fought by young people who don’t think.” The Nazis put a price on her head of 10,000 kroner.
“You have to be very careful,” she reflected, when asked about how she stayed alive in Copenhagen with a price on her head at the height of the war. “Either you trust people, or you don’t.” Her part in the resistance, as she understood it, was to carry out the orders she received from higher up. “I knew my little thing and didn’t know too much,” she later told an interviewer.
“How about your husband?” the interviewer asked.
“He did his own thing,” Karen answered. “He just disappeared once in a while.”
“And you didn’t talk about what he was doing?”
“No,” Karen answered. “The less you know, the better.”
Yet hiding nearly the entire Jewish community of Denmark for over a month and then moving them to safety in Sweden required a collaborative effort that was markedly less compartmentalized and secure than the usual rigors of underground work—and required far greater levels of social solidarity. In an interview, Karen recalled her husband’s leatherwork as being connected to a larger shop run by a tanner, who hid Jews in his attic. “At that time my husband was dealing with leather, and there was this tanner who had a shop in the middle of Copenhagen,” she said. “And in his attic he had about 20 Jews living. Anytime we had a boat ready, we just went there and got them. We had somebody taking them from the attic to the railway station and then we took them up the coast from there down to the beach. I was one of them that brought them down and my husband and other people would row them over.”
Knud’s brother Jorgen accompanied Max to the hunting lodge at Espergaerde, which involved a trip by train. “That was not very easy if they looked very Jewish,” recalled Knud’s sister Tove, who made the trip herself perhaps a dozen times. “On the train were many officers and German soldiers.” When they reached the lodge, Knud would call the fire department, which brought his rowing shell down to the ocean, and hid it in the bushes. Then, under cover of darkness, and depending on the tides, he would row his guests one by one across the narrow strait to Sweden, which welcomed the Jews of Denmark with open arms, despite the country’s official position of wartime neutrality, and a de facto working alliance with the Nazi state.
Here, too, it is necessary to listen to ghosts. In this case, the person who likely knew the answer better than anyone was Niels Bohr, the world-renowned physicist who in 1943 was probably Copenhagen’s most famous citizen, apart from King Christian himself. Bohr, the father of the eponymous atomic model for which he won the 1922 Nobel Prize in physics, was thoroughly Danish; born of a Jewish mother, he was classified under German race laws as a Jew. Since the late 1930s, the brilliant physicist, who was also handsome, selfless, and personally daring, had devoted himself to smuggling fellow physicists out of Germany and other Nazi-controlled territories, all the while continuing his famous argument with the physicist Albert Einstein, who had fled Europe for Princeton, New Jersey.
The argument between Einstein and Bohr that began in the 1920s would define and shape 20th-century physics—in favor of Bohr’s views for the first half of the century, and then later leaning back toward Einstein’s. Where Einstein was the last great progenitor of the clockmaker model of a physical reality governed by objective mechanical laws (“God does not play dice with the universe”), the “Copenhagen Interpretation” advanced by Bohr and his disciples insisted that the act of observation was itself a foundational part of existence. In the famous thought experiment devised by Bohr’s assistant, Ernest Schrödinger, a cat in a box is therefore both dead and alive until attempts are made to ascertain its qualities by an outside observer. Schrödinger’s paradox suggests that an infinite number of possible worlds may therefore exist simultaneously at every moment, with each depending on the position of the observer. In Bohr’s own example, presented at the famous 1927 Copenhagen conference on quantum mechanics, while wave equations might describe where entities like electrons might be located, those entities didn’t exist as electrons until someone went looking for them. In Bohr’s words, the entities in question therefore had no “independent reality in the ordinary physical sense.”
Bohr’s understanding of quantum mechanics was something more, in his view, than mysticism dressed up as science. The physicist sought to demonstrate that the act of looking influenced the probability distribution while at the same time allowing an entity to be defined as a particle located at a Cartesian coordinate. As Bohr’s other great disciple, Werner Heisenberg, put it, “Everything observed is a selection from a plenitude of possibilities and a limitation on what is possible in the future.” Furthermore, Bohr postulated, the effect of measuring one particle could also necessarily affect another particle with which it was entangled, regardless of the physical distance between them, an idea that Einstein derided as “spooky action at a distance.”
The Copenhagen Interpretation of the Danish rescue effort therefore constitutes only one of many parallel chains of cause and effect—this one centered on Niels Bohr. That story goes something like this: Since before the beginning of the war, Bohr had been instrumental in smuggling German physicists, most of them Jewish, out of Germany to safe houses in Copenhagen, from which they made their way to neutral countries like Sweden. From there, the physicists were relocated to Britain and the United States, where they were instrumental in the evolution of the Manhattan Project.
When the Nazis took over Denmark, Bohr fled to Sweden. There, he received a phone call from the London office of the legendary film impresario Alexander Korda, a Hungarian-born Jewish film producer, director, and screenwriter who successively made his mark in the Hungarian, Austrian, German, American, and British film industries between the wars. Korda is known to posterity through dozens of films, including Things to Come, The Thief of Baghdad, and The Third Man. In 1942, he was knighted for his contributions to the British war effort.
Korda played an active role in British intelligence efforts in Europe both before and during World War II, with personal connections that went right to the top of the British political system: Having hired Winston Churchill as an editor and producer during the politician’s “wilderness years” in the 1930s, Korda remained close to Britain’s wartime prime minister, as well as to one of Churchill’s oldest personal friends—Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Dansey, the assistant chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). In 1937, Dansey arranged for Korda’s company, London Film Productions, to provide cover for his agents, who were duly credentialed as screenwriters and film researchers and sent to work on a slew of imaginary films in European capitals. In addition to churning out wartime propaganda for British and American audiences, and providing cover for British spies, Korda, according to his biographer Charles Drazin, was also very personally and deeply concerned about the fate of European Jewry.
But the person calling Niels Bohr from the film producer’s office was not Alexander Korda himself. Rather, it was the Swedish-born actress Greta Gustafsson. She had met the physicist in 1923 while working with the Finnish-Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller, who brought her to Hollywood and gave her the stage name Greta Garbo.
Like Korda, Garbo, who starred in the 1931 film about the British spy Mata Hari, had close ties to Britain’s wartime intelligence services. A dedicated anti-fascist, she dreamed of assassinating the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, who reportedly had a crush on her. Failing in that goal, the actress spent the war years providing MI6 with intelligence about prominent Nazi sympathizers in Sweden and other countries who found it hard to resist spilling their secrets to the world’s most mysterious and alluring woman. The Swedish King Gustav V was also known to be enamored of Garbo.
What Bohr and Garbo spoke about on the phone that day is unknown. Presumably, though, the call was not made to satisfy either Garbo’s curiosity about quantum mechanics or Bohr’s interest in Hollywood. Rather, the call was likely made at the behest of the patron that Korda, Garbo, and Bohr all shared in common—British intelligence.
As unlikely as it might have seemed to either man before the war, by late 1943, MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies, the most important Allied spymaster during World War II, had few agents or contacts anywhere in the world more important than Niels Bohr. The Danish physicist was a central figure in what would prove to be one of the war’s most decisive secret battles—the Allied attempt to develop a nuclear weapon while denying that weapon to the Nazis. A giant of modern physics, Bohr was central to both efforts as the patron and rescuer of some of the most important physicists in the world, many of whom played key roles in the Manhattan Project. Bohr was also an irreplaceable source of Allied intelligence on the Nazi bomb effort through his continuing contact with Werner Heisenberg, his former student and assistant, who was now the central theoretician of the Nazi bomb program.
The significance of Bohr’s network to the British went beyond the intelligence he provided on the Nazis. It also constituted Britain’s major contribution to the Manhattan Project, making the Danish physicist the main source of British insight into and leverage over the American attempt to develop a new super-weapon—an effort that, if successful, could not only decide the war but also reshape the future balance of world power away from both Germany and Great Britain and toward the United States. Any semi-reasonable request that Bohr made of British intelligence in late 1943 was therefore likely to have been granted.
What is known, according to biographers of both King Gustav V and Garbo, is that, following her call with Bohr, Garbo placed a second call to the King of Sweden, requesting a private audience for both herself and the Danish physicist. The Swedish King granted her request. At that meeting, which was held in late September (there are disagreements about the exact date, as the meeting understandably does not appear on the King’s official calendar), Gustav V agreed to risk Nazi displeasure, the neutrality of his country, and his throne by offering full asylum to Denmark’s entire Jewish population—in response, one might infer, to Garbo’s charms, plus whatever guarantees Garbo and Bohr conveyed from the British.
The story of how a brilliant physicist, a famous actress, and the King of Sweden laid the necessary groundwork for the rescue of Denmark’s Jews rests largely on circumstantial evidence; the facts supporting this theory are only facts because of the choice to tell the story from one angle and not another. That said, there are no matters of fact to dispute in this story, only the pattern in which they are arranged.
In support of the conjecture underlying my chosen pattern, it further seems relevant that neither Great Britain nor the United States showed much interest in rescuing Jews from any other country aside from Denmark in 1943, or at any other date before or during the war—let alone in helping to arrange for the mass exodus of an entire Jewish population. Since Danish Jews played no discernable role in the Allied war effort (by requiring nearly the entire attention and resources of the Danish underground for a period of nearly two months, the rescue of Denmark’s Jews deprived the Allies of useful assets close to Germany), and Sweden had no prior history of being particularly friendly toward Jews (who were only granted equality before the law in 1910), and since Greta Garbo was neither Danish nor Jewish, it can reasonably be surmised that the Swedish grant of asylum for Jewish Danes was the price that Niels Bohr requested from the British for his work, which in turn made the rower’s activities possible.
In the chaotic days of October 1943, the hidden Jews of Copenhagen were smuggled by train and car to the small fishing towns along the North Zealand coast, where they crowded into new hiding places in attics, warehouses, and churches. In the picturesque fishing village of Gilleleje, Jews could be found living in the household of almost every family. Danish policemen organized to help transport the Jews, as did the Danish Medical Association, which used its ambulances to transport Jews whose medical certificates bore names like “Hansen” and “Olsen” and who were wrapped in plaster casts and bandages. Some were driven in garbage trucks and fish trucks to the coast, where they waited for boats to take them to Sweden. Of the 8,000–10,000 Jews in Denmark in 1943, it is estimated that only 400 or so were deported by the Nazis—including a group of over 80 Jews hidden in the Gilleleje church attic, who were taken into custody by the Gestapo, along with town residents whose neighbors had presumably informed on them. Of the rest, perhaps 8,000 Jews were successfully evacuated from Denmark to Sweden.
I set out to Gilleleje one morning in 2018 with Knud’s son Peter from the old train station in Copenhagen, retracing the route taken by the majority of the city’s hidden Jews. “The boat people got on here,” Peter told me. Built in 1905, the wooden structure is located across the street from Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, a kind of permanent ramshackle amusement park with rides for children. The ceiling of the station resembles two upside-down boats placed next to each other—the supply of expert shipbuilders in Denmark in 1905 presumably exceeding the supply of roofers.
We jostle our way through a sea of happy, moderately well-disciplined schoolchildren carrying backpacks and suitcases on their way to summer camp, as part of an exchange program with families in Jutland. Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, the Danes are unique among the nations of Europe in their desire to reproduce themselves. The Germans and Italians, who lost the war, don’t reproduce. Neither do the Swedes, who remained neutral during the war. Without the need to fill younger age cohorts from outside the country, Denmark accepts fewer refugees than other European Union states and imposes stricter rules for obtaining citizenship.
We exit near Espergaerde, a town that is proud of its fences. Even the pond is fenced in. The once-rural Rasmussen cottage now features a perfect tiled Danish kitchen and an NBA-logo basketball hoop in the backyard. Birds twitter in the trees.
I meet Karina and Sven, who live here now. They seem like nice people. After Peter explains the origins and purpose of our journey, Sven laughs. “Lucky for you,” he says, addressing me in Danish. “Or else, you wouldn’t be here.”
If Karina and Sven’s satisfaction in being Danish is entirely unearned, my assumption of the role that has been thrust upon me feels even weirder: I am apparently the inheritor of a historical debt, one that my ancestors incurred to their ancestors, which they have inherited. Still, from their perspective, it must have also felt legitimately disorienting and strange to have someone you have never met show up at your home one morning with a claim on the property, even if that claim only consists of the right to remember.
Peter, who grew up here, is bemused by the exchange. No one can deny that this is the house of his childhood memories, which are his. We move on, with Peter leading the way with his walking stick. In the cool of the forest, enlivened by the summer birdsongs, it is hard to imagine the pleasant path from the house to the sea as anyone’s Golgotha. “These are 100-year-old beech trees,” Peter says admiringly. Alone in this village, they witnessed the journeys I am writing about. The trees have something to say to us. They are Jewish trees, I tell Peter, who gives a sardonic snort at the idea of beech trees in what he imagines to be Judaic garb—a fitting metaphor for the idiocy of labeling human beings as either this thing or that, which makes as much sense as calling trees or rocks Protestant or Jewish.
Only, I wish to tell Peter, that is not what I meant at all. I am serious about the trees being Jewish. The founding historical achievement of the Jews is generally presented in Western literature as “morality,” “ethics,” or “law,” as embodied in the Ten Commandments. Yet dispelling that interpretation, which is offered, in similarly sonorous tones, by Jews and Christians alike, takes very little work: The ancient Greeks defined ethics without much reference to their gods, who were manifestly unethical. Before the Greeks, Hammurabi wrote his own code of laws.
The Jewish contribution to Western consciousness is at once more epistemologically profound and—to some, at least—more troubling than the ideas of ethics or law, which are common to many peoples including those who do not embrace the idea of a monotheistic God. What Jews invented was linear time, which emerged out of a perception of human experience as an ongoing dialogue between God and humankind. The Jewish idea of time gave existence an inherent direction and purpose that replaced the pagan idea of cyclical recurrence. It created the idea of humanity as something separate from the rest of nature. With the invention of time, Jews created the idea of the human, along with two other ideas that continue to shape the Western consciousness: memory and home.
The reason why the trees are Jewish, I want to tell Peter, is also why your home is not also my home. Each of us is a prisoner of a unique strand of historical time, which is as different for me as it is for every other person on earth. Only God can know me, and there is no equality before God or between persons. His relationship to me is as unique as his relationship to you.
On the hill above the sea is a small white church. We enter the church, a fantastical space whose roof is built like the hull of a boat, just like in the train station. A fleet of little boats hangs from the ceiling, which is a nice touch, I think. It is a common decoration here, Peter answers. Lots of little boats, hanging from a big boat, which is upside-down.
Here or nearby is the site of a missionary building that was cared for by an old man who the resistance fighters called the Philosopher. “He took care of a lot of the Jews, and they wanted to pay him, and he said, ‘No one wants to get paid for charity,’” Karen remembered. So he did it for free, just everybody who came there got shipped over.” Among those he rescued was the Fortentaub boy, from the department store family, who traded places with Karen during her two years in Berlin, along with his wife and his parents—all of whom made it safely to Sweden, before returning to Denmark after the war.
Outside the church is a graveyard in which generations of local fishermen and their wives are buried. From here, we can watch the big white ferry boats making their regular trips to Sweden and back. Judging by the speed at which they travel, it might take an exceptionally strong rower maybe an hour or an hour and a half to cover the distance between the coasts.
To assume the role of a Jew who is grateful to the Danes for having been saved is less risky, emotionally speaking, than to imagine that I would have rowed fugitives across the narrow sea in the dark. It is eerier to imagine being rescued than being a rescuer: At the height of one’s own fear and incapacity, someone else will do something miraculous, and you will find yourself alive, living more or less happily in Sweden, eating knäckebröd with herring. That the craggy features of the Swedish coastline are so plainly visible from here doesn’t make being a rescuer any easier to contemplate; it makes it harder, by suggesting that rowing over there is something that a person not that different from me might accomplish in maybe an hour, absent the paralyzing fear I already feel at the thought of such a voyage, in broad daylight, nearly 75 years later, with no Nazis in evidence—the proper response to that mental journey being shame.
The fried fish place on the docks is still there. As we inhale the smells of frying oil and salt water, Peter happily recalls his childhood visits on his tricycle. “And then I zoomed down to the harbor and had crepes,” he says. “I ate loads of them.” Why did people like his father help to rescue those who were in danger, I ask him. “Because they were there, and it was right,” Peter said bluntly. “Also, let’s be clear, he was impressive.”
Later that day, we visit the church at Gilleleje, in whose pews someone has carved the words Yevarechecha Adonai Veyishmerecha, “may the lord bless you and watch over you,” the beginning lines of the priestly blessing recited by fathers to their children during the Sabbath and holidays. The deep carving in the wood, in Hebrew letters, looks old. It is impossible to tell whether it is a latter-day benediction of thanks to the people of the village or if it was carved by one of the Jewish refugees who came here hoping for deliverance—80 of whom were taken from the church attic by the Gestapo, which sent them to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. From there, they were transported to Auschwitz.
* * *
One of the children who made the sea passage from Denmark to Sweden in the fall of 1943 was an 11-year-old child named Torben Ulrich. Now a spry, Gandalf-like figure with a long white beard, he has been a jazz critic, a musician, a tennis champion, an adept of Buddhist philosophies and practice. When I visited him in his sleek modern Danish house overlooking the San Francisco Bay, I was struck by his long, tapering fingers, which appear to stretch nearly twice the length of his palms—a musician’s hands. When I ask him what instrument he plays, he laughs, delighted by the setup. “I play the fool most of the time,” he says.
As it turns out, we share a common musical hero in Louis Armstrong, with whom Ulrich conversed at length after the war in a hotel in Copenhagen, while the jazz great sat in his bathtub. “I feel that that was sort of like going to school in some sense,” he remembered, of his afternoons with Armstrong at the Hotel Codan. “We were sitting there at the edge of the bathtub, and he would sit there for hours, with the water running a little bit so it stayed warm.”
Whether ending in icy seas or in warm baths, Ulrich has learned that human fates vary in ways that defy the logic of cause and effect. “Terrible things happen all the time, and I’ve seen them,” he says. Which is not to say that human goodness makes no mark on the universe, he adds. “There is a strange kind of ripple effect when people do good things.” In his experience, he says, human goodness is more of an instinct than the considered outcome of any particular set of ethical or intellectual principles, whether properly or improperly applied. “In my experience, when people do very good, selfless actions, they don’t think about them at all,” he says. “People ask why, what was the reason, what were you thinking, what was your calculation? There wasn’t any.”
Like Niels Bohr, Torben Ulrich grew up in a country where it was common for a Jewish or part-Jewish child to grow up without much conscious sense that they were Jewish. “I knew all these people named Samuelson, or Philipson, or Goldschmidt,” he remembers. “If you said, ‘Do you know that all those people are Jewish?’ I would say, ‘Yeah, of course I know.’ But it almost didn’t register beyond the names or something.” For Danish children, Christian or not, the high point of the calendar year was Christmas Eve, when families gathered around the Christmas tree, sang songs, and ate traditional Danish pork dishes. “There were all these Jews sitting around the Christmas tree and singing and dancing and holding hands,” he remembers, of his own childhood holidays. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so baffled or completely bewildered when all of this began to be a question, you know?”
For Torben Ulrich, as for many Danish children with similar backgrounds, the most shocking thing about the Nazi invasion was the discovery that they were Jewish, and that as a result they now lived permanently elsewhere. “Everybody was thinking it’ll blow over, or ‘come on, let’s not get too excited,’ Degal Sku nort,” he says, using the Danish phrase. “My brother and I and my mom, we went over to these friends, and we stayed there overnight. I was playing with these kids you know, Hanne and Ole and all these good Danish names.”
The living room of the house where the Ulrichs took refuge on Oct. 1 was interesting, he remembers. On the walls were blackboards covered with mathematical formulae inscribed by the house’s owner, their neighbor Harald Bohr—Niels Bohr’s brother, who was a friend of Torben’s father. In the middle of the night, Ulrich remembers being awakened by a knock on the door. It was a group of German soldiers, who were looking for a different Jewish family, perhaps the Bohrs. The next morning, he returned to his own house with his brother and mother. They packed a few suitcases, and left.
Life was different after that, he remembers. For one thing, he no longer lived at any fixed address. For another, he stopped going to school. One afternoon, his mother packed their bags and together they boarded a train, with strict instructions to keep silent.
That train ride was the moment of greatest dissociation between the person he had known himself to be—a Danish child—and the person he understood himself to be now. He was a hunted refugee in his own country. He was a Jew. He remembers looking at the other Jewish refugees on the train in disbelief at the idea that he was one of them. “They’re sitting with all these bags on this little train,” he remembers. “I mean, nobody would ever sit with that many bags on such a train. It was like some comic strip or something.” Torben brought along his clarinet, which he held to his chest as an emblem of safety—an artifact from the world before.
The refugees got off the train at the small station in Gilleleje and started to walk. It was early evening in October, and it was dark. The refugees scattered to the addresses they had been given. Torben remembers sitting in a nice room in a fishing house, hugging his clarinet. “In some sense I was still in my sort of cloud of unknowing or unbelieving,” he remembers. “You remove yourself from the sheer concreteness of it,” he recalls. “Maybe I’ll understand it later or something.”
About an hour later, they received instructions to walk down to the dock. As they boarded the ship, it started to rain. Seventeen refugees were packed below decks. Many of them were elderly with baggage. After a while, he remembers becoming attuned to the sound of the engine and the rhythms of the ship. Someone asked him to hold a child up on his shoulders. As the ship left the dock, he could feel the child’s legs around his neck, with his feet touching his clarinet.
All of a sudden, the boat stopped, and wouldn’t restart. Someone, most likely a member of the ship’s crew, had thrown sand into the engine before they could make it out of the harbor. In the dark, he could hear the firing of a machine gun. The refugees disembarked onto some nearby rocks, where they stood shivering in the rain with their baggage, a scene of misery that was soon illuminated by a German spotlight.
Once captured, the refugees were taken from Gilleleje to Elsinore, where they were brought to a camp and interrogated. Mealtimes in the camp only strengthened his sense of estrangement. “I didn’t understand a word they were saying, and I didn’t understand the way they were eating,” he remembers.
Eventually, Torben’s father, who wasn’t Jewish, succeeded in getting his wife and two sons out of the camp. Torben returned to his old school, with a note asking for his absence to be excused, as if their flight from their home, the abortive boat ride, and the terrifying internment, with its suggestion of further displacement to somewhere worse, had been the equivalent of a mild cold. “I went back to school, and it went okay the first hour and in the second hour it was okay,” he remembers. The third hour was math, where his teacher asked him to recite the previous day’s lesson. When Torben drew his attention to the note, the teacher read it and again asked him to recite. When he was still unable to recite the lesson, the teacher struck him in the face. He gathered his books, left school, and never went back.
The family’s second attempt to escape across the sea was less eventful. Before the ship left the harbor, a man opened the hatch to the compartment where the refugees were hidden and said “good evening” in Danish. Then he closed the hatch. A few hours later, they were safe in Sweden.
In Stockholm, where the Ulrichs settled, Torben was sent to a private boarding school for the children of diplomats, recommended to his father by his friend, the uncle of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who would become famous as a rescuer of Jews in Hungary, before being murdered in a Soviet prison camp. “I can play my clarinet, I can play tennis, I can play soccer, I can play band, I can go swimming, I can listen to philosophy,” Torben recalled in our conversation. “But I’m not Swedish. And I don’t belong to this place.” At night, he listened to Betty Comden and Benny Goodman on the Voice of America and dreamed of a world that would be organized according to different principles than the world he had been born into, which had been drowned in an ocean of blood. By the war’s end, he was good enough at tennis to join the budding world tennis tour, play in Paris and Wimbledon, and meet other tennis players, musicians, and seekers. It was then that he became friendly with the Christiansens, who were fellow non-conformists.
After moving back to Copenhagen, Torben Ulrich plastered the walls of his house with a row of sayings of Buddhist and Sufi masters, leading up the stairs to the Kabbalistic alchemical table of Adam Kadmon. He hung a copy of the Shema, the Jewish proclamation of the oneness of God, in the bathroom, because he liked the forms of the Hebrew letters. His co-editor of Copenhagen’s jazz magazine was named Rabinowich; he was originally from Odessa, where his father had been the chief rabbi. Once, when they were together in the house, Rabinowich had to use the bathroom, and saw the Shema. “I said, ‘Can you read that?’” Ulrich remembered asking. The story is important, he explains, because it illustrates the sense of estrangement he mentioned earlier. “I was bewildered about all this while it was happening,” he remembers. “But he was not, you know?”
The Kabbalistic chart of the elements that he hung outside the bathroom was opposite the bedroom of his son Lars, a hyperactive yet deeply focused child who was too impatient to play tennis or study Buddhism. As a teenager, he started a heavy metal band, which he imagined would be the heaviest band in the world. Driven by his ferocious drumming, the band expressed a nameless rage in the face of a nameless hatred—an emotion that tens of millions of listeners around the world took as their own.
Where that anger came from is open to a million interpretations, of course. But its association with something Lars Ulrich felt during his childhood can be reasonably deduced from his decision—inspired no doubt by the chart of the elements that his half-Jewish Danish father who fled to Sweden twice on a boat to escape the Nazis hung outside his bedroom door—to call the band Metallica.
A city of bridges built on an archipelago in the middle of the Baltic sea, the Swedish capital of Stockholm radiates a healthy self-satisfaction that has been fortified against time and the elements by generations of inherited wealth derived from trading and industry, founded on the country’s long and often brutal history of military conquest in Eastern Europe. The prosperity of the Swedish capital is both forceful and fortress-like, as expressed in the massive amounts of stone and iron used in its construction. It is from Stockholm that Sweden bestows its Nobel Prizes upon the most brilliant men and women in the world—except for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in the Norwegian city of Oslo.
Swedes generally consider themselves to be enlightened peace-loving universalists with a duty to share their exemplary practices in a host of areas ranging from generous social benefits and asylum laws to equality between the sexes. Many contemporary Swedes would at least pretend to be sincerely shocked to hear a visitor proclaim that their country was once the most rapacious conquering power in Europe, or that the definition of Sweden as a Scandinavian country rests on the genocidal obliteration of the cultural identity of the aboriginal Sámi people, many of whom still struggle against legal discrimination to make their livings from trapping, fishing, and herding reindeer. There is no place on earth without its own bottomless well of injustice. In Sweden, campaigns targeting the Sámi included laws regulating the size of Sámi houses, a “scientific” institute devoted to demonstrating Sámi racial inferiority, and policies designed to denigrate and obliterate traditional Sámi culture and the nomadic way of life, which continued in Sweden until the 1970s.
It was in the hope perhaps of remedying some part of these injustices, as well pursuing more selfish motives related to the availability of cheap manual labor, that Swedish immigration authorities took the fateful step in 2013 of declaring that all asylum seekers from the civil war in Syria, a county with no particular cultural, religious, or historical ties to Sweden, aside from the fact that both countries begin with the letter S, would receive permanent residency in the country. In 2015 alone, Sweden, a country of 10 million people, accepted 163,000 asylum seekers, perhaps 40% of whom were from Syria, in addition to large numbers of refugees from the conflict-torn countries of Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo—a generous act that for some Swedes called to mind the rescue of the far less numerous community of Danish Jews during a war that the Swedes otherwise spent comfortably avoiding the destruction suffered by their neighbors while doing business with the Nazis. By 2016, when the generous offer of permanent Swedish residency for every refugee was reduced to a less-generous offer of a three-year Swedish residency permit, every tenth Swedish citizen was Muslim, with a majority of children under five in many urban districts having Muslim surnames (in 1975, one out of every 400 Swedes was Muslim).
It can be reasonably debated whether the resulting large failures of integration that have occurred in Sweden were primarily the products of Swedish monocultural arrogance; smug self-satisfaction; the more general post-Protestant Western cultural-philosophical error of stipulating that history is so much noise and all people are actually the same everywhere; or a product of the incomprehension and hostility with which war-traumatized immigrants from traditional societies encountered Swedish secularism, which presented itself to them as both manifestly immoral and also as an easy mark. At the same time, the wave of violent crime that has resulted from Sweden’s moment of radical openness to refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern countries and the Balkans is now a defining feature of Swedish society, particularly in large cities, even after a decade of claims by the Swedish left that violent crime is an invention of Swedish fascists, neo-Nazis, and other right-wingers, bent on undoing the miracle of Sweden’s liberal welfare state.
When I visited Stockholm, armed conflict between Swedish authorities and the Kosovar, Syrian, and Iraqi crime families who dominate large sections of Stockholm and Malmö, featuring gunfire, firebomb, and grenade attacks on police and fire trucks, and recently grenade launchers, was a regular feature on the nightly news, and also plainly audible during an abortive late-night cab ride I took into Södermalm, a high-crime area into which my Uber driver refused to go further. The situation in Malmö got so bad that Kim Bodnia, the Danish actor whose grandfather was Werner Best’s tailor, quit his wildly successful crime show, a Danish-Swedish co-production, because he found the experience of living and filming in Malmö half the time too threatening and demoralizing to be worth any further participation in the show’s success. By the time Bodnia left The Bridge, nearly 80% of Malmö’s Jewish population, which was largely descended from Holocaust survivors and refugees, had been driven out by antisemitic demonstrations and violent attacks.
Monica Ravitzer, whom I meet in a café in downtown Stockholm, looks less like a refugee, whether Jewish or Syrian, than a healthy blonde Swedish farm girl celebrating an occasion in late middle age with a visit to the big city. Coincidentally, the day that she and I met for coffee was May 5th, the anniversary of the end of World War II. In Copenhagen, candles are lit in the windows. In Sweden, May 5th is not a date that people wish to remember.
Monica’s father Max Ravitzer, whose life Knud saved by rowing him to Sweden, where he settled and started a family, remains a mystery to her, just as the rower is a mystery to me. I tell her about meeting Knud Christiansen in his clock shop near my high school, and having no idea who he was, and how, thanks to a series of coincidences, I discovered his story, and set out on a journey to discover what lasting effect his goodness had on the world, if any.
Monica grew up mostly around Malmö, where Max didn’t speak much about the war, though he took his family to the synagogue there. In the 1950s, the synagogue in Malmö was a place for Jewish refugees, many of whom had lost their families in the Holocaust, to help each other search for family members, find work, and negotiate the complex restitution system that Germany had set up to provide minimal payments to surviving slave laborers from Nazi ghettoes and concentration camps. When it came time to discuss larger and more painful questions, the parents would tell the children to leave the sanctuary. “It was like, ‘Why did I survive and they died?’” Monica remembers. A little blonde girl, she played outside with her friends while the discussions went on inside among the men and women with numbers on their arms.
In school, Monica recalls being shown films of Hitler’s rise to power and Nazi atrocities, including the genocide of Europe’s Jews. In the absence of any real explanation of what they were looking at, Monica tells me, many of her classmates appeared to have taken the films as confirmation of the rightness of the anti-Jewish prejudice that remained common in Swedish society even after the war. “It wasn’t always that nice to be called Ravitzer,” she recalled. “Sometimes they would bump us in the head and things like that. Girls called us ugly names. Some families thought it would have been better if Max had gone to Auschwitz and died.”
It strikes me as odd that Monica keeps referring to her father as “Max,” even when he is being condemned by her classmates’ parents to extermination in a Nazi death camp. “Why do you keep calling him ‘Max’?” I ask her.
“I always called him that,” she explains, not unkindly. “Max wasn’t my biological father.” Both she and her sister, she explains, were adopted by Max and his wife Mary, a member of the Danish resistance who fled to Sweden. While her sister’s family of origin was Swedish, she continues, her biological mother was from Northern Germany, near Breslow—the same area Max was from. She was not Jewish, however.
Monica is less Max’s inheritor, genetic or otherwise, than a fellow refugee with her own peculiar story of displacement and loss. Her fate in life was to be hated as a Jew on account of a man whose story ran both parallel and opposite to her own—a fate that produced a kind of ambivalence that is neither unkind nor self-hating but rather the logical product of her own inheritance. Monica’s experience of the Holocaust mirrors my own: It is someone else’s tragedy that continues to shape my life in intimate ways that I would never have freely chosen, but that at the same time would be selfish and even cruel to deny. When I express these thoughts to Monica, she visibly relaxes. I understand her. She is happy to tell me more about Max, the man whose life Knud Christiansen saved by rowing him across the water.
The only living Jew in the Ravitzer family, Max was a disruptive figure whose warmth, electric enthusiasm, quick temper, talent for languages, and head for scheming made the lives of his daughters and his wife both exciting and endlessly difficult in a country where stolid temperaments were normal. Max had a mother who died in Auschwitz, and a sister who emigrated to Israel. His most striking feature, his daughter remembers, were his eyes—“those dark Jewish eyes.”
Max and Mary didn’t get along very well, though the winner of their arguments was usually Max. He was a fountain of emotions, able to cry whenever tears might be helpful. At the same time, he was an old-fashioned patriarch who insisted on his authority within the home. “I had very big difficulties with Max’s way of bringing up kids,” Monica recalled. “It was his law.”
Max’s Judaism was another part of his dominating personality, which found the will to escape from Germany to Denmark, and then from Denmark to Sweden, while the majority of his fellow German Jews were loaded onto trains and sent to extermination camps. Max raised his children as Jews, taking them to synagogue, and celebrating Jewish holidays. Mary lit Sabbath candles. Still, Monica, who was adopted as a young child, never considered herself to be Jewish.
Max used his strong will and wily survival skills to make money at cards, seduce women, and build a life for his family in the Swedish countryside, without ever staying in any one place very long. “They would go and work at this farm and they would stop, and they would go work at a different farm,” she remembers. By the time she was 12 years old, Monica estimates, the Ravitzers had moved 15 times. “It was fun,” she admits. “Mother and father would pick corn, and we would live on the farm, and then we would move on.”
Max’s attachment to his past during this gypsy life took the form of a box that accompanied the Ravitzers on every stop of their journey, and which Max refused to relinquish despite his wife Mary’s entreaties. The box, Monica tells me, which must have been among the only possessions Max carried with him in the rowboat from Denmark, was where Max kept his papers, letters, and postcards. “Some of these postcards were from his mother, written in Auschwitz,” she recalled. “Every time we moved around, my mother Anne Marie told him, ‘Can’t we throw them away?’”
It is horrible to imagine the wily survivor with his dark Jewish eyes, who was good at cards and seducing Swedish women, being urged by his wife to discard his mother’s last pained testament to her son before she was murdered in the gas chambers. Upon consideration, however, it is hard to say that his wife wasn’t also acting out of love, or at least some form of healthy pragmatism. The assumption that continuing attachment to a traumatic past is a human virtue, much less a pathway to personal self-improvement or family happiness, is a sentiment that is probably unique to people who have never experienced much pain or loss. For those who have, it is not hard to imagine that forgetting the past would indeed be a blessing, if it were possible.
Whatever emotional meaning his mother’s postcards from Auschwitz had for Max Ravitzer, they were also a practical tool or weapon he used in his lifelong struggle to wrest some modicum of solace from a world that had proven itself to be bent on exterminating him. “He knew he could use them somehow somewhere,” Monica said, “and he used them against Germany when he found money.” In the 1960s, he succeeded in gaining reparations from Germany, which he used to buy a large car, as well as property in Spain, a country that had expelled its entire Jewish population some 500 years earlier, before murdering many of the remaining conversos a century later in horrible ways.
It is reasonable to assume that Max Ravitzer felt little debt to the people who tried to murder him. His main purpose in life once he made it to Sweden was survival, followed by his hope of leveraging his suffering and loss into a place in the sun. Whether his decision to share his life with two parentless children was an expression of universalist generosity, or an inability to reproduce, is a question that Max’s daughter can’t answer. It is simply another part of the mystery of Max.
There was a single moment during her otherwise disorienting and insecure childhood when Monica realized that Max’s strangeness was part of a larger story. That was the night she saw her father on television with Sophia Loren, who reintroduced Max Ravitzer to his rescuer, Knud Christiansen, in a Danish version of This Is Your Life. Monica greatly admired the Italian actress, and she also remembered being introduced to her father’s rescuer. But still, Max’s past was clearly a source of suffering for his children that outweighed any sense of meaning or pride that they might have been able to find there.
* * *
It did not take long before the jubilation with which Danes greeted the liberation of their country turned sour. For many Danes, five years of wartime occupation, deportations, torture, and murder called for a reckoning with those who collaborated with the Nazis. Under Prime Minister Vilhelm Buhl, who served in the same position for six months in 1942 under the Nazis, the Danish political parties formed a so-called Unity Government that staged trials in which 45 Danish collaborators were executed, while leading members of the major Danish political parties, state bureaucracies, and the police who did business with the Nazis went unpunished.
Knud Christiansen was not eager to reconcile with those parts of Danish officialdom that had tried to kill him during the war. Meanwhile, the public show trials of petty Danish collaborators struck the former resistance fighter as a farce. “All the big ones managed to get off and all the smaller ones got sentenced,” his sister Tove recalled. Knud had a particular dislike for Vilhelm Buhl. “He asked the Danish population if we knew of any informers (against the Nazis), and said we should report them,” Tove remembered. “A couple of days later, he became prime minister. Knud would not stand for it.”
During the war, the work of maintaining law and order meant collaborating with the Nazis; now it meant standing by as the state celebrated men who had until very recently been defined as being among the city’s worst criminals. Knud did not think highly of the Copenhagen police, who in turn never stopped regarding him and his fellow bank robbers and assassins as dangerous criminals. Knud had also targeted the police directly during the war. “One time the Resistance needed gas,” his wife Karen later recalled. “So he and some friends stole the police gas. They never forgave him that one.” When an interviewer suggested that the police might have been glad to have Knud steal the gasoline, Karen responded with wry humor that conveyed some of the bitterness with which members of the Danish underground viewed the authorities. “The gas was for the Resistance,” she answered. “The police worked for the Germans.”
The postwar divisions within Danish society between resistance members and collaborators were often replicated within families; according to family lore, Karen’s brother was a Nazi collaborator who was marked for death by the Resistance. The assignment to kill him was given to Knud, whose failure to carry it out did little to bring the two men closer after the war. These divisions, combined with the Danish aversion to boasting and self-flattery, ensured that stories of wartime heroism and betrayal were rarely passed on. “They didn’t have long stories,” recalled Peter, Knud and Karen’s youngest child, of his parents’ recollections of their wartime exploits. Instead, Peter heard about his parents’ wartime heroism from his nanny, who told him about how their summer house had been used to smuggle Jews to Sweden. “I pushed, ‘What happened then? How did you go? Where was it?’”
Answers were not especially forthcoming. Instead, Knud devoted himself to making money, and taking the family on adventures. The Christiansens traveled in the family’s VW bus to Spain, where Knud exchanged Danish currency for gold coins. “He never believed in banks because basically during the war, he was a bank robber,” his daughter Hanne explained. “So every year, whatever money he had made, we would drive down through Germany, Belgium, France, and he would go to all of the gold markets and he would invest all of the cash in gold coins.” Marianne, the youngest daughter, built play-castles out of the coins, which Knud blithely kept in bags around the house.
Keeping bags of gold coins around the house turned out to be a risky thing to do in Copenhagen, especially if you were a former bank robber who had issues with the police. When Knud and Karen decided to punish the free-spirited Peter for an infraction by leaving him behind on one of their journeys, the 12-year-old Peter decided to take a ferry to Sweden with a bag of gold, with the intention of buying his own car. In doing so, he set off a chain of consequences that would result in his family’s exile from Denmark.
There were holes in Peter’s boyish plan, beginning with his attempt to pay for a one-way ferry ticket in gold bullion. The Swedish police quickly alerted their counterparts in Copenhagen, and arrested Peter. Once the boy’s identity was established, the Copenhagen police were sure that they had struck gold in more ways than one: Here was proof that Knud Christiansen was not a hero but a criminal. “It was on all the front pages,” Hanne remembers. “This had to be the biggest gold robbery of the century! I mean, all these wild stories.”
Knud’s trial offered an often-comic replay of the wartime divisions in Danish society, as the police sought to alternately prove that he had stolen the coins from the National Bank of Denmark (which didn’t keep Spanish pesos as part of its gold reserves), or that he had received them as payment for rowing Jews to Sweden. Daily, acting as his own attorney, Knud mocked the arguments of the policemen and the state prosecutor, answering their aspersions about his life as a “bank robber” with gibes about how the Copenhagen police had enriched themselves during the war by cashing Nazi paychecks. Unable to produce evidence of bank robbery, extortion, or theft, state prosecutors convicted Knud on charges of not paying state taxes on his gold purchases. “It was personal vengeance,” Karen recalled. Still, the conviction stung. “He wasn’t the same after that,” his daughter Hanne remembered. “He went back for events and stuff, but he never wanted to stay in Denmark.”
One of the themes I am always alive to in my reporting is the miraculous-seeming symmetries that emerge out of what we are so often told is the faceless chaos of human existence, which lacks any inherent meaning or plan. Yet there is nothing either mysterious or mystical about the assertion that form is something other than a subjective projection of human consciousness: To say that the world in which we live, as well as the way we perceive it, has deeply embedded formal qualities is no different than recognizing the symmetries inside our own cellular structures or in coral reefs that grow on the bottom of the ocean. Our perceptions of the universe acting on us are at the same time the products of something inside us, which acts on the universe and gives it form, which we recognize both as a reflection of ourselves and as something separate.
If so, it cannot be purely accidental that as Max Ravitzer went from farm to farm in Sweden with the adopted German daughters who bore his name, and Knud Christiansen wandered across Europe with his family in their VW bus, a young boy named Nordrup also became a refugee, left homeless by the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Winding up in a refugee camp in Nepal, he made his way to an English school in India, where he was discovered by the Karmapa Lama, the head of what is often defined as the second-holiest lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It was the Karmapa’s understanding that the boy would serve as a bridge between the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism and the new worlds of the West, into which both he and the Karmapa had been thrown. It also seems natural, in the context of this story about refugees, that Nordrup would meet and marry Knud Christiansen’s youngest daughter, Marianne.
Though the two are now divorced, in part due to a punishing schedule that kept Nordrup on the road 10 or 11 months a year, they remain on good terms. We met at Marianne’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Knud Christiansen spent the last months of his life. Unusually tall for his generation of Tibetans, Nordrup has the chiseled, ageless features of people who live in high mountains. “I am actually three years younger than I am,” he says, when I ask him his age. His birth certificate, which he acquired in a refugee camp in India, states that he was born in 1956, though he could easily pass for a man of 45 or so.
I tell Nordrup about first seeing Knud in the clock shop, and how he came to occupy my imagination. “How you begin is very fascinating for me,” Nordrup answers, “because we say in the Buddhist view, the reason anything and everything could happen at all is because everything occurs interdependently.”
Nordrup was born, he tells me, in 1953, in Western Tibet, on the highest plateau in the world, which in Tibetan is called Jokhang. His birthplace was a tent made of yak hair located somewhere near Mt. Kailash, which is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. Nearby Mt. Kailash is a lake. Because his parents were nomads, they moved up and down the slopes of the mountains, depending on the season, to find pasture for their flocks, which included sheep, goats, and yak, which are the male of the species; a female yak is called “dri.”
Pictures of eastern Tibet, both in the memories of refugees and in real life, are incredibly beautiful, filled with lush grass pastures and fields full of flowers. Western Tibet, in Nordrup’s memory, was nothing like that, with no trees and very little natural vegetation. “All the sheep and yaks have such a difficult time you know?” he recalls. “But once in a while in the summer, if you go down to the wetlands, there’s some beautiful flowers growing. It’s like a paradise.” As a child, he remembers poking the ground with a deer horn or a strong stick for a kind of miniature sweet potato that was collected by the mountain mice to sustain themselves during the winter.
The encroachment of the Chinese army on the territory of the Tibetan nomads happened by degrees after the People’s Liberation Army’s occupation of Lhasa. But even in the absence of soldiers, rumors of Chinese hostility to Tibetan culture were powerful enough to prompt the nomads to flee. “What prompted my father to leave everything behind was the idea that children are being taken away from their family,” he remembered. Tibetan children were being taken to Beijing, where they were re-educated to speak only Chinese, the nomads believed. “I hear that, okay, if there is a sister and a brother, people said, 30 years later, they meet and will not recognize each other,” Nordrup recalled. “Maybe they get married, you know?”
It was perhaps two years after the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet to Nepal that Chinese soldiers made their way to Nordrup’s father’s tent. What struck him first about the soldiers was their impiety. “Tibetans, whether you are well-versed in it or not, being religious is in their blood,” he explains. “I’m not light-headed, you know? I don’t see rainbows all the time. I don’t see auras. But even now people go there, and they say, ‘Oh there’s something so magical about the land.’ I guess one thing is because of the altitude. That moonless, starless night, it’s so clear. And when you go and herd sheep, you sing.” It’s a beautiful picture that Nordrup is painting: One shepherd sings a song, and then a nearby shepherd picks it up. They can go back and forth all night, inventing extemporaneous songs and imbuing the mountains with what the nomads recognized as the same holiness that they kept in their portable dwellings, in sacred lamps and family shrines.
The Chinese soldiers who came to his father’s tent showed little understanding of or sympathy for such reverence, or for the objects the nomads held sacred. “The soldiers, when they come, the first thing they ask is, ‘Can I touch them?’” Nordrup recalled. “Then they throw something. You know, so like, I don’t worship this. I was like, ‘Woah, man. The first thing is you go there, and then you, like, take our heart apart?’”
The desecration of sacred objects struck the Tibetans like a slap in the face, while also suggesting that the direst rumors about Chinese intentions were probably true. “My father figured out that if we left in the night, by dawn we will be at the Nepal-Tibet border,” Nordrup recalls. He remembers seeing the silhouettes of his parents and their relatives inside the yak-hair tent, debating their course of action. In the end it was decided that they would take two horses along with their family shrine, and leave everything else behind. His mother and older brother went together, while Nordrup went with his father. “Sometimes he carried me on his back. Sometimes he dragged me,” he recalls. “He told me, ‘If you make noise, they’re going to kill you.’”
At some point in their terrifying night journey across the gorge that separated Tibet from Nepal, Nordrup recalled, his horse fell. His father warned him again not to move, talk, or cry. “Now you are afraid and you cannot make noise,” he recalled, in the same tone that Torben Ulrich used to recall his own initiation into the society of hunted children. “Then, I heard gunshots,” he said. “And I started screaming. And my father just left the horse there, with the shrine, and he carried me on his back across the gorge.”
It was from this moment of exile onward that Nordrup began to live the truth of Buddhist teaching. “In Buddhism,” he told me, “everything is transient. Everything is impermanent. Everything is relatively true. And obviously of course, I don’t have any training or anything like that, especially in those days. But here you know, the night before, we had our country and we had our possessions—and in the morning, we had nothing.”
Arriving in Mustang, Nepal, the family were no longer nomads with flocks that they moved to and from the high pastures. Now they were refugees, subsisting on charity. “We go begging door to door,” he recalled. “We’d say, ‘Give some food, give some rice, give some tea.’” From Mustang, they made their way in 1961 to Pokhara, where the Swiss and the Americans provided aid for Tibetan refugees. In the refugee camp, they lived three or four families to a hut, in spaces separated by partitions.
Nordrup’s father was not content with a life as a refugee. He decided to uproot his family for a second time, after disguising himself and his wife by cutting off their traditional long braids, and enter India, to be near the Dalai Lama. “You know, Dharamsala is situated surrounded by mountains, snow mountains,” the translator recalled. “There is a long-life prayer of the Dalai Lama, which speaks of the celestial palace surrounded by the snow mountains. Dharamsala is a little bit like that.”
There, thanks to the birth certificate that gave his age as three years younger than his actual likely age, Nordrup was able to gain admission to the Children’s Collection Center, where he repeatedly contracted conjunctivitis while living in triple-decker bunk beds. From there, he was selected to go to an English boarding school in the hill station of Mussoorie, and from there, to a larger boarding school called Cambrian Hall. Still, he could not forget that his parents were living in a tattered tent in a refugee camp and working on the roads. “Sometimes I’m having lunch, and the food won’t go down. I wonder what my parents are eating, you know,” he recalled. “If it rains a lot, I thought, you know, ‘I have to share this with them.’ So I’d go in the rain and get soaked.”
His devotions did not go unnoticed. While attending a ceremony for the Dalai Lama, Nordrup met an elderly lama who was acquainted with his family’s background and affiliation within the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. “He said, ‘Oh, after this ceremony I am going to Sikkim, to the Rumtek Monastery, to see Karmapa, you know how incredible he is.’” The Karmapa’s holiness was so acute, the monk explained, that even Westerners were drawn to him. What was required was the work of translation between the Karmapa and his Western visitors, whom the monk defined as “inhuman humans, blond and blue-eyed wild creatures.”
Nordrup did not immediately see himself as suited to the holy work that the monk proposed. “First, my Tibetan is not good,” Nordrup explained. Having a young Western Tibetan nomad translate the elevated language of the Karmapa for foreigners would be something like having a Cockney translate for an Oxford don. “Tibetan language is very, very difficult,” he continued. “Just the spoken language is like two languages. The respectful and honorific, and the ordinary. From your head down to your toe, each organ has two different words. There are two different words for teeth, nails, fingers. There is no association between them.” Yet, in those days, a Tibetan who spoke reasonably fluent English was a rare enough find for the exiled spiritual elite not to be picky. “A few months later,” Nordrup remembers, with pride, “I receive a letter from the 16th Karmapa. And he said, ‘The old Lama came to me, and he mentioned you. I looked into it. And you can be of service.’”
In 1977, the Tibetan Buddhist leader assigned Nordrup the work of translating for the Karmapa’s own teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, who would help introduce Tibetan Buddhism to America. Nordrup arrived in New York on Aug. 5, 1977, from the Karmapa’s monastery in Sikkim without a telephone number or a place to live. All he had in his pocket was the address of Bhutan’s mission to the United Nations, which was located on West End Avenue and 84th Street, and doubled as a Buddhist center.
Knowing no one in New York, Nordrup walked over to Riverside Park, where he saw old people sitting on park benches, with no children or relatives around them. The sight struck him with a devastating emotional force. “I’d heard of it, you know,” he recalled. “I’d never seen it. You know, how many old people are in the West, so lonely, looking fearful.” The old people sitting alone on benches also made him think of his own parents whom he’d left behind in India. “I was crying and I was saying, ‘Oh, my mother, we are oceans apart.’”
It was in this frame of mind that the young Tibetan translator sent by the Karmapa encountered Jytte Marstrand, a regular at the Buddhist Center, who invited him to spend Christmas in Calgary with the Christiansens and Maurice Strong, a Canadian oil and mining magnate who was a protégé of Canada’s internationalist Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who became under-secretary general of the United Nations. Arriving in Calgary, Nordrup was amazed by the blankets of unspoiled snow, and by the luxury of the Strong ranch, where he met Tibetans, Native American leaders, and other indigenous representatives of the new movement to save the earth, which would become incarnated in the next year in the Manitou Foundation, a joint venture of the Strongs, Laurence and Mary Rockefeller, and the Karmapa. The U.N. official’s ambition to alter human consciousness to be more aware of the interconnectedness of all things made sense to Nordrup. He was also pleased to meet Marianne, who had converted to Buddhism at the age of 16 before becoming an avid follower of the musician David Bowie and of the Karmapa. Plus, there were earthly delights to be sampled. “For me, the most magical thing was so much food,” Nordrup remembers. “I mean breakfast and lunch and dinner, and on top of that, everything in the fridge is yours.”
Knud’s common touch appealed to the nomad from Western Tibet. “I think Marianne can tell you this, he was a lot like my own father,” he recalls. “He had this free spirit thing about him.” The Tibetans, for whom common sense was understood as a practical expression of Buddhist teaching, appreciated the down-to-earth ways in which Knud negotiated 1970s New York. “He was a hustler,” Nordrup recalled, “trying to make ends meet in interesting ways. He was a little bit of a con artist.” He recalls with a kind of mischievous appreciation the way Knud would charge his clientele of rich older ladies for repairing their clocks. “The clock has been lonely,” he said, imitating Knud. “You have to touch it and give it a little love.” The bill for properly loving a clock? $150.
The city to which Knud and his family arrived in 1971 bore very little resemblance to the gleaming emblem of midcentury American prosperity that New York had been 20 years earlier, or to the sanitized duty-free space that it later became. For those of us who grew up in New York then, the city was a grim and dirty place in which frightened adults fought a desperate spiral of bankruptcy, crime, drug abuse, and middle-class flight. Adults and children alike were afraid to ride the subways. At the same time, the feral rot fed new generations of artists, new immigrants, and other formerly marginal arrivals who reshaped the city’s art, music, and literature. Failing schools that could no longer provide musical instruments to their students became incubators for hip-hop. Downtown clubs like CBGB birthed Patti Smith and the Ramones. Writers like Saul Bellow and Paul Auster and painters like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat made lasting art out of the city’s decay.
In addition to ambulance sirens, the blare of boomboxes, and the rattle of the city’s graffiti-covered subways, the soundtrack for the city’s air of Weimar-like experimentation and decay during the early 1970s was provided by its radio stations, including WBAI. Part of the Pacifica Radio Network, WBAI was home for the best jazz and stoned conversation, which at its best circled around looking for an escape from the rotted carcass of the sixties left. It was also home to mystics, seekers, and psychonauts who defied any easy categorization.
Among the weirdos, freaks, and seekers who populated the fringes of the city’s airwaves was a man named Lex Hixon, who went to Yale and Columbia before becoming a Sufi and establishing a kind of urban religious community in an apartment building in the Bronx. It was Hixon’s belief that all the world’s great religions were true; he claimed to be an orthodox believer in five different spiritual traditions. On his radio show “In the Spirit,” which aired on the Pacifica Network between 1971 and 1984, Hixon treated listeners to interviews with leading Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, interspersed with otherworldly thoughts like, “We know the precise way to go through death, which is millions of times more sophisticated than sending a rocket through a window of opportunity to reach Mars.”
While not formally residents of Hixon’s woozy urban commune, the Christiansen daughters were drawn there. “It was maybe 15 people taking refuge,” Jytte recalled of Lex Hixon’s commune, sounding retrospectively bemused. “They cut a little bit of your hair, like a little haircutting ceremony with a ‘You repeat after me’ kind of thing. Then, they give you a Buddhist name. Mine was ‘The Steadfast Woman.’” Marianne, who spent time in the commune, also occupied herself with taking rooftop punk-glamor shots of two young musician friends, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, who were setting a new style for New York’s downtown music scene under the name Blondie.
Meanwhile, Hanne, the sister who had been blown out of her baby carriage in Copenhagen during the Nazi invasion, eventually fell in love with and married Maurice Strong. At his job at the United Nations, Strong—partly under the influence of Hanne and her sisters—gave earthly form to the Buddhist idea of all things being connected by setting up the first global climate conference in Stockholm in 1972. The Stockholm conference led to the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme, the first international environmental agency or body, led by Strong, who would then go on to plan the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and have a significant influence over Al Gore, who became vice president of the United States and the leading American voice of the still-nascent climate change movement.
Karen, Hanne’s mother, would prove to have been well prepared for a life as a high-powered global hostess by her years in the resistance, re-organizing Danish intelligence, and wandering the world with Knud. “After a while, Maurice became totally dependent on her for all of his entertaining,” Hanne remembered with a laugh. “We had this flat on 74th and Broadway, and we would have Jacques Cousteau one night and people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, from all over the world. He would have his dinner parties there and she would arrange all of them. So, all of a sudden, she was a very important person in his life, and people were like flabbergasted with the food they got. It was the big talk of the U.N.—‘Oh, do you want to get an invitation to this one!’”
Knud, Hanne remembers, was not as enamored of his son-in-law. “Because Maurice had to be in total control,” she told me, of her husband. “He directs everything.”
The ties between the Strongs and the Karmapa were cemented by Jytte. “I was in Calgary at the time, staying in an apartment in Alberta, and on the weekends, we’d be out on Hanne and Maurice’s ranch,” Jytte remembered. It was there that she met Bernard Benson, the ballistics expert, who connected the Strongs with the Karmapa. “He said, ‘Oh, come to my chateau in France. I’m building an institute for Buddhist studies,’” Jytte recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why are you doing that?’ He said, ‘Well, because I’m an inventor and I invented … a missile that’s very destructive.’”
A Pynchon character written by P.G. Wodehouse, Benson was a brilliant English eccentric who moved to Southern California and helped invent the guidance systems for the first generations of intercontinental ballistic missiles. When he tired of that work, he moved to the South of France, where he drove his Rolls-Royce barefoot and housed Tibetan lamas while maintaining contacts with British and American intelligence. While staying with Benson, Jytte’s son Eric became enamored of the Tibetans, who taught him the Tibetan language, trained him as a translator, and finally took him into their monastery at the age of 11.
The Tibetans lived simply, but they also appreciated the conveniences of life on Strong’s ranch. When the Karmapa arrived at the ranch with 14 monks, Knud drove them around, while Karen cooked with the help of Tibetan assistants. “We had a very old pickup truck, very simple and stark with a plain dashboard, but it ran like a charm when you put your foot to the pedal,” Karen recalled. “Somehow the lamas discovered this truck and got ahold of the key. All day long, monks would take turns driving this pickup down the long dirt road leading to the main road and then back again to the big log house on the hill. It gave them endless pleasure to drive this truck, and if we were looking for the key we had to go to the second-highest monk who kept it in his shirt pocket under his upper robe.”
Dear Marianne and everyone and Paul,
Jytte has probably told you about the meeting with the Buddha who was dressed like Paul (in maroon robes) and I was blessed first. I think Hanne was a little upset because he took me in alone and the first time while several hundred people waited outside. I had requested Jytte and Hanne not to say who I was but he recognized me before I even came in. We drank tea together and exchanged stories. He called me his father, in seriousness—so Karmapa is your brother …
The third time that same day I was almost carried in, brought before the throne of the next highest lama [this was the previous Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche] on a smaller throne and all the monks began to sing and say prayers. I had to repeat all the words that Karmapa said and eat some rice with him and after that a monk came and gave me my birth certificate and I am a Buddhist and my name is Karma Gyurmed Dhorje translated at Unchanging Vajra (indestructible) …
love to everyone, Far
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the famed Buddhist teacher for whom Nordrup translated most of his life, and who introduced Knud to the Karmapa, lived until his recent death at a retreat center near Delhi, New York. There, he recalled for me his flight from the People’s Liberation Army as it swept through Kham, in eastern Tibet, through Central Tibet. “There were actually Tibetan soldiers at the time that were protecting Tibetans who were fleeing their homes. And they risked their lives to protect people escaping that were traveling on the roads,” he recalled. “Most of them ended up dying because they were trying to protect their own people.”
I have a question that’s been puzzling me, I told him. I’ve spent the past few years talking to people who have taken extraordinary risks to help others, yet if you ask them why, they don’t really have an answer. They say, well of course that’s what I did.
Does a Buddhist teacher understand it as a virtue not to be able to bear the suffering of others?
There are two different kinds of people, Rinpoche responded. One kind sees the suffering of others and needs to actively do something to relieve them of their suffering. They will go ahead and do something for others even at the expense of their own lives. Those people are courageous, he explains. “But there are others, they are equally unable to bear the suffering of others, but they do nothing, or else they become very afraid themselves.”
When I ask, he explains the distinction further. “It takes some wisdom and insight to be able to actually help others, even if you have the courage,” he says. “You also have to choose the right kind of action to be effective.”
Knud Christiansen, he says, was the kind of person who acted effectively to reduce suffering. “When he talked, everybody would laugh and have a good time,” he said with a smile. “He was like an ordinary Tibetan. That’s the way I remember him.”
* * *
In his old age, Knud Christiansen walked through Central Park every morning, including on weekends, an older man with a well-cut white beard and an elegant silver-tipped cane, dressed in a suit or a long coat and a dress hat. Entering the park on West 72nd Street, he crossed Sheep’s Meadow and came out at 61st Street and Fifth Avenue and made his way to his place of business. He cut a grand-looking figure, though very few people who crossed his path could have said who he was. An experienced horse-carriage driver, whose tourist route intersected with Knud’s daily perambulations, delighted in letting his customers in on the old man’s secret, Marianne recalled. “Look,” he told them with a knowing wink, “there goes Alec Guinness, the actor from Star Wars.”
When he reached his early nineties, Knud left the clock shop and started looking for a new job. One idea he proposed was that he sit on a bench in Central Park with a sign reading “eccentric scientist” while his granddaughter K., Marianne’s daughter with Nordrup, played her guitar. He asked one of his three daughters to buy him a Brioni suit so that he could hire himself out for soirées as the host’s interesting uncle, but gave up on the idea when he found out that the price of such a suit could easily reach five figures. A custom English morning suit would be a better value, he decided, considering that he could also be buried in it.
In New York, I had coffee one autumn afternoon with Nordrup and K., who had been through a difficult time; her husband was recently held as a prisoner in his country, where his confinement involved deprivation and torture. He was only recently released.
A half-Danish, half-Tibetan musician, K. is beautiful, inward and shy, yet self-possessed and extremely clear in her thinking and speech. She grew up as a child in the Karmapa’s monastery in Woodstock, where she lived with her mother while her father translated for Rinpoche. As she describes it, hers was an emotionally rich and intense childhood. “There was a hill going up to the monastery, that I remember being really huge, and when I went there recently it was just like a little nothing,” she said with a laugh. “The head lama, the abbot, was like a grandfather to me.” At the monastery, K. had a cat named Charlotte whom she found in the rain. Once, she stole $5 from a donation basket and hid it in her shoe. “I can’t even tell you how many thousands of hours of teachings on the idea that we are all inherently Buddhas that I’ve heard,” she said. “Because of going through something really rough in my own life I have come to this thought also, which is that I think that there are people who are just selfish and ignorant. I think that it’s the majority of people.”
Growing up, K. was also very close to her grandfather, who incarnated what she sees as the good in Buddhist thought. On her visits to the city with her mother, Knud would take her to a magic shop, where he would buy her pepper gum and whoopie cushions and a collar with a straight leash attached that allowed her to pretend that she was walking an invisible dog. “You realize that brewing a cup of tea or just watching a bird, you think, ‘My god, life is actually miraculous,’” she said. “I think that he lived in that magical world. Which is the real world.”
“My grandfather once told me the story of a friend of his, that was the night before the Danes had planned to basically take all the Jewish citizens and ship them to camps,” she remembers. “I thought about death all the time and that I had some kind of window into the futility but also the immensely cruel joke that life was, and how stuck we were in having to care and be here, and then to die and suffer.”
When Knud was dying, K. helped supervise his hospice care in Marianne’s apartment. “We called them the angel brigade,” she recalls. “There would be one Japanese man who would show my grandfather pictures of gardens, and my grandfather at the time had to use a magnifying glass to look at things, and it had a light on it, you know, so he would like look at a picture of a garden path and be like, ‘Oh this is beautiful.’ And then another woman is sitting down asking my mom, ‘So how is he, is he eating,’ and somebody else is taking notes, but there was this sense of transition, of not struggling and being loved. She said he was like a Viking or like a king.”
“I don’t know why,” she continued, “but the other day I started to write this song, and I had a full day of just crying and singing to him and thinking of him and really grieving. And my mom still, she can’t listen to the song.”
* * *
When I met with Hanne Strong in Toronto, I was struck by her lack of praise for the Danish people, and their conduct during the war, and was interested to understand how she sees their failings. “Very self-satisfied, which is their downfall,” she explained. “In Buddhism, you’ll see that you can reach a high level, but then if you have pride, or self-satisfaction, you don’t reach the top level.”
I tell her about seeing the word Yahweh carved in Hebrew in a churchyard in Copenhagen. When I saw it, I tell Hanne, it occurred to me that Danes saw Jews as their fellow men. It was part of their mental equipment. It wasn’t a big part, but important enough to be engraved on the walls of their churches. Hanne shrugs.
So, you don’t want me to tell Danes the story of how good and wonderful they were, because it would increase their pride? I ask her.
“It’s a smugness,” she corrects me. “Which is even worse.”
We move on to a long discussion of karma, which can be understood as the idea that all things are connected, or as a natural process of retribution or payback for both the good and bad one does in life. “One of my thoughts about karma,” she told me, “and it could be more than a thought—is that all the Jews that were sent to gas chambers were all the people down through history in Europe that had discriminated against Jews. They came back as Jews, to face the music.”
I am startled by the idea. There’s something obviously repellant about the idea of the Holocaust as an exercise in negative karma, in which the punishment for the cruelty of antisemites was collectively visited upon the innocent bodies of Jews, including one and a half million Jewish children. If anyone was ever innocent of causing suffering on earth, it was the children who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Yet for someone who needs to explain why evil exists in the world, karma is perhaps only answer that makes sense. We suffer on earth for sins committed in previous lives that we are still accountable for, while striving to be better. Yet I can’t get around the fact that Hanne’s answer holds the victims of history’s worst crime responsible for their own torture and slaughter.
My own problem with Hanne’s answer—which can be read in some ways as a universalist version of the exceptionally problematic yet searing explanation of the Holocaust given by Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the senior Rosh Yeshiva at Chaim Berlin and perhaps the greatest Talmudic authority to teach on American soil—is more basic. Having reported off and on in war zones over three decades, I have never questioned the existence of evil in God’s universe. You can see it everywhere. A more profound question for me has always been the question of why people are good. When I am tempted to think about humanity in the abstract, I see a filament of light that runs through a vast expanse of darkness.
“That was my father,” she says flatly. “He was just pure good. And his mother was pure good. And my mother was. But the thing is, when you look at humanity, ninety percent of it is rotten.”
My journey to unravel the mystery of Knud’s life ended in a shipyard town in New Hampshire, 30 years after I first visited his clock shop. There, I located an unremarkable-looking house, where I rang the doorbell and was greeted by one of the first Tibetan lamas reincarnated in North America. He has fair skin, and the weather-smoothed face of an outdoorsman, minus the usual wrinkles—a beatific look that would not look out of place in a monastery, through it is hard to imagine him sitting still for very long. He dresses like a shipyard worker, which he was for over a decade. Still, his presence hums with a unique energy, which seems oddly peaceful even while he jumps from subject to subject; it’s like meeting a Buddhist monk with ADD.
Jason, who is Knud Christiansen’s great grandson, was recognized as a reincarnated lama at the age of 2 by the 16th Karmapa, when Jason’s grandmother, Hanne, was visiting the Karmapa in Rumtek. “I remember doing a test,” Jason recalls. “When I visited the Woodstock Monastery at age 5, I ran in, and took my shoes off, and went and sat with the monks for 20 minutes. I was a wild child. Didn’t listen well, had a lot of energy. I ran in there, and took my shoes off, I knew to do that, went in, sat in lotus position, and meditated with them for a half hour, I didn’t make a sound. They asked me questions where they had things on the table, like from past lifetimes.” Jason was recognized as the corporeal vessel for the reincarnated spirit of Rechung Dorje Drakpa, one of the two main disciples of the great 12th-century Tibetan Buddhist teacher Milarepa.
Jason’s secret life remains a secret to everyone outside of his lineage and his family in part because his father, who grew up in this town, was never particularly enthusiastic about the idea that his son was a reincarnated 12th-century Tibetan monk. Also, Jason preferred living with his father over his mother, an international businesswoman who traveled a lot. “My mom was in a very developmental phase in her life,” he recalled. “I moved back with my dad because my father was my rock. My father grew up here in New Hampshire. He protected me the way he knew how, from something he was unsure about and which made him afraid.”
As a child, Jason raced motocross bikes with his father while communicating privately with the monks who supervised his spiritual education, like a character in a Salinger story set in the 1980s. The older lamas, he said, explained to him from an early age that his path was one that the universe required. When he came of age, he journeyed to his monastery in Tibet, where people lined remote mountain roads to see him, and pay homage. “An old lady waited for me, and I showed up in this little village,” he said, showing me pictures of his journey. “And she wanted me to hold her and say prayers, and she died in my arms. Waiting to see me. That was heavy.”
I have made my own pilgrimage here to see him, I explain, to talk about his great grandfather. “I was 12 when my parents got divorced, we lived in Colorado,” he remembers. He recalls Knud, his grandmother’s father, coming to visit. They even caught a fish together. “He was introverted as a person, and just gracious and very kind.”
The idea of keeping secrets over the course of a lifetime makes sense to Jason. The monks taught him that keeping secrets could be a way of safeguarding the teachings that he was chosen to pass on. “I have hidden this because I have a very strong connection to it and I don’t want to share it with people, especially people that don’t understand. I know you’re familiar enough as a worldly person, and I know you’ve met with Karmapa,” he explained. “But once that lightbulb goes on and you get the fundamentals it’s a very simple instruction: Be kind, be compassionate. Realize your mind, liberate yourself so you can help as many people as you can on earth.”
When I ask him what percentage of people walking around in the world one might expect to encounter such compassion from, he smiles. “Generally speaking, walking around Maine and New Hampshire and Massachusetts,” he answers, “I’d say probably 1 in 20.”
Showing compassion toward others has an effect on the universe, and it also has an effect on you. “That’s karma,” Jason explained. “The simplest definition of karma is one that I heard from a yogi: You do good, you get good. You do bad, you get bad.”
Seated in his modest living room, whose one out-of-the-ordinary touch is a large tank of tropical fish adorned with an ancient carving of the Buddha, he pauses, and seems to draw into himself. I tell him the story of having first met his grandfather in his clock shop, and how I can still remember the smell of his pipe tobacco.
“I can still smell the pipe too,” Jason said. Then he turns serious again. “You had no clue when you met him, but you knew something. That was compassion, which allowed you to connect to the compassion in him,” he said. “I remember him telling me that he wondered if he would die all the time in that boat, when he was saving people and bringing them to Sweden from Denmark.”
My grandfather, who lived through large-scale horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution before escaping from Russia prior to the Nazi onslaught that killed every other living member of his family, taught me these same lessons, I tell Jason. Having spent time with people who were routinely violent, I have found that the lessons my grandfather taught me about human goodness, and the interconnection of all things, are in no way negated by the fact that human nature is a dark forest. It was the light that interested him. What is important for me to know was that my grandfather’s life had been saved by others—without whom his beloved family, his children, and grandchildren, not one of us, would exist in the world. Good actions, however unlikely, can initiate a cycle of goodness, by sending the flywheel of one man’s life, and then another, spinning in the same direction. Jason nods.
The Sutton Clock Shop lived on after Knud’s death. Relocated to 82nd Street, it is run by Sebastian, Knud’s stepson from his last marriage, after Knud and Karen divorced in 1974. (Knud loved New York City; Karen strongly preferred the countryside and being a hostess for Hanne and Maurice; she wanted to spend time in Denmark; he refused to go back. They remained good friends. He never lacked for female company.) I am surprised, though I should not be by now, to find that Sebastian is black, and that his daughter Isabella is Jewish and speaks Hebrew.
Sebastian, unlike his stepfather, is an actual clockmaker. Sitting at his illuminated workbench, he works patiently on the inner mechanisms of the machines that his father bequeathed to him. Behind him, the clock faces on the wall illustrate different ideas of time, some somber and stark, others decorative and fanciful.
In a white Oxford button-down with the sleeves rolled up and black-framed glasses, Sebastian has a natty Old World New Craftsman-type presence. Deep in the clock shop, a bell sounds, signaling that somewhere, it is something o’clock. All around us are sounds that suggest the passing of time, a too-fast tick-tick, a watery metronome, a pumping sound, the saw-saw of a flywheel moving back and forth. A scale chimes, followed by a ringing bell. The way the sounds overlap in the basement space feels oddly comforting. Something is always happening, weaving you deeper into the fabric of sound, whose underlying structure is time’s arrow, which is God, yet at the same time an illusion. Sebastian winds the clock he is working on, until it releases a deep noon-time gong.
Picking up a pair of tweezers, he works on the front of the clock while adjusting a piece in the back. “There’s some that sound a little tinny,” he tells me. “But it all becomes part of the chatter of the shop.”
He will let the clock hang overnight, he says. In the morning, he will check it again to see if it is still working. His daughter also loves the clock shop, he tells me. It is his hope that someday she will inherit it.