Bellingham man publishes sister's account of Denmark under the Nazis

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 8, 2013 

The Red Umbrella

Bellingham architect and planner Dave Christensen sits with photos and the book he published "The Red Umbrella," about his deceased older sister's account of growing up in Denmark during Nazi occupation, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013 at Christensen Design Management in Bellingham.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Dave Christensen made a public promise when he spoke at his sister Johna's funeral a decade ago.

He fulfilled that promise recently when he published "The Red Umbrella," his sister's riveting account of her childhood in Denmark during the Nazi occupation.

Johna Christensen tells an absorbing tale of family conflict, murder, covert resistance, and a small nation's stouthearted defense of its Jewish citizens.

"It's hard to put down," said Dave Christensen, a Bellingham architect and planner.

TENSE CHILDHOOD

Young Johna, who was born with a left arm that tapered into a stub with five bumps instead of fingers, lived in Copenhagen. She was the oldest child of Poul Christensen, a carpenter, and Jette Magrit Pressmann, the daughter of Orthodox Jews who fled Russia and settled in Denmark.

Poul Christensen was an atheist dismissive of his wife's faith, an attitude that kept him in the doghouse with his in-laws. Born out of wedlock, Johna was 2 by the time her folks finally married.

Johna's portrayal of her parents' problems, including her father's infidelities and sometimes harsh manner, provides a fuller portrait of a couple who, in peaceful times, might have kept their troubles on low simmer, but who had to cope with life under an increasingly oppressive regime.

After Germany occupied Denmark in April 1940, life went on comparatively close to normal, even for the country's 7,500 Jews. At first, the Germans were content to let the Danish government handle domestic matters.

Danish leaders and residents were, by and large, protective of the well-established Jewish community that centered on Copenhagen. Unlike in other occupied countries, Danish leaders didn't require Jews to register their assets, give up their homes and businesses, or wear a yellow star.

However tensions began to rise in 1943 with labor strikes and sabotage against the Nazis. In response, German leaders decided to deport Denmark's Jews on Sept. 28 that year. But when word of the plan leaked out, Jewish leaders and other Danes organized a quick campaign to hide the Jews and use hundreds of boats to ferry about 7,200 of them to safety in nearby neutral Sweden.

In the end, fewer than 500 Jews were taken to a ghetto in Czechoslovakia, and Danish demands for their well-being resulted in the safe return of all but perhaps 60 of them after war's end.

Denmark had one of the highest Jewish survival rates among European countries occupied by the Nazis. Today, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, has on display a small boat used to take Danish Jews to Sweden.

Johna's book presents her family's and other people's fears, narrow escapes and ultimate rescue from her child's perspective. From 6 to 8 years old during the war, she didn't fully comprehend what was happening, or why, a perspective that provides an innocent's wide-eyed view of inhumanity.

Johna's love for her parents and grandparents, and her childhood wish for a red umbrella liked the one a friend had, all helped to anchor her during those tumultuous years.

IN AMERICA

After the war, Johna and her parents moved the United States, sponsored by an uncle in Snohomish. They later moved to Southern California, where Poul and Magrit had their second child, Dave, and their third, Linda.

Dave Christensen said his folks didn't discuss the war, and rarely spoke their native language.

"The only time they spoke Danish was when they were fighting," he said.

Both parents died by the time he was 11, so he and his younger sister lived with Johna and her husband. Johna told him some stories about the war, and began to research and write her memoirs in earnest after visiting relatives in Denmark and Sweden.

"She remembered quite a bit," Dave said.

While Johna didn't talk to Dave about how the war influenced her growing up, he believes her multiple marriages and her love of dancing, drinking and partying masked her anguish about being born out of wedlock and having a deformed arm.

"She felt that she was an accident," he said. "She never felt she was truly loved."

WARTIME MEMORIES

- "The Red Umbrella, Danish Resistance & Johna's Escape from Nazi Occupation," by Johna Christensen, $14.95, available at Village Books, Fairhaven.

Other World War II accounts by Whatcom County writers include:

- "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald," by Joe Moser and Gerald Baron.

- "The Flamboya Tree: Memories of a Mother's Wartime Courage," by Clara Olink Kelly.

- "Kanji & Codes: Learning Japanese for World War II," by Carole E. Slesnick and Irwin L. Slesnick.

- "Sharing is Healing, A Holocaust Survivor's Story," by Noemi Ban and Ray Wolpow.

- "The Way It Was, Growing up in Wartime Holland," by Sid Baron.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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