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Faces of Courage, Kirsten


“The Danish Freedom Council sharply condemns the pogroms the Germans have set in motion against the Jews in our country. Among the Danish people the Jews do not constitute a special class but are citizens to exactly the same degree as other Danes. The Council calls on the Danish population to help in every way possible his fellow Jewish citizens who have not yet succeeded in escaping abroad.”
When Germany occupied Denmark in 1940, they allowed the Danes to govern their own country until August 1943. Fearing the growing Danish Resistance, the Nazis declared martial law and took control of the government and ordered the arrest of Jewish people. The Danish Resistance discovered their plan and within a few weeks, the rescue of the Jewish population of Denmark was organized and carried out. People were hidden in homes, hospitals and churches and transported to safety in Sweden.

The Danish Women’s League for Peace and Freedom and the Society of Jewish Women worked together to get young Jews out of Germany into Denmark. Children were also brought from Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1943, there were 174 young refugee children in Denmark. Many children were placed with families and others lived in children’s homes. Kirsten was one of many young people who assisted in the rescue of Jewish children.

Dressed in her yellow clown suit with big green polka dots, Kirsten tucked her blond hair tucked inside an orange wig and a purple cap, painted two red circles on her white cheeks and a big red smile around her lips and went to greet the children on the ward in the Bispebjerg Hospital in Copenhagen.

The children were sitting up in their beds or on chairs and greeted her with smiles and laughter, they joined in the singing of silly songs and rhymes and watched her juggle red balls in the air. Although she was only sixteen years old, Kirsten was a skilled performer and a familiar figure on the children’s ward where she performed for the children every Saturday afternoon. When she was a clown, she sang silly songs, juggled balls and told riddles and jokes. She also gave puppet shows and told stories about the ancient Vikings who lived in Denmark.

When she finished her clown act, a tall woman with gray hair came up to her and introduced herself as Mrs. Berger, the supervisor of a Jewish orphan home.

“You made Stella very happy today,” she said pointing to the little girl with curly brown hair who stood close to her.” I came to take Stella home this afternoon, but she refused to leave the hospital until you finished your clown show.”

“Ask her to come to our home.” Stella said in a loud whisper.

Mrs. Berger nodded and invited Kirsten to come to the orphan home.

“Please say you will come,” she pleaded. “The children in the home have so little joy in their lives. They miss their families so much and they don’t even know if they will see them again.” Mrs. Berger explained that the eight children in the home came from Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1939. They were very young when they arrived and some had no memories of their families. The youngest child was Stella who was seven, the others were eight, nine and ten years old. They went to the Jewish school and had little contact with Danish society.

“Adjusting to life far away from their families and having to learn a new language
was hard for them,” Mrs. Berger herself spoke with an accent and came from Czechoslovakia.

Always eager to perform for children, Kirsten quickly agreed. Jumping up and down with glee, Stella beamed at her. Kirsten came to the home the next Wednesday after school.

As soon as she arrived at the brown house near the synagogue on Krystalgade Street, Stella opened the door. “Kirsten’s here, Kirsten’s here,” She cried out happily and ran to tell the other children. Mrs. Berger took her into the small parlor, where they were waiting. They were very quiet as they stood up to greet her. Only Stella had a smile on he face, the others looked at her with wide eyes. Kirsten sat down behind a small table, the children sat down and watched as Kirsten took the puppets out of her sack.

“These are my Viking puppets,” she said cheerfully, showing them the Viking sea captain in a red robe and the handsome Prince Erling in leather trousers and a purple woolen cloak. Princes Freyja wore a blue silk dress and the ugly giant named Thrym had long arms and a big round head. The puppets were made of cloth and paper and had sticks beneath the their clothes.

“What are Vikings?” asked one little boy. Kirsten had never before met a child who did not know about Vikings.

“Vikings lived in Denmark many many years ago,” she explained. “They sailed to far away places in long wooden boats and gave each other funny nicknames like Olaf the fat, because he had a big round tummy and Erik the Red, because he had a red beard.”
They were farmers and sailors and sailed to far away lands in big wooden boats.”

Kirsten lifted her Viking sea captain and put it in a boat with a rectangular sail.

“I am the lord of the sea. There are no waves, no winds big enough to scare Me.” The captain declared and the boat went up and down as it sailed over ocean waves.

“Here comes Prince Erling. He is very brave.” Kirsten took the prince in one hand. ” He had to wrestle with a giant to save Princess Frejya.” Thrym chased Princess Frejya around and around. Prince Erling wrestled with Thrym until the giant fell down.

“You saved me from the giant,” announced the princess. The prince and princess danced together. “The prince and princess were married and lived happily ever after.” Kirsten announced and looked at her wide eyed audience.

“Tell us more about the Vikings,” one of the older boys said. “Did giants live in the olden days?” “Were people scared of giants?” “Do Vikings still live in Denmark?” “Why aren’t they here any more?” “Did they have to fight in wars?” “Were there Jewish Vikings?” “Were the Vikings mean like the Germans?”

There were so many questions and comments that Kirsten couldn’t answer them all. She told them another Viking tale and then another. When it was time for her to leave, Stella asked “Can you show us how you make puppets.”

“Next week I’ll bring some paper bags and cloth and we’ll make puppets,” she promised.

The next week, clowns, kittens, fairy princesses, German soldiers and Viking sailors, princes and princesses were made with paper, glue and paints. The puppets spoke of their fears, their sadness, grief, and dreams of being united with their families.

“I come to Denmark, because they do not like Jews in my country, ” a clown with a red face declared.

“I scared but I brave,” declared a Viking prince.

“I wish there were Vikings in Poland to protect my family,” one of the older boys said sadly.

“In Denmark, Jewish children are safe,” said one of the girls.

Another afternoon she brought her face paint and painted their faces. They made wigs out of yellow and orange wool and funny hats out of paper bags. When they finished eight clowns were jumping, hopping and twirling around the room as they chanted silly rhymes and tried to juggle balls in the air.

“We are having a real clown parade,” Stella said happily as the clowns marched up and down the stairs, beating on small drums and blowing small horns.

The children introduced her to old Jewish tales and they made more puppets and celebrated birthdays with clown parades. Kirsten never missed a visit to the children’s home. Kirsten’s visits broke up the monotony of life in the small orphan home. Mrs. Berger was afraid of the German soldiers and rarely took the children out of the brown brick house. They left the house only to go to the Jewish school or to the synagogue. In 1943, there were many German soldiers on the streets of Copenhagen.

During the summer holiday, Kirsten went to visit her grandparents who lived in the country.

“We’re going to miss you,” a chorus of voices sang out on her last visit.

“As soon as I return to Copenhagen, I’ll be back,” she promised.

Kirsten came back to Copenhagen at the end of August. The streets were crowded with German soldiers. Afraid of the growing Danish resistance, the Nazis took over the government of Denmark in August 1943. Men in Gestapo uniforms as well as German soldiers patrolled the streets and flags with swastikas were flying from the flag poles. Kirsten’s brother Jens, who was eighteen, joined the Danish resistance and no longer lived at home. Her Jewish friends and teachers were no longer in the school.

At the orphan home, the children were happy to see her, but they were restless and unhappy. Even the Viking tales about fierce warriors and brave heroes could not hold their interest.

“It is just like Czechoslovakia before I left,” Mrs. Berger told her. “Jewish people are going to have to wear yellow stars just like they do in the other countries the Nazis occupy.” The Jewish school was closed and Mrs. Berger kept the children in the house all day. Fear took away the smiles and laughter.

“I’m afraid the children know how frightened I am,” she told Kirsten that the Nazis had murdered her husband just before she managed to escape from Czechoslovakia.

The older children remembered when they had to leave their parents and
their homes. Albert was only six years old when they arrested his father in Poland. That was just before he was brought to Denmark. Another child had seen her grandparents murdered. Fear became a permanent resident in the small children’s home.

At the end of September, her brother Jens came home to tell Kirsten and his parents of the Nazi plan to arrest all the Jewish people.

“They are going to raid all Jewish homes on Oct. 1st . We need to warn every
Jewish person.” Jens told them that the Danish resistance was organizing a rescue operation to transport people to Sweden.

“Escape routes are being planned and money is being collected to pay the fishermen who will take them to Sweden. Jewish people are being hidden in hospitals, churches, and private homes,” Jens knew his parents would want to help. The Jewish Home for the Aged had already been raided. The old people were dragged out of their beds and taken away in a truck.

“We have to help the children in the home,” Kirsten said with tears in her eyes. “They are so frightened.”

Jens promised to make arrangements for the children. Her mother went to speak to Pastor Pedersen. The young pastor had given many sermons condemning the Nazis treatment of the Jewish people and she knew he would help.

As soon as she returned from the church she told Kirsten. “Pastor Pedersen will hide the children in the church. Mrs. Berger can bring the children tomorrow and they can stay there. We’ll bring food and clothing to the church. The children won’t need to bring anything.”

Early the next morning Kirsten went to the orphan home. As soon as she saw Kirsten, Mrs. Berger’s eyes filled with tears. “A neighbor came and told me to hide the children but I don’t know where to take them.” Kirsten had never seen the older woman look so distraught. A few children ran to her and put their arms around her.

“You are all coming to my church,” Kirsten told them. Turning to Mrs. Berger, she said, “I came to tell you to bring the children to my church. Pastor Pedersen is going to hide them. Bring them as soon as you can. He is waiting for you.”

Mrs. Berger wiped her eyes. “Will you come with us?” she pleaded.

Kirsten nodded. She had not planned to stay, but when she saw how frightened the children were, she decided to see them safely to the church.

Mrs. Berger went upstairs to get the rest of the children. Kirsten heard her cry out, “German soldiers are standing across the street. They know this is a Jewish orphan home. They are going to arrest us.”

Stella was still holding on to Kirsten, the others sat stiffly on chairs or walked restlessly from room to room. Kirsten peeked out of the window and saw the soldiers standing across the street. The church was six blocks away and on the other side of Krystalgrade Street. There were no alleys in which to hide.

Suddenly an idea took shape in her mind.

“We’ll dress the children up as clowns and walk in a clown parade. If we are stopped I’ll tell them the children are going to put on a school play. ” she announced.
Mrs. Berger did not know what to do, but she agreed. She knew they could not remain in the house.

“The soldiers are not likely to stay there all day. We’ll leave as soon as they are gone.”

Turning to the children, Kirsten said in a cheerful voice, “We are going to have a clown parade. I’ll paint everyone’s face and we’ll be real clowns again.”

The children stared at her.

“Remember how you all enjoyed being clowns.” She reminded them.

“We don’t have clown costumes,” one of the children argued.

“We’ll make costumes by putting our clothes on backwards and putting scarves around our necks. If you still have the wigs you made you can wear them.” Kirsten tried to sound cheerful.

“I’m too scared to be a clown,” Stella was trembling.

“We are going to be very brave, even braver than Vikings,” Kirsten encouraged them. “We are going to fool those silly Germans.”

Mrs. Berger went to find the box of face paints Kirsten had left at the home. The children changed their clothes and came downstairs with their shirts and dresses on backwards. Kirsten painted their faces and Mrs. Berger found some scarves to put on them. A few children wore the funny hats they made. Kirsten painted yellow and red streaks on the hair of those who did not have wigs or clown hats. They were ready for the parade.

Cautiously, Kirsten peered out of the window. The soldiers were still standing across the street.

“We’ll wait until they’re gone,” she told Mrs. Berger. “They’ll get hungry and go away.” It was almost noon when the soldiers left.

“We’re going to leave right now,” she said as soon as the soldiers had gone.

“Remember we are clowns and clowns smile and laugh. We must not look like we are afraid. We are going to be funny and silly.”

“And very brave, ” Stella said.

Kirsten ushered them out of the house and down the stairs. With their heads held high, eight small clowns jumped and hopped down the street. Mrs. Berger wore Kirsten’s wig and clown hat as she walked with Kirsten. They were crossing Krystalgrade Street when a group of German soldiers suddenly appeared.

“Look at those silly Danes. They teach their children to be clowns” one of them sneered and came up to Kirsten.

“What is this all about?” he asked.
“Can’t you see. It’s a clown parade, ” Kirsten replied stiffly. “The children are getting ready to perform in a school play.”

“Why are you on the street, instead of in the school?”

Just then a policeman approached. It was Mr. Johansen, Kirsten’s neighbor.

“Oh officer, I know these children. They are wonderful clowns. I can’t wait to see them in the school play.” he said and turned to Kirsten, “My son wants to join your clown group,” he said in a loud voice. “Let me walk you back to the school.” Mr., Johansen motioned to Kirsten to begin walking and he walked next to the children. The soldiers turned away and did not see them enter the church instead of the school across the street.

Pastor Pedersen quickly opened the church door and ushered them inside. “We
were so worried,” he said. “Your mother went to tell Mr. Johnson to look for you.”

“It was a good thing too. They were stopped by German soldiers.” Mr. Johnson told the pastor. He turned to Kirsten, “You sure fooled those Nazis with your clowns,” he congratulated Kirsten.

“German soldiers were on the street and we did not dare to let them see us leave the orphan home’” Kirsten explained and thanked the policeman. “I was so scared when the soldiers stopped us.”

“You children were very brave too and you are wonderful clowns,” Pastor Pedersen told the children as he took them down the stairs to the church basement.

The basement of the church was arranged like a dormitory with nine mattresses and blankets placed in rows on the floor. A big basket of sandwiches and fruit was waiting for the children.

“Your mother came with her friends and got everything ready,” Pastor Pedersen told her. “The children will be safe here until we can get them on a boat. Jens is arranging their escape”

Kirsten returned to the church later that afternoon to see how the children were doing. They seemed much calmer and showed her the games that Pastor Pedersen had given them.

“Your Pastor is like our Rabbi,” Stella said happily.

“Pastor Pedersen is so kind. He made us feel welcome, ” Mrs. Berger told her.

A few days later, they heard from Jens, He was making an arrangement with a fisherman in Dragor to take the children to Sweden. Dragor was a small fishing village close to Copenhagen. Jens needed money to pay the fisherman. After school the next day, Kirsten’s mother gave her an envelope with some money to give to Jens. Kirsten put the money in her paint box and put it inside her school bag, She went to meet Jens in the garden around the Rosenborg castle.

The bicycle wobbled and Kirsten slowed down to steady it when she heard a voice shout “Halte.” It was a German officer.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked in stilted Danish and grabbed her school bag.

“You Danes think you can fool us. We don’t trust you for a minute,” the officer scolded and grabbed her school bag .

“What are you hiding in here?” he asked dumping the contents on the street.

Afraid he would open the box and find the money, Kirsten got off her bike and bent down to pick up the paint box. The officer grabbed it from her and started to open it.

“Please don’t open my paint box, all my paints will spill,” Kirsten forced herself to smile. “You don’t want to get your nice uniform dirty,” she said.

The German officer looked puzzled.

“Can’t you see, it’s only a paint box,” she repeated. The officer hesitated and then gave her the box.

“Oh, thank you so much. You know paints cost a lot of money,” Kirsten said forcing herself to smile as she got back on her bike.

“Don’t forget your books.” The officer said pointing to her three books lying on the ground.

“How stupid of me,” she said. ” I forgot about them.” She hoping that he would think she was dumb.

“The Germans think we Danes are dumb, so we act dumb. That’s how we fool them,” her father had told her.

” You see I don’t really like school very much, ” she said brightly and got off her bike to pick up the books. The officer walked away.

Back on her bike, she could feel the rapid beating of her heart. She passed more soldiers as she pedaled away. If the German officer found the money in the paint box, he would have taken it and even arrested her. It was a lot of money for a schoolgirl to be carrying. She had to go around the city square to get to the gardens around the Rosenborg castle. She tried to look casual and kept her eyes on the road. She hoped that the gardens would be empty.

It was a Fall afternoon and a cool wind was blowing. Kirsten parked her bike near the gardens, took her school bag and went to look for Jens. There were still a few flowers blooming in the gardens. No one else seemed to be in the garden. Jens was waiting for her behind the statue of Hans Christian Andersen. Hugging her brother, Kirsten carefully took the paint box from her school bag and put it into the pocket of Jen’s jacket.

“Oh, Jens, I feel like I’m living in a nightmare,” Kirsten told him about the German officer.

“You can be thankful he understood you. Most of them don’t speak Danish and they expect us to understand them.”

“The children have to get to Dragor tonight. A fishing boat will be waiting at the harbor. Pastor Pedersen has already made arrangements.” Jens was in a hurry to get back to Dragor. As he was leaving he turned to Kirsten, “Be careful,” he warned. “The German troops are all over the city. ”

When Kirsten arrived at the church, she went around to the side of the stone building and knocked on the door. Pastor Pedersen opened the door and took her inside.

As soon as she was inside, the pastor told her the children would be leaving in a milk wagon. “We have to get them out quietly. The Germans have become suspicious and have been searching some of the churches.”

The light in the basement was dim. The children were sitting quietly on the floor. No one was talking. They had already been told that they were going on a boat to Sweden.

“A very nice man who with a milk wagon will take you to Dragor. His name is Mr. Swensen and he is my friend,” Pastor Pedersen spoke in a soft voice.

“Everyone must be very quiet in the wagon. The trip in the milk wagon will be short.”

Rigid with fear, the children said nothing.

“Tonight you will be brave Vikings. You are going to sail on a boat,” Kirsten said encouragingly.

Come with us,” Kirsten,” Stella pleaded. “I scared again. What will happen if I cry?”

Kirsten hugged the little girl. “You are not going to cry. I’ll ask if I can come along so I can see you get on the boat.” Kirsten stayed at the church. After a quiet supper, she reminded them of how brave they were in the clown parade. Tonight they would be brave again.

It was late at night when Mr. Swensen arrived. Some of the children were sleeping. Mrs. Berger woke them up. Pastor Pedersen and Mr. Swensen helped the children and Mrs. Berger climb into the milk wagon. He covered them with blankets and emptied a sack of hay over the blankets. Kirsten sat next to Mr. Swensen.

It was still dark when they arrived in Dragor. Jens was waiting for them. As soon
as the wagon came to a stop, Kirsten jumped off and went to help Jens and Mr Swenson take off the hay and help the children climb out of the wagon.

“You are even braver than the Vikings”, Kirsten told them as they boarded the little fishing boat. Kirsten saw that there were other people on the boat.

Jens found out from the fishermen that the boat arrived in Sweden and the children were being looked after. They were safe.

After the war, some of the children came back to Denmark to live.

Darkness Over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of Jews, by Ellen Levine, Holiday House, New York, 2000

The Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage Under Stress, Leo Goldberger,(Ed.) NY: NYU Press.1987