When Matthew Sackstein of Rockville Centre celebrates his bar mitzvah Saturday, he won't simply throw a party. The 13-year-old will use the occasion to honor a Christian from Denmark who risked his life to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The man, Knud Christiansen, was an Olympic rower who ferried them one at a time across the Oresund strait to neutral Sweden on a racing boat. Sackstein is "twinning" with the Dane, now 96 and living in Manhattan, as part of a nationwide program that encourages Jewish youths to make their bar mitzvahs more meaningful by honoring non-Jewish Holocaust rescuers.
"These people risked their lives and their families and they were very heroic and brave and selfless," said Matthew, a seventh-grader at Southside Middle School in Rockville Centre. When he delivers the speech boys traditionally give at their bar mitzvahs, he will tell Christiansen's story.
Matthew said he was drawn to Christiansen amid the 170 rescuers profiled by the Manhattan-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which runs the "twinning" program, because both are athletes. Matthew loves baseball and other sports, while Christiansen was on Denmark's 1936 Olympic rowing team that competed in Berlin.
In 1940 Germany occupied Denmark, and by October 1943 it was clear the Germans were going to start persecuting Jews. One night from his window, Christiansen saw steamers coming into the harbor that he knew would be used to deport Jews.
He hid a Jewish family in his apartment that night, then over the next few months made some 17 trips of at least two hours each transporting Jews, said his daughter, Marianne Marstrand. "He used his athletic ability to help save Jews," Matthew said. Christiansen also helped larger fishing boats transport Jews.
Last week, Matthew met his hero on the Upper West Side, where Christiansen lives. "It was like meeting a piece of history," he said.
Christiansen, who is in poor health and won't attend the event, said in a statement that "for a long time I did not speak about it much except to my family. It is important for me now to think about this time and share what I remember."
He and Matthew were brought together by the Jewish Foundation, which started the twinning program in 1997 and has seen 1,000 children participate, said Stanlee Stahl, the group's executive vice president. The program's goal is to help Jewish young people "realize that there were people who had both the courage to care and the courage to act," Stahl said.
It is not known how many Jews were rescued or how many civilians in Europe helped some escape, but the total number of non-Jewish rescuers is believed to be a fraction of the overall population, Stahl said. Part of her group's activities also include sending money to about 900 aging rescuers in 24 countries, she said.
Matthew said rescuers such as Christiansen "did the ultimate mitzvah," or moral good deed - they saved a life.
Helping the helpers
Number of non-Jewish Holocaust "rescuers" assisted financially by the Manhattan-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous: 873
Some of the countries where they live and number who live there:
- U.S. - 14
- Poland - 432
- Ukraine - 187
- Lithuania- 70
- Hungary - 43
- Slovakia - 19
- Russia - 17
- Canada - 4