Karen Gunderson

AARON HOWARD: Jewish Herald Voice:Houston, TX: Accounts of Rescue and Moral Acts During Nazi Occupation: April 11, 2001

“Between Darkness and Light,” currently on exhibit in the Joseph & Edith Mincberg Gallery at Holocaust Museum Houston brings together two art forms – black and white photography and black and white drawings.  Half of the exhibit is made up of Judith Ellis Glickman’s photographs of living rescuers and actual sites where resistance and rescue took place some 50 years ago.  The other half is made up of Karen Gunderson’s charcoal drawings and paintings on linen-backed paper, including one of Denmark’s King Christian and several depicting the water passage to Sweden.

            When Karen Gunderson was a preschooler in Racine, Wis., her uncle told her the story of King Christian X.  The Danish king would go out for a ride on horseback to greet his subjects each day.  Then on April 9, 1949, the Nazis invaded Denmark and took over the country without a struggle.

            According to the story, the king appeared the next day outside the palace on his horse, as usual.  But on his uniform, in addition to his medals, he wore a large yellow Jewish star.  The king’s gesture sent an immediate message of solidarity to the Danish people.  His countrymen responded by resisting Nazi efforts to deport the country’s 8,000 Jews.

            This King Christian image struck Gunderson’s imagination, and she grew up identifying with these strong Scandinavians, who did the right thing.

            In 1988, Gunderson, now an adult artist, went to a dinner given by the Righteous Foundation, honoring citizens from different countries who had helped Jewish people during the Holocaust.  The event jobbed memories of those childhood King Christian stories.  Gunderson decided that she would paint an image of King Christian.  To research background material, Gunderson read a book by Leo Goldberger on the rescue of Danish Jewry.  As it turns, it is true that the king rode his horse every dday during Nazi occupation.  But, he never wore the yellow star.  Nor did he ever utter the widely attributed response,  “If Jews are forced to wear the yellow star, I and my whole family shall wear it as a badge of honor,” to the Nazi attempt to introduce the yellow badge.

            What is correct is that King Christian was an implacable foe of anti-Jewish legislation in Denmark.  It is also true that the Danish people resisted Nazi attempts to harm the Jewish population.

            When resistance appeared not to be effective enough in late 1943, Danish fishermen and a vast network of citizens ferried close to 6,000Jews across the seven-mile sound to refuge in Sweden.

            One of Gunderson’s major works is an installation of four large-scale drawings hung in a small corner room in the Mincberg Gallery.  Each drawing depicts the sea from a different navigational direction.  The viewer’s perspective is at the center of the room, as within the small rescue boat.

            Looking north, in the direction of Sweden, the viewer sees nothing but the shadow of the boat’s bow and a person sitting in the prow. Alooking south, backlights the water so that the waves appear silver:  The moon also illuminates the rocky coast where two figures are on their knees, heads bowed in prayer.  Gunderson says the figures represent two Danish Gentiles, part of a rescue network of hundreds who hid Jews in their homes in coastal towns like Lyngby until they could escape by fishing boat.

            Looking east, all one can see is an oar in the water.  The western perspective, better lit by the moon, is the shadow of the boat in the water.  In addition to the moon, the night sky in all four drawings is alive with stars.  The constellations are in the position they would have been in October 1943.

            “I’m not a star person,” says Gunderson.  “But I bought a book on astronomy and how to figure out where the wtars appear in the sky during certain years.  The book enabled me to research how the night sky appeared off the coast of Denmark.”  By placing the viewer in the middle of the rescue boat, Gunderson’s drawings attempt to place one in the moment.  They effectively raise the issue of heroism during dark periods of history.

            In Denmark, Lutheran ministers took their lead from the church bishop, who said,”We have to follow God’s law, not man’s law, and protect our Jewish brothers.”  Ordinary citizens were inspired by King Christian’s example.  From historical accounts, it appeared that ordinary fishermen, taxi drivers, postmen, nurses, shopkeepers and students resisted Nazi efforts to dissociate Danish Jews from their Gentile countrymen.