Shoah hero, underground: Danish fighter to be honored in S.F.

The walls of Knud Dyby’s cozy Novato home are adorned with paintings of plucky little fishing vessels, bobbing and weaving on serene Danish seas as calm and blue as Dyby’s 92-year-old eyes.

Like so many Danes, he has an affinity for the sea. But he was never a fisherman: Catching things was never his interest. Dyby specialized in releasing.

The former Danish policeman helped ferry hundreds of Jews and thousands of resistance fighters and war refugees out of his native Copenhagen and into neutral Sweden during the war. He will be honored Sept. 6 at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, after recently being named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Remembrance Authority.

“To me,” says Dyby in his strong, clipped European accent, “It didn’t make a difference what religion they had. It didn’t make any difference what they were. To me, it was just Danes who were in danger.”

Though now stooped by a limp, Dyby — a Marin resident for the past 40 years — is a tall man who still lives on his own and drives his own car.

When the war broke out he was a strapping young printer, who soon found work as a police officer. The Danish police force, however, turned out to be a hotbed of anti-Nazi activity, and Dyby was quickly inducted into the Holger Danske underground group.

And then the calls started coming.

A colleague called Dyby and asked if he could arrange to slip a Jewish grocer named Jacobson down to Copenhagen’s North Harbor and out of Nazi-controlled territory. He escorted the Jacobson family to the wharf, struck a deal with a fisherman and saw them off. Before long the police station’s phone operator told Dyby he was receiving as many calls as all the other cops combined.

Dyby had to organize streetcars or taxis to move the large number of Jews and Nazi fighters he was smuggling out of the country down to the waterfront. He and his colleagues often had to come up with money or pay out of their own pocket to compensate the fishermen for the lost revenue — and the risk.

Dyby didn’t usually keep records of whom he smuggled; best not to have those notes fall into enemy hands lest he be captured. But he knew the risks of being caught transporting undesirables.

Ferrying a Jew would likely get him deported to a concentration camp. But if he were to be caught aiding men who killed Nazis, he’d likely end up against the wall.

In addition to people, Dyby helped smuggle thousands of sacks of mail in and out of Denmark, and passed machine guns, rifles and grenades to underground fighters who blew up factories and railroads.

But in 1944 — and Dyby recalls the exact date even after all these years: Sept. 19 — the Germans caught on to the Danish police force’s anti-Nazi leanings.

Nazi soldiers swooped into police stations and arrested Danish cops en masse. Dyby had just gotten off of his shift, but the Germans sounded the air raid alert, which mandated off-duty police to return to their stations.

“I heard the air alarm, but I couldn’t hear any airplanes. So I took my time,” says Dyby with a laugh.

“When I came by the police station on my bicycle, I saw my colleagues being loaded into German trucks.”

Wasting no time, he raced to the local police annex and secured hundreds of ID papers and kits to make more so underground fighters could create false documentation. He grabbed a sack and filled it to the top with ID material; it was so heavy he needed to take a cab home.

“The taxi driver said ‘Are you sure you have your ID card?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I have 200!'”

A full-time underground fighter for the rest of the war, Dyby used his appropriated materials to go by names such as Larsen, Carlsen and Petersen. Amazingly, the Germans never stopped paying his policeman’s salary.

“I would go and get it every month at the bank,” he says with a broad smile. “They were absolutely idiotic!”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.