The quest for Kaj Munk

A strange adventure having to do with Denmark, Nazism, and family secrets began on a lonely island off Maine. In the summer of 1977, my husband and I rented an old boathouse on Isle au Haut. Here I chanced to read a play translated from the Danish called ``Egelykke,'' written in 1940 by Kaj (rhymes with sky) Munk. Set in Denmark in the 1800s, it describes the ill-fated love of a divinity student (representing a historical figure, Nicolai Grundtvig) for a married woman.

I became curious about the author and discovered he was a Lutheran clergyman who during the 1930s had become a popular dramatist and poet. When Hitler's forces occupied Denmark in 1940, he vigorously denounced Nazism; in 1944, the Gestapo assassinated him. He was only 46 and left a wife and five small children. The more I read of him, the more fascinated I became.

In 1982, I went to Denmark with the vague idea of writing a short article about Munk. It was the first of three trips. I hoped to locate his five children; his widow was dead, I was sure.

Finding the family was difficult until I discovered Munk's best friend and biographer. Through him, I learned that Mrs. Munk was still alive and still living in the same rectory at Veders"o where she and her husband had spent their married life together. She invited me to visit.

Mrs. Munk, with two of her sons, greeted me with smiles and told me how delighted she was that I was interested in her husband. She observed that Americans often know the name of the Norwegian Nazi collaborator Quisling but seldom those of the Danes and Norwegians who opposed Hitler.

At Veders"o, it was difficult to imagine Munk as anything but a larger-than-life, heroic figure: the man of God who ministered to one of the poorest and most isolated villages in Denmark; the inspired man of letters who wrote some of the most popular plays of his time; the martyr whom the Nazis kidnapped, shot, and dumped in a ditch.

But in Copenhagen, I had been shocked to discover that Munk was anything but well-loved. Everyone recognized his name, but most disliked him. I learned that up until 1935 (some say 1936), Munk had publicly supported Mussolini and, to a lesser extent, Hitler.

As the halo I had given Munk began to crumble, I couldn't help feeling disillusioned. But the conviction grew that he was all the more interesting for his flirtation with the dictators. The important thing was that he had changed his mind. Does it not take courage to recant one's views in public, to confess one has made a terrible mistake?

The more I learned about Munk, the more complex and mercurial he began to sound. The stories I heard from his children often surprised me. One told about Munk's love of shocking people. Once when a celebrity from Copenhagen joined the family for dinner, the meal began with Munk's favorite pudding. To the amazed guest, Munk said cheerfully, ``My favorite dish comes first, so that I'll have plenty of room for it.''

In 1984, when I made a second trip to Denmark, I was surprised how much more favorable interest there was in Munk. The government-owned television company was making a fictional documentary based on Munk's life -- to be shown in January 1986.

Even more unexpected, Mrs. Munk had recently received a visitor much like myself on the track of Munk. He was a black minister from South Africa, Dr. Allan Boesak [recently in the news when he was detained by the South African government and announced as subject of a film coproduced by South African novelist Nadine Gordimer with Hugo Cassirer and scheduled for American public television this fall].

Exactly like me, Dr. Boesak had casually picked up a book of Munk and become spellbound. (His discovery took place not on a Maine island but in a bookstore in the Netherlands.) It seemed to him that Munk's nonviolent campaign against Nazism was a model of how a Christian minister should behave toward apartheid. Boesak organized a conference on Munk at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, inviting a keynote speaker from Denmark.

This year, I returned a third time to Denmark to attend a three-day conference on Munk, sponsored by an educational organization associated with the conservative party. There were 125 people present, most of them old enough to remember Munk's murder.

Excitement pervaded the conference, because a long silence was being broken. For many years now, Danes have been under pressure to forget the bitter years of Nazi occupation and victims such as Munk. Understandably, many Danes ask: Why dredge up old memories when Germany is now a vital trade partner in the Common Market, an ally in NATO, and an important source of tourism? Why stir up the kind of controversy that surrounded President Reagan's visit to the German cemetery at Bitburg?

But for better or worse, Kaj Munk is still creating drama in Denmark and, on occasion, in the churches of South Africa and islands off Maine.

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