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So it does not happen again
Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Her formal Danish name is Inger Peschcke-Koedt, but she goes by Inger Koedt.
The 95-year-old Jackson resident eschews all the trappings of old age, preferring skis and climbing gear over a walker and Matlock reruns. She often says in her thick Danish accent, “You know you’re not so young when your kids are on Medicare.”
In 1951, after surviving the Nazi invasion as a member of the Danish Resistance, Koedt, her husband, Bobs, and their three children moved to Palo Alto, Calif. In 1956, Bobs, an architect, took a summer job helping to develop Colter Bay.
The Koedts then lived at Jackson Lake Lodge while Bobs worked on the design team, and Inger became involved with the Jackson Hole community, helping to start an international exchange program for local students (which still exists). The personable Inger quickly established a network of friends, including Mardy Murie, when the family lived on the Murie Ranch. Many of the friendships she made then, she maintains today.
Koedt was one of the first cooks Pat Mahin hired at the Mangy Moose – back when it was just a spaghetti joint; she climbed the Grand when she was 62. She served on the boards of both the Murie Center and the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust.
After her husband died, Koedt moved to east Jackson, where she currently lives with two of her adult children, Bonnie and Peter. Another daughter, Anne, lives in New York City.
Before she left her mark on Jackson Hole, however, Koedt had already lived a remarkable life as a participant in the Danish Resistance. Although she humbly dismisses her heroic actions as nothing more than “the Danish Way,” Koedt will be honored by the Jackson Hole Jewish Community Wednesday night for risking her life and her family to hide Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
JH Weekly: Miep Gies died recently at the age of 100. Like you, she is referred to as “Righteous Among the Nations” in Judaism for hiding Jews from the Nazis. She famously helped hide Anne Frank’s family.
You are at an age when the heroes of that time are vanishing. How important is it to keep these stories alive for future generations?
Inger Koedt: I feel it’s very important, especially because I hear people going around saying [the Holocaust] never happened, the concentration camps and all. I mean that’s terrible, and I think it’s very important that kids get to know about it.
And I also think it’s important that, not to brag about my country of Denmark, they know [saving Jews] was a spontaneous decision made by the Danes collectively. It was simply that when it was known that the Germans were going to take the Danish Jews to concentration camps, people didn’t even think about it, most people just helped. And unfortunately, there were a few that did talk to the Germans. And some people who were hiding Jews were sent to concentration camps.
But as a whole, it was really amazing. The Danes felt that this shouldn’t happen to our Danes, to other human beings. It was just agreed upon. It’s still something that people still grapple with … I personally think that it could happen in any country, like it did in Germany. When I was younger, I was naive enough to think that [the Holocaust] couldn’t happen again. But now I really think it could. And that’s why we have to prevent it. We have to keep the memories alive.
JHW: Explain your involvement with the Danish Resistance, and how you, a young Danish housewife with two little girls, came to hide Jews in your home.
IK: My husband (Bobs Koedt) was in the Resistance movement already. In 1943, there was a German who told everyone what was going to happen to the Jews, so word spread very fast. We knew this would happen sooner or later. Fortunately, in Denmark it took a while longer for the Germans to come, not like in Holland.
We began to understand that these Germans were going to transport the Danish Jews to Germany. This is when we found out that a lot of our friends happened to be Jews. We never knew. We didn’t think of people as Jews, or Catholics or
Protestants, or whatever you were. Nobody thought about that. So we found that quite a lot of our friends were Jews. My husband looked quite Jewish and people would call him and say, “How ‘come you’re still home?”
We were also fortunate to have Sweden nearby, we could smuggle the Jews to Sweden. Holland didn’t have anywhere to take them, and France was just as bad as Holland.
JHW: Can you describe what it was like when you had a Jewish family hiding in your home?
IK: We didn’t have that much room. We had just a small room in the basement. The reason we had Jews hiding was because they were waiting to get on the boat to Sweden, which was not far away. Some people had them for a long time, we had them just one or two nights just waiting until they could get on a boat.
They usually came in the late afternoon, had dinner with us and then went to sleep. Then, perhaps, the next day they could get on a boat, and my husband would take them. They were very nervous. My daughter Bonnie says she remembers how their hands would tremble when they were sitting at the dinner table eating. They were really nervous.
They often were worried about the trip to Sweden because it was a dangerous trip. It wasn’t very far, but several people drowned and also the Germans would catch them, or the boat could capsize.
JHW: You had German headquarters very near your house. How did you get Jews in and out?
IK: We always had lots of people coming in and out of the house – I think that helped. Also my husband worked at home. We had lots of friends and they always visited. It wasn’t unusual to see people coming in and out, and Germans realized that. [The Germans] came to our house twice; and the second time they came was when they overheard someone asking if they could stay overnight with us.
JHW: You put your two children’s (Bonnie and Anne) lives at risk by harboring Jews. Your home was searched, and you could have been victims of reprisal killings or sent to concentration camps if discovered. Was it a tough decision?
IK: No. We just felt that it was so unjust to take the Jews and put them in concentration camps. Most people didn’t even think of the danger that much.
We knew that [the Nazis] were listening to our phone, and one night they came to our house to search it. I had to move out of the house eventually. My husband moved around to different houses and I moved to our summerhouse. We knew that they were suspicious, so we moved around. The summerhouse was only about a quarter of an hour’s walk from a German camp. It was an odd feeling.
JHW: All the people you hid in your house – did they survive?
IK: Yes. As far as I know they all made it. They were not close friends, but they would come visit me.
JHW: Your son, Peter, says that his two sisters’ high profile involvement in the Women’s Movement was due to the events they witnessed during ‘43-’45. How did you and your husband’s role in the Danish Resistance shape your family?
IK: Well, I think the whole feeling that if someone was in need of help, we should help. Bonnie remembers most from the war and Anne was two years younger. We saw German soldiers all the time; so the kids knew what was going on. I think that in a way especially because the Germans wanted to take the Danish Jews to concentration camps, my two daughters, especially Bonnie, felt that it shouldn’t happen to people who had done nothing. It was unjust. I think that has really been with her all her life.
JHW: In Denmark during the War, the Germans censored the press, but underground, illegal newspapers flourished. You mentioned reading them to get the “real” news. Do you distrust the mainstream media today? Where do you get your news?
IK: I get the Washington Post and I listen to the BBC. I also listen to the news from here. I read the New York Times every Sunday. My daughter says I’m addicted to newspapers. But I do like newspapers. I hate to think they might disappear.
JHW: What do you think of the Internet?
IK: I don’t have a computer. My daughter is my secretary.
JHW: The Danish Resistance would have loved the Internet …
IK: Yes, that’s for sure. I found out many years later that my uncle, part of the Danish Resistance, had been part of the group that made these special radios – radios that made special connection to England, which was illegal, and they couldn’t be detected. That was exciting.
JHW: Holocaust denial seems to be on the rise, especially on the Internet. This must be particularly frustrating for you.
IK: That’s why I want to talk to the kids. Not so much frustrating – but it makes me angry. Because of when I think of how many people have suffered, and the terrible condition the people who went to concentrations camps returned in, their lives ruined … and then to say, “It never happened,” How dare they! It really makes me angry. I was asked to speak with a group of school children in a little town in Minnesota. The teacher asked me to talk to the students because the same thing happened in that little town. There was a woman who was going around saying “Oh it never happened.” It was all propaganda. And I talked with the kids. I think it’s really important.
JHW: Do you think today’s children are moved by your story, or stories from Holocaust survivors? What are the reactions from young kids?
IK: Well, you know kids. One thing they always ask me is, “Were you scared? “ And I say, “Yes!”
They always ask me that. It’s an exciting thing for them. I think if they are small, it’s like an adventure. It’s something they’ve heard about, then all of sudden here’s this old person that really was there.
JHW: So you came to Jackson Hole in 1956 and you thought you’d never stay. What do you think of the changes that have happened in Jackson Hole?
IK: People say, “Oh, it must be terrible for you to see the changes?” Some people get really angry with me when I say, “Well, some are for the worse and some are for the better.” And for instance, I think it’s just wonderful that we have such good music, and the Center for the Arts and good lectures. So to live in a place where you can get out in the wild in half an hour, then go to a lecture in the evening, is pretty good. It’s a wonderful community and even with changes, the fundamentals are still here.
JHW: You started climbing at the age of 62, and your first climb was with your son, Peter, up the Grand. You have done some challenging climbs for any age. What got you hooked on climbing and hiking?
IK: I love the feeling of being high up in the mountains. I like the challenge to find a good hand hold or foot hold. It’s a very exciting thing, climbing. I try to walk every day, up in the canyon, about an hour. I feel very lucky that I live so close to town and yet I can just go up in the mountains. I haven’t skied yet this year, but I got new skis last year for my birthday.
JHW: I get a sense that you, like most Danes, are not a real religious person. But is there a spiritual aspect to your life?
IK: Yeah. If you want to know how the Danes are, get a book at the library called “Country without God.“ It gives a very good picture about Denmark and Sweden.
JHW: Do you find solace with nature …
IK: Often the answer we give to the question, “Are you religious?” is that we are not Athiests, we just don’t belong to any church. I think that’s the common way in Denmark. That is why also we accepted the Jews, because we don’t look at which religion you belong to.
JHW: I heard that you lead a mostly entirely happy life, and had very little experience with depression.
IK: That’s right. We were really poor when we came to this country. We were allowed to take $450 out of Denmark. So we started in Palo Alto with no money at all, below the poverty line. But I thought we had a very good life. My husband’s family was quite wealthy and my father’s family certainly wasn’t poor, and so I lived a sheltered life as a young person. But when we were married, we didn’t have much work or money. It really didn’t matter to me. I never feel poor, even if I am under the poverty line. We had a good life.
My husband had more of a tendency to be depressed sometimes. It runs in the family, and he committed suicide. He was not well. He had seizures, and he had to take pills. He felt that he just wasn’t himself anymore and so I think for him it was maybe the best, because he was really unhappy. He would have been 80 a month after he committed suicide.
JHW: What do you think of our generation of privileged hipsters?
IK: There is too much emphasis on stuff and things. But I don’t think that is so much in Jackson Hole.
JHW: How do you think my generation would face another Holocaust in our own country? Would we do the right thing?
IK: I’m an optimist. I hope so.
JHW: Young people seem to be very attracted to you and your seemingly eternal youth. Give me one piece of advice for a long, healthy and happy life.
IK: Stay interested in life. I still find life fascinating. Maybe that’s why I read the newspapers more than my daughter thinks I should. (Laugh.) I think that life is pretty interesting and humans are too. I can’t imagine how it would be not to be interested in things. I can see that if you’re not, you would ask yourself, “Why get up in the morning?“ I’ve never had that feeling. JHW
PHOTO: Matthew Irwin