Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local legend

Norwegian who escaped Nazis on skis earns respect, popularity in Seattle

Knut Einarsen, 100, relaxes in the Kenmore, Washington, home he built himself in the 1970s.
Jack Broom Seattle Times

SEATTLE – At first, Knut Einarsen seemed uncomfortable with the question. Just because he has lived to 100 in good health doesn’t mean he can tell others how to do the same.

“Is it all the fish you eat?” prompted daughter-in-law Diana Einarsen, standing nearby. “Is it all the coffee – 10 to 12 cups a day?”

Neither suggestion drew much of a reaction. But after a couple moments of thought, the centenarian leaned forward in his chair, looked his visitor in the eye and offered this:

“It’s not good to be a sourpuss,” he said. “Learn to be happy.”

Diana Einarsen smiled. A journalist and history buff, she has written thousands of words about this proud son of his native Norway who escaped Nazi oppressors on skis, this fierce patriot of his adopted U.S., this devoted husband, father and community member.

And in just 11 words, as he sat near the picture window of the Kenmore neighborhood home he built himself in the 1970s, he zeroed in on the quality that made all the other accomplishments possible.

“That’s who he is,” she said.

Two weeks ago, Einarsen was among those gathering for a private reception for Norway’s King Harald V at Ballard’s Pacific Fishermen Shipyard.

It was the third time Einarsen had met the king, who came to the Puget Sound area for several events.

Kim Nesselquist, Seattle’s honorary Norwegian consul, said when the guest list for the king’s private event was drawn up, Einarsen was a natural.

“He is a great man. He has been a rock in this community. When he gets involved in something, he does it 100 percent,” Nesselquist said.

He said Einarsen donated more than 1,000 volunteer hours to the construction in the 1980s of the Sons of Norway’s Leif Erikson Lodge in Seattle.

Hard work isn’t just something Einarsen does; it’s an integral part of who he has been through 34 years as a halibut fishermen and 36 years as a construction worker.

Even in his retirement, Einarsen hasn’t shied away from work.

“At 97, he was up on the roof, cleaning it,” said his son, Kent. “Boy, did we get phone calls from the neighbors about that.”

Kent and Diana Einarsen were living in Hawaii at the time. They have since moved into the lower floor of Knut Einarsen’s home, with the expectation they’ll be able to help him stay in it. And he has promised his rooftop days are behind him.

Knut Einarsen’s degree of success in his adopted land couldn’t have been imagined in 1940, when a German armada invaded his homeland.

At 25, Einarsen, youngest of nine siblings, opted to join family members in working for the secret Norwegian resistance army. It was a connection that proved fatal to his older brother, Marelius, shot for assisting British forces in the early weeks of the occupation.

“He died in my arms,” Einarsen said. A monument to Marelius Einarsen stands above the town of Skarstad, his home.

Knut Einarsen put his own life into jeopardy by lying to the Germans when they wanted to press his boat into service. He told them it was in poor shape and in need of major repairs.

When he learned that a German sympathizer had tipped off the invaders about him, he knew he had to get himself and his bride of less than a year, Haldis, out of Norway.

He called her from a pay phone so the call wouldn’t be traced. Get ready to leave immediately, he told her, and bring your skis.

What followed could be the stuff of an adventure movie: the Einarsens and some 20 other evacuees got a boat ride to the shore of a fjord where, over the next two days, they climbed and skied over a mountain range.

At any sign of an aircraft overhead, they dropped to the snow, covered by the white sheets they carried for that purpose.

“My wife was so tired. She wanted to sit down and rest. But if you did that, you’d freeze to death,” he said. Time after time, he urged her to make it over just one more hill.

Finally, the sight of a grass hut in the shape of a teepee told them they were in Swedish territory. It had a stove and a supply of dry wood.

After a rest, they pressed on, finally finding help and safety at an electrical power station.

The Einarsens returned to Norway after the war, but conditions were difficult.

They decided to seek a new life in Seattle, where one of Knut’s brothers lived. Arriving with no English-speaking ability, they could still find a foothold among so many of their former countrymen in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

Einarsen remembers the terms of the agreement under which his brother sponsored him.

“For five years, if I didn’t behave myself, he’d have to buy my ticket and send me back to Norway.”

For the Einarsens, the new country was a good fit. They raised a son and daughter, moving from Ballard to Greenwood to Kenmore, and became active in community organizations.

In 2011, Knut Einarsen served as honorary marshal of the Sons of Norway Independence Day Parade. He and Haldis shared a dais with the private secretary of the King Harald V.

Before the recent visit, Einarsen had met the king twice – once in Norway and when the king came to Seattle in 1995.

These days, visitors to Einarsen’s home have their attention called to a photo of Haldis, who died at 90 in 2013, after 70 years of marriage.

Also on display is a photo of Einarsen with a 435-pound halibut he had helped catch.

Although his life has been one of success, he mentions one regret: moving away from Ballard in the 1970s.

“I have a lot of friends there,” he said. At least twice a week, Diana or Kent will drive him to the Leif Erikson Lodge coffee house, where he is still a popular figure.

“Especially with the women,” Diana Einarsen said.