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Sigurd Rasmussen; U.N. Librarian And World Bank Languages Expert

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page B06

Sigurd Hartz Rasmussen, 99, a retired World Bank official who began his career at the League of Nations and who became the first librarian of the United Nations, died of congestive heart failure Feb. 21. A longtime resident of Arlington, he was with his son on Mercer Island in Washington State when he died.

While he was at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1930s, Mr. Rasmussen, who is Danish, collected what was considered the most up-to-date geographical information and was able to assist in the resolution of border disputes -- conflicts increasingly brought about by Nazi Germany's aggression.

Sigurd Hartz Rasmussen, 99, provided information to intelligence services for use in thwarting Hitler.

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At the same time, he secretly provided information to Danish and British intelligence services for use in thwarting the advance of Adolf Hitler. From an early age, his son recalled, he was defiant of any authority that he did not respect.

He regularly slipped back into occupied Denmark. As he wrote in "My Journey Through the Twentieth Century," a memoir he published himself in 1999, he was involved with a resistance group that on occasion strung wire, neck-high, across roads frequented by Nazi soldiers on motorcycles.

His sympathies, if not his covert activities, became well known, and when the League of Nations came to an end in May 1940, League officials warned him that he was a "marked man" who was in danger even in Switzerland.

By October, through connections and sheer luck, he obtained a visa to the United States, as well as visas to traverse occupied France and to get through Spain, which was hostile to Denmark.

He made it to Portugal, where he boarded a U.S. passenger ship. In the lining of his luggage, he carried geographical information of great interest to the U.S. Army and to Elmer Davis, director of U.S. War Information.

Mr. Rasmussen was born in Vejle, Denmark. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen, and received a master's degree in library science in 1928 from Columbia University. During the first 25 years of his career, he served in various positions in public libraries in Denmark, the American Library in Paris and the League of Nations in Geneva, where he was head of the geographical department.

From 1941 to 1946, he was a librarian for the League of Nations Mission at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He marveled in later years that he had worked with nine Nobel laureates there, including Albert Einstein.

He formed what would become the Library of the United Nations and became the U.N.'s first librarian in 1946, serving for two years. In 1949, he became a U.S. citizen.

That year, he joined the World Bank, where he was archivist and chief of language services, a job appropriate for a man who was fluent in about a dozen languages. He retired in 1970.

In his autobiography, he wrote, "Many of us, I believe, are guilty of letting our life, or large parts of it, slip away unlived."

Mr. Rasmussen stayed engaged, even after retiring. He co-founded Virginians for Dulles and served on its executive committee with Virginia state Sen. Clive L. duVal II, businessman and former D.C. Council chairman John W. Hechinger Sr. and former interior secretary Stewart L. Udall. The group sought noise and pollution abatement from jet aircraft at Reagan National Airport and achieved some success as a result of several lawsuits and continued effort by the Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise.

A man who loved books his whole life, Mr. Rasmussen was heavily influenced by the Danish writer Georg Brandes and the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. He also loved hanging out with Scandinavian friends.

Another influence was the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, with whom he once spent an evening.

A quotation from Russell served as the coda to his autobiography: "Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know, we become insensitive to many things of great importance."

Mr. Rasmussen's wife, Joan Edna Bourne Rasmussen, died in 2003.

Survivors include two children, Karen Townley Rasmussen of Vienna and Erik Hartz Rasmussen of Mercer Island.

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