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Young at heart

Holger Knaack has a fresh vision for the Rotary of the future. With a little help from his friends, things should go swimmingly

The Küchensee, one of Ratzeburg’s four lakes, provides a scenic backdrop for lunch with Holger’s sister, Barbara (left), and Susanne’s sister, Sabine (right).

Holger Knaack is vacuuming.

The Rotary Club of Herzogtum Lauenburg-Mölln in Germany has wrapped up its annual Christmas bazaar in the cloister of the 12th-century Ratzeburg Cathedral. Two days of selling handicrafts, mistletoe, and homemade cakes and cookies have netted the club some 8,000 euros, which this year will go to a German nonprofit that supports children who are critically ill. As the club members break down booths and put away tables and chairs, Knaack grabs the vacuum cleaner and, head down in concentration, tackles the crumbs, dirt, and bits of tinsel that litter the floor.

At this moment, Knaack is president-elect of Rotary International, preparing to take office on 1 July 2020. But at the same time he’s a regular Rotarian, a 27-year member of his club, pitching in like everybody else. “He just wants to be one friend among friends,” says club member Barbara Hardkop.

There’s a German phrase: man holt die Leute ins Boot. It means getting people on board to work together toward a common goal. In the coming year, Rotarians will find that Holger Knaack is not one to stand on the sidelines while others do the work. But equally important for Knaack is the philosophy that working hard doesn’t mean you can’t also have a good time. As he spends this year getting people on board — especially to carry out his highest priority, investing in young people — he will also be doing his best to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves.

“It’s a basic principle with Holger,” says his longtime friend Hubertus Eichblatt, a fellow club member. “When we get together, it has to be fun.”

Holger Knaack, Rotary International’s 2020-21 president. “He looks youthful,” says a friend. “He is youthful!”

Holger Knaack is an atypical Rotary president, and not just because he wears jeans and eschews ties much of the time. He’s the organization’s first German president, and he came to that position in untraditional fashion. Unlike many of his predecessors, he didn’t rise step by step through the ranks of Rotary offices. He served as club president and district governor, but he had held only one Rotary International post, that of training leader, before becoming director. And he remembers being at a Rotary institute where people asked him what other district offices he had held before becoming governor. “I said, ‘None. None.’ All of them were very surprised,” he recalls.

What Knaack is most known for is his involvement in Rotary’s Youth Exchange program. That experience is deep, broad, and extraordinarily meaningful to him and his wife, Susanne. They have no children of their own, but they have opened their home — and their hearts — to dozens of students. “The Knaack house is always full of guests, especially young people,” says Helmut Knoth, another friend and member of Holger’s club. “They’ve had hundreds of guests over the years.”

Shortly after joining his Rotary club in 1992, Knaack helped out with a camp for short-term Youth Exchange students in northern Germany. He was immediately hooked. “I thought it was a really great program,” he says. “This is something, you’d say in German, wo dein Herz aufgeht: Your heart opens. Whenever you talk to the young people, they’ll tell you, ‘It was the best time in my life.’ Sometimes I think they are surprised about themselves, about what they are able to do, and about the possibilities that are open to them through Rotary.”

The opportunities opened for Knaack, as well. He became Youth Exchange chair for his club, and after serving as governor of District 1940 in 2006-07, he was asked to chair the German Multi-District Youth Exchange, a position he held until the day before he started his term on Rotary’s Board of Directors in 2013. Along the way, he notes, he always relied on other people. “You develop a vision together, and then let’s go ahead,” he says. “Everybody’s going a little different way; there’s never just one road. But the goal should be the same.”

Young people seem to intuitively understand Knaack’s way of doing things. “Holger has a vision, and he is executing on that vision,” says Brittany Arthur, a member of the Rotaract Club of Berlin and the Rotary Club of Berlin International. “And you recognize that this vision is not new for him. Holger and Susanne have had dozens of Youth Exchange students. Do you think they did all that so that in 2020 he could say, ‘We need to invest in youth’? This is who they are.”

Arthur also sees Knaack as unusual in his willingness to invest in “potential, not experience.” In 2012, as an Australian Ambassadorial Scholar in Germany, she had a brief exchange with him at a club meeting. That led to her speaking about her “Rotary moment” at a Berlin peace forum sponsored by 2012-13 RI President Sakuji Tanaka. After her presentation, she thought she was done. But Knaack, who had organized the forum and was now putting together a Rotary institute, had other ideas. “I had just finished speaking to hundreds of Rotarians,” she recalls. “I was feeling so great, and he said, ‘Do you want to help with the institute?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’”

Like other Rotarians, Arthur perceives the depth of Knaack’s persuasive personality. “He’s super funny and nice, but he’s dead serious when it comes to certain things. Which is why he’s such an interesting leader: He can show up on so many different levels when you need him.”

“He’s super funny and nice, but he’s dead serious when it comes to certain things, which is why he’s such an interesting leader.”

Holger and Susanne Knaack love to travel, but they have lived their entire lives not far from where they were born: she in Ratzeburg and he in the nearby village of Groß Grönau, about 40 miles northeast of Hamburg. Their upbringings were remarkably similar. Each was born in 1952 and lived over the shop of the family business: Susanne’s father and grandfather were sausage makers, and Holger’s family bakery was founded by his great-great-great-grandfather in 1868. “We were very loved,” Holger remembers. “Everybody took care of you; everybody always knew where you were.”

Hubertus Eichblatt also grew up in Ratzeburg, where his sister and Susanne, whose maiden name was Horst, were childhood friends. “The Horst family had a very open house, and it’s exactly the same with Holger,” he says. “Friends are always coming in and out.”

Holger and Susanne live in the home that once belonged to Susanne’s grandmother; next door, Susanne’s sister, Sabine Riebensahm, lives in the house where the two grew up. About a decade ago, after her husband died, Holger’s sister, Barbara Staats, moved into an apartment on the top floor of that house. The two homes have a total of nine guest rooms, and what with Barbara’s 12 grandchildren, dozens of current and former Youth Exchange students, and various other friends, at least one of those rooms is usually occupied.

Every morning, everyone meets for coffee in a cozy nook off Holger and Susanne’s living room, where floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the Küchensee, one of four lakes that surround Ratzeburg. They often lunch together as well, followed by more coffee. Then Holger has a ritual: He folds his long frame onto a little sofa for a nap while Susanne, Barbara, and Sabine continue their chat. “He likes to hear us talking while he’s napping,” Sabine says.

The four share duties, including shopping and cooking. “When someone needs something, you just shout,” Holger says. “I think this is the perfect way to live: together. The secret to anything is to ask: What’s our goal? This is exactly our goal, how we live right now.”

One Saturday in December, Holger, Susanne, Barbara, and Sabine are preparing boeuf bourguignon to serve at a dinner party for 23 close friends the Knaacks will be hosting the next day. They’re simultaneously planning the menu for Christmas, when they’ll have 15 people — 16 if a young Egyptian woman who is studying in Germany, the daughter of some Rotarians they met at a Rotary institute in Sharm el-Sheikh, takes them up on their invitation.

Helmut Knoth calls the Knaacks’ hospitality “a stroke of luck for Rotary. At least once a year we have a party there, in their beautiful garden,” he says. “When the weather is nice, we go swimming. In winter, there’s a traditional event for Holger’s birthday. We meet at the rowing club and hike around the lake.” All the birthday gifts are donations to the Karl Adam Foundation, which Knaack founded to support the rowing club. (Ratzeburg is world-famous for its rowing club, whose members formed the core of the German teams that won gold at the 1960, 1968, 2000, 2004, and 2012 Olympics. The club’s co-founder and longtime trainer, a local high school teacher named Karl Adam, is considered one of the best rowing coaches of all time and developed what’s known as the “Ratzeburg style.”)

Over hot punch at the Rotary Club of Herzogtum Lauenburg-Mölln’s Christmas party in December, Knaack chats with fellow club member Barbara Hardkop and her husband, Gerrit (with Jan Schmedes in the background).

Looking through family photo albums, the Knaacks talk about childhood vacations to the seaside — Holger and his family to the island of Sylt on the North Sea, and Susanne and her family to the Baltic Sea coast. A few kilometers from their home, Holger’s family also had a small summer house with a large garden where they would spend weekends. The forests and meadows were his to explore. “It was a perfect childhood,” he says.

Holger’s boyhood home was situated about 500 meters from a small river, the Wakenitz, that formed the border with East Germany. “For me, that was really the end of the world,” he remembers. In the summer, he and his friends would test their courage by swimming across the river. On the other side was a swamp, a minefield, and watchtowers manned by East German guards. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he says, “the first thing we did was to explore the other side by bicycle. All the watchtowers were open. I had never seen our own village, or our own house, from that perspective.”

As a young man, on holidays and weekends, Holger worked as a driver for his family bakery. After finishing secondary school he learned the trade, working in another bakery for two years for his Ausbildung, or apprenticeship. “So I can bake a lot of things,” he says cheerfully. “And I still like to bake. You have to love what you do in order to be very good. Whatever marketing techniques you may use, it’s all about the quality. Quality is about loving the product and trying to make it the best you can. But you have to take your time. That’s the secret to many things.”

After completing his Ausbildung and another year of internship in a large bread factory in Stuttgart, he went to the city of Kiel to study business administration. At the first student assembly, he caught sight of his future wife. “I saw Susanne on the 20th of September 1972,” he says. “I remember that quite well.”

Holger and Susanne Knaack love to cook for themselves and their friends; here, they assemble a meal in Holger’s sister’s kitchen.

Holger didn’t make the same impression on Susanne, perhaps because there were 94 men and only three women in their class. But they soon got acquainted, and on weekends, they would drive home together to each work in their family’s business. Before returning to Kiel on Sunday evenings, they would load up the car with bread from the Knaack bakery and sausage from the Horst shop. “Our friends always knew to come over on Mondays,” Susanne says with a laugh.

They graduated in 1975 and got married the next year. Each of them continued to work in their own family’s business. At the time, the Knaack bakery had several shops and about 50 employees. After taking over from his father in the late 1970s, Knaack decided to expand the company. He also decided that he wanted to know exactly where the grain used to bake his bread was coming from. So he turned to his friend Hubertus Eichblatt, a farmer, who started a cooperative with other farmers. Knaack also worked with Günther Fielmann, Europe’s largest optician, who invested in cultivating organic grain on his own farm, Hof Lütjensee. Together Knaack and Fielmann built their own mill and marketed organic baked goods —something new 30 years ago. “Holger was always very innovative,” Eichblatt says, “very forward-thinking about those kinds of things.”

Another of Knaack’s innovations was to move the baking of the bread into the shops. Before that, bread was baked in the factory and the loaves were trucked to the shops. Knaack’s idea was to continue to make the dough in the factory, but then to freeze it in portions that were distributed to the shops to be baked. His motto was Der frische Bäcker – “the fresh baker.” Today, almost every bakery in Germany does it that way.

Knaack kept expanding the business; eventually there were about 50 shops and the factory with hundreds of employees. He received an offer to buy his company from an internationally active firm that was investing in bakeries. It was a very good offer, and Knaack took it. Still a young man in his 40s, he pursued other business ventures and took up golf (and was quickly tapped to be president of his golf club). He had been an active member of Round Table, an organization for people under age 40; at 39, he joined the Rotary club in the nearby town of Mölln (remaining a member there even when a new club was chartered shortly afterward in Ratzeburg with many of his friends as members). And before long, he found his calling with Rotary Youth Exchange.

Ratzeburg with its 12th-century cathedral and its glacial lakes.

Medieval Ratzeburg, with its ancient cathedral and half-timbered burghers’ houses, is situated on an island surrounded by four glacial lakes. The northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein is dotted with such lakes; winding roads lead through rolling green countryside past farms and villages built in the characteristic regional style of brick architecture. But the students who have stayed with Holger and Susanne have found something much deeper than a picture-postcard experience of Germany.

Juraj Dvořák was one of the first students the Knaacks hosted, in 1996. After returning home to Slovakia, the 16-year-old sent a card to Holger and Susanne, who invited him back for another visit. But when Dvořák’s father died of a heart attack, the young man told the Knaacks he couldn’t come after all. Holger and Susanne, along with Dvořák’s mother, insisted the visit go on as planned.

“I stayed one month with them, and they did everything to help me,” Dvořák recalls. “Since then we have been close friends. If I had not met Holger and Susanne, and if they had not mentored me in many aspects of my life, I would not have achieved what I have.” Dvořák now heads a private equity company in Vienna, but he’s not talking about material success. “I went from zero to somebody, not in terms of money, but in terms of a healthy personality.”

He and Holger “always had deep discussions,” says Dvořák, who still visits every year. “He told me that money is not the most important thing, that I have to enjoy my work and I should also enjoy life. He told me I should travel and see the world. And he took me to many meetings with his friends, Rotarians. I didn’t understand why at the time, but when I got older, I realized it was an absolutely unique chance to learn how to behave with people you don’t know. He grew me up.”

About Holger and Susanne, he says: “They have a big heart and a strong responsibility for the people they are mentoring. They are different from other people. They are championship league people.”

The Knaacks take that responsibility to mentor students seriously. “The major goal of Youth Exchange is to dive into another culture, to learn everything you can about that culture,” Holger says. “And the amazing thing about Youth Exchange is that parents send their kids around the globe and trust that Rotarians will treat them like their own children. It’s something that makes us unique. No other service organization does it this way.”

Paula Miranda spent three months with the Knaacks, who were her first hosts during her exchange year in 2008. She arrived in Ratzeburg from her home in Argentina in January: “I remember it was 4 p.m. It was already dark in Germany, and I was like, oh, my God, where am I? And they welcomed me with a German meal.”

“Holger told me that money is not the most important thing, that I have to enjoy my work and I should also enjoy life.”

When Miranda turned 19 a month later, Holger and Susanne organized a birthday party with some of her new friends from school. “They made barbecue asado like we do in Argentina,” she recalls. “They wanted to make me feel at home, and I really appreciated that. My year wouldn’t have been the same without them. I really love them.”

Alois Serwaty, a past governor of District 1870, first met the Knaacks 25 years ago at a German Multi-District Youth Exchange conference. “Both Holger and Susanne have an uncomplicated and open manner that appeals to and motivates young people,” he says. “When you meet them, you recognize right away that they like young people. Holger’s attitude is that Rotary must remain young and that working for and with young people keeps you young.”

Dvořák agrees: “I was with Holger in December, and he has not changed in 24 years. He’s still the same, maybe just some wrinkles. This Youth Exchange program gives him energy.”

A phrase you hear often among German Rotaractors is auf Augenhöhe begegnen — to meet someone at eye level. “That means everyone is equal, on a level playing field,” Susanne says. “It doesn’t make any difference if someone is a director or a driver. You discuss something and come up with a solution without the other person feeling like he’s received an order.”

According to his friends and family, Holger has a real flair for this. “If he can’t do something himself, he can delegate really well,” Susanne laughs. “He can recognize who would be good at something. It’s a talent of his.”

One example, she says, is the success he had working with Rotaractors on the Rotary institute in Berlin. “They said, ‘We’ll do the breakout sessions,’ and instead of saying, ‘You can’t do that,’ he said, ‘Go ahead.’ He trusts people to succeed. But he’s still in the background keeping an eye on things. It was the same for the convention in Hamburg,” where Knaack and Andreas von Möller were co-chairs of the 2019 Host Organization Committee. “There were lots of Rotaractors involved there too.”

“We need to take care of our Rotary clubs, and our friends in our clubs.”

One of her husband’s main goals, Susanne says, is to continue to bring Rotary and Rotaract closer together. “He’s excited about what he wants to accomplish.” And when he’s excited about something, “he’s able to get others excited as well,” adds Susanne’s sister, Sabine. As Brittany Arthur noted, “You feel like you’re investing in his vision.”

Over cappuccinos in the sunny cafe of Ratzeburg’s Hotel Seehof, with its views of the sparkling Küchensee, Knaack’s friends Hubertus Eichblatt, Helmut Knoth, Jens-Uwe Janssen, and Andreas-Peter Ehlers — like Holger, all members of the Rotary Club of Herzogtum Lauenburg-Mölln — agree that he possesses a certain genius for marshaling volunteers. Ehlers remembers how it was when he served as district secretary during Knaack’s year as district governor. “Before that time,” he says, “under other governors, it was always ‘somebody should do this’ or ‘who is going to do this?’ But Holger would say, very specifically, ‘Hubertus, I’ve been thinking about it, and you’re the perfect person to do this. Here’s how I envision it. This is just right for you, Hubertus, I would really love it if you did this. It’s great that you’re going to do this!’ The way he puts it to you, you can’t say no. And you do it gladly, because he doesn’t hand it to you and then walk away. He comes back in a month and asks, ‘Hubertus, everything going OK? Can I help with anything?’ ”

Eichblatt laughs at this depiction, but stresses that Knaack is successful because his enthusiasm is infectious — and because he sets the example: “He exemplifies these positive characteristics, so it’s relatively easy for him to convince people to do things.”

As they chat about Knaack’s good qualities, they echo what many people say — that he’s never in a bad mood. But close friends that they are, they insist he’s not perfect. “We have to find a weakness,” muses Eichblatt, before settling on a benign character flaw. “He’s very fashion-conscious. His glasses!”

The mention of Knaack’s signature eyewear elicits an immediate reaction from the group. “He’s the only one who wears glasses like that,” Ehlers says. “And if they break, no problem: He has another pair!”

“They’re his trademark,” Knoth adds. “I’ve only ever known him to wear these glasses. And he seldom wears a tie. Jeans, always. He looks youthful. He is youthful!” The old friends nod and laugh as they finish their cappuccinos.

An active couple who enjoy the outdoors, Holger and Susanne take a break from bicycling in front of the regional history museum in Ratzeburg

Knaack’s philosophy — that no matter how hard you work, you should also have fun — applies especially to Rotary. “Traveling around, talking with people, is really fun for him,” says Susanne, a charter member of the Rotary E-Club Hamburg Connect. “Rotary is fun for him — and it’s just as much fun for me.”

Knaack wants everyone to enjoy Rotary — and to be proud to be part of it. “All of us love this organization, and all of us should feel we ought to do something to make Rotary stronger,” he insists. “It’s not hard to do more: be more involved in your club, more interested in your friends, more involved in projects and programs. Ask yourself: Is our club involved in youth service? Can we come up with better ideas for fundraising? And the club also has a responsibility to make people feel good, feel welcome, feel proud. It has to feel special to be a Rotarian.”

As he thinks about the year ahead, he notes that a Rotary president gets invited to lots of events, including district conferences, and sends a representative to most of them. But Knaack plans to attend — if only virtually — the conference in District 1940, whose governor this year, Edgar Friedrich, is a member of the Rotary Club of Herzogtum Lauenburg-Mölln. “I think you’re allowed to make an exception for your own district, especially if the district governor is from your own club,” Knaack says. “Your Rotary club is really important. Whatever office you have had in Rotary, and however important you were, at the very end, you’re always a member of your own Rotary club and happy to be among your friends.

“That’s why we need to take care of our Rotary clubs, and our friends in our clubs. It doesn’t matter if you were president. At the end, it’s important that you’re among friends.”

• This story originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.