Tuesday, June 16, 2015

1935-1936 Copenhagen from left: 
Brother Milan, mother Helene, 
brother Gustav, Leo, father Eugene


by Leo Goldberger

The trauma all Danish Jews experienced during the days of the intended roundup by the Nazis in Denmark in 1943 consisted mainly of having to confront an unexpected and potentially life-threatening situation. One had to take quick and decisive action, in order to hide and ultimately to flee somewhere – but how? Where? 

These were of course the burning questions. At this juncture, the family unit was under severe pressure. The family was often broken up. Separate hiding places for individual members of the nuclear family were thought to be the only solution. For some intermarried couples, husbands and wives made the decisions to separate, with the Gentile spouse remaining in Denmark, while the Jewish spouse fled. Concern about how the extended family was faring, whether living in Denmark or elsewhere in Nazi Europe, was yet another element in the traumatic upheaval faced by many of us. 

The question of “why” was often on the minds of children. Their capacity to comprehend the reasons for all the tumult or the worry and despair of their parents was limited at best. In later testimony even 4 years olds recalled these frightening moments of concern while they clung to their dolls or security blankets. Even more disturbing, at least for the many children who were left behind, were the questions: Why am I being sent away to live with complete strangers? For how long will I be alone?

The fact that many children were left behind in Denmark has strangely enough only surfaced in the past five years due to the archival research conducted by historian Sofie Lene Bak (2009) of the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen. The estimate is that more than 100 children, ranging from babies to teenagers, were left behind with non-Jewish friends, acquaintances or complete strangers. 

Fearing the uncertain future while on the run from the German roundup, parents felt it safer for their children to remain behind, despite the anguish and pain of separation. One can imagine the plight of parents as they were forced to make these fateful decisions. In some instances their decisions were made based on the false rumor that crying babies would be dumped overboard while crossing into Sweden. These parents were unaware of the common practice advised by physicians of sedating younger children as they waited to board fishing boats (Sofie Lene Bak, 2009).

Our apartment in Denmark was located in a rundown building in the center of old Copenhagen within a short walk of the Great Synagogue, where my father was one of the two chief cantors. Once occupation began in Denmark, the future and safety of Jewish families, as well as those of the Danes, was unclear. Like all other buildings, ours had its own makeshift air-raid shelter in the basement where we spent many uncomfortable and anxious nights listening to the thud of bombs and antiaircraft shelling followed by the “bah-boos” of ambulances, the rumble of fire trucks and, at last, the welcome wail for the “all-clear” siren.

At about 3:30 on the morning of August 29, 1943, the fateful date martial law was declared in Denmark, the Germans took some 150 hostages, mostly prominent Danes including a dozen or so Jews. Unlike the other Jewish functionaries on the arrest list, such as Dr. Max Friediger, the chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue, my father sensed he should not respond to the incessant and loud banging on our front door. Fortunately an upstairs neighbor came to our aid by yelling down to the Gestapo that the Goldberger’s were not at home and then Gestapo left. Thus my father was saved from internment in a local transit camp and subsequent transport to Theresienstadt, the fate of the other Jews apprehended that night.

A month later, the plan for a general roundup was leaked by a high-ranking German official, George F. Duckwitz. An urgent warning was issued in the synagogue during the early hours of September 29, a few days before Rosh Hashanah in 1943. Word spread quickly throughout most of the Jewish community. 

There would only be a few days to prepare for an escape before the dreaded confrontation with the Nazis, expected to occur during the High Holy Days. We quickly had to decide which household belongings to take – clothes, valuables, the Sabbath candlesticks, the family photo album, and important documents. Other questions worried us: Do we pay the rent for our apartment or place of business? To whom should we turn over our home or business for safekeeping? For how long?

The anxiety and confusion took its toll and challenged even the most resilient families. Some coped quite well. Many others, though, did not know what to do or where to turn. With the anxiety level increasing by the hour, people experienced instances of sheer paralysis while desperately attempting to find his/her way to a suitable hiding place. Some families were full of members who despaired to the point of suicide (at least 13 followed through – in one case an entire family, including children). 

Others simply waited passively for some sort of deliverance. Many Jews without families were caught in the Jewish Old Age Home, situated in the courtyard of the hurriedly abandoned synagogue, and were brutally rounded up and tossed into covered “prairie wagons” in the early morning hours while Copenhagen slept. These people were unloaded and marched up the gangplank of a huge German transport boat anchored along the harbor on their first leg to the cattle cars that would transport them to the Czech city of Theresienstadt, where they would be among to 50 or so Danish Jews who succumbed to death in the camp.


The most urgent need of the Jews of Denmark was to find a safe hiding place and reliable connection to someone with a boat (or whatever could float – even a rowboat was used by some). Help came from emphatic non-Jewish people: old friends, neighbors even total strangers, even though there was always a chance that they might turn out to be informers. In a general sense, the degree to which any Jewish family was integrated into the Danish community, spoke the language, and had a social network of non-Jewish friends increased the chances of getting the help they needed. 

It must be noted that many Danes perceived Jews as fellow countrymen rather than a strange species. The mainstream Jewish families could readily be identified in the phone book by their Jewish names. It was more difficult to locate the marginalized refugee families (totaling approximately 1,000 individuals) who sought asylum in Denmark in the late 1930s. Because of poverty, they often lived as boarders in other people’s homes. An even more daunting task was tracking down some 480 young Jewish women and men who were separated from their families and languished elsewhere in Nazi Europe. These young people had been allowed into Denmark at the beginning of WWII as agricultural trainees and lived scattered throughout rural Demark in preparation of achieving their ultimate Zionist dream of moving to Palestine.

Once Jews on the run were in hiding places, the question of how to obtain transportation for the voyage across to Sweden loomed. While everyone knew that Sweden was “neutral,” few were sure whether the Swedes would welcome a large contingent of Jewish refugees. In fact, it was not until the famous atomic scientist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish and who had been whisked off to Sweden on September 29, pleaded with the Swedish government that the Swedes broadcasted their willingness over the radio to offer refuge for the Jews fleeing Denmark (Yahil, 1969).

Despite the current argument that the success of the mass exodus was in large measure due to the lack of an aggressive pursuit by the Germans, those of us who lived through it certainly did not experience “easy” times. Twenty one people perished by drowning, others were caught on land while escaping or were captured on the high sea after being betrayed by a Danish pro-Nazi traitor and sent to Theresienstadt.

The idea of being a refugee was such a foreign notion to most of us that it was difficult to even imagine. There are vivid memories of how miserable it was to be in the hull of a fishing boat, crowded like sardines and falling ill with seasickness. Frequently it was fraught with unexpected terror such as searching midstream for a passing Swedish boat willing to take us aboard. The transfer from one boat to another in the choppy sea was fraught with mishaps as well.


Once in Sweden all was well. There was relief and joy, though the nightmare replayed in the deeper recesses of our memory. In Sweden we experienced the plight of any group of refugees throughout the world: adapting to new circumstances, language, and culture, which for most of us was not too difficult considering the close historical ties within Scandinavia. The question of where to live and work was another matter.

When we arrived on the shores near Malmo, we were picked up by the coastguard and taken to the police station. We had to identify ourselves. Apparently a lot of German soldiers, who were fed up, had escaped from the army. There were also Danish Nazis who had escaped. So how did you prove that you were Jewish? It was not indicated in the passport. 

We did not have the visas that were needed to travel to Sweden at that time. Luckily, my father knew the chief rabbi in Malmo, Eliezer Berlinger. He called him and the wonderful rabbi Berlinger came immediately to the station and verified that my father and family were Jewish. Rabbi Berlinger also invited us to come with him to his house that same morning. I will always remember this. We slept in his study on the floor, on blankets since he didn’t have enough beds. We were about 6 people.

In the morning during breakfast, Rabbi Berlinger offered to help my father find a job somewhere, since he had influence as a chief rabbi. He called people in Stockholm and Gothenburg, the only cities with synagogues aside from Malmo. Luckily, a board member of a small Gothenburg synagogue who had heard my father’s great voice immediately offered him the vacant position they had. So within the next two days, we were on a train to Gothenburg. Almost within a week we were resettled in an apartment in Gothenburg, but it was only because my father was fortunate to have immediate employment as a cantor in a synagogue.

Within a week, I was also enrolled in a Swedish high school. It was a little tough because my Swedish language capabilities were not strong. I understood quite a bit, however. Fortunately, there were many refugees, including Christians who had escaped with their parents. These were children of people who were wanted for espionage or for resistance work. At some point, there were 17,000 Danes in Sweden, not just the 7000 Jews, who were rescued by boat following the round-up. 

Danish Refugee schools were formed in both Gothenburg and in Lund. With the help of the Danish Resistance movement, all the relevant textbooks and exams required by the Danish curriculum were smuggled in via an underground network. I attended this school for the next two years. My experience was easier than many other people’s, such as those Sofie Bak describes in her new book. They could not get a job and were restricted in their travels. They were placed in various camps and could not move around freely unless they had special police permission. They also experienced a good deal of anti-Semitism. This was not my personal experience. My family stuck together and became involved in social activities, such as boy scouts. We had food and light, and there were no bombings like we had experienced in Copenhagen.

Depending on specific circumstances, life continued its normal course. The initiatives of the collective Danish contingent and the establishment of an efficient Danish refugee organization in the major cities and fine refugee schools in Lund and Gothenburg helped us. 

Quite memorable was the fact that we all tended to stick together, both as a family and as Danes. We lived with the fervent hope that we might soon return home. In some sense sharing our traumatic experience and living with a common hope for a quick end to the war and safe return to our beloved Denmark, we, as refugees, became one close knit extended family. We never considered Sweden as more than a temporary residence.

I now have a better appreciation for what others may have experienced during this time. This is one of the values I see coming out of contemporary research. With time, memory changes and experiences are viewed in different ways. Essentially, we continuously rewrite our own history. Each time we do it, we think, “this is the reality.” However, depending on age and experience, one sees the past differently. The only things that remain are facts. For instance, where I lived in Gothenburg has not changed, but the way I remember those years has. In the 1980s I went to Stockholm to give lectures and experienced a sort of nostalgia in connecting with the past. For many years I could not talk about my feelings surrounding my past experiences.


In June 1945, shortly after the war’s end, we finally returned home to a universal celebration of welcome. Our family and the others joyfully returned to life in Denmark. Through the diligence and care of wonderful people and official agencies, our homes, workplaces and friendships remained mostly intact awaiting our return. We found our apartment in good shape, faithfully cared for in our absence by our live-in housekeeper who greeted us with flowers, freshly brewed coffee and the proverbial “Danish pastry”. 

Already by June 22 of 1945, the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen was cleaned up (the Nazis had used it as a horse stall!), and ready for the official rededication ceremony. I recall it as a most solemn and moving event. Among the many dignitaries in attendance were representatives of the government, the leading bishop and other church officials, including the minster from the nearby Trinitatis Church, which had safeguarded the Torah scrolls during our almost two-year refuge in Sweden. My entire family was present. My brothers Milan, Gus and Erik sat proudly in our family row near the front and my mother in her center seat in the upstairs gallery as we heard our father’s emotion infused voice reciting the traditional prayer of thanks.

It was a thrill to be back home. The war had ended. Jubilation spilled into the streets of Copenhagen with the liberation soldiers – American, English, Russian, and Canadian – milling about in town squares. Improvised bands played and people danced and exchanged words and souvenirs with the soldiers. It was still summer time, so the work and discipline of the school year had not yet set in. It was an exciting few months for us all.

However, as the months went by, I sensed a melancholy that seemed to especially affect my father who steadfastly pursued the whereabouts of our extended family in Czechoslovakia and Austria–Hungary. Weekly notifications from the Red Cross resulted in one bad tiding after the other for many families, including ours. Almost all of my father’s brothers and sisters and their immediate families had perished. 

My father became increasingly morose and with his growing awareness of the Soviet menace, a desire to move away from Europe took root. My mother’s parents and two of her siblings miraculously survived, living in hiding on a farm near Bratislava (three of her siblings had succeeded in getting to Palestine in the late 1930s via Cyprus). Some years later after our own immigration to Canada, my maternal grandparents and two of my mother’s siblings were able to join us in Montreal, which became our family’s new geographic center. 

After just a few years in Montreal though, my grandparents revealed that with the establishment of Israel, they were now more eager than ever to settle in the Promised Land. They did just that, joining their sons and daughters there (including my brother Milan) and living out their lives in the city of B’nei Brak.


The memories will linger and like the Passover story, will become part of our cultural heritage. Over these past 68 years, I have heard and read hundreds of stories of our rescue. I remain consistently impressed by how amply the variations demonstrate the nature of an ordinary person’s reconstruction of his/her life history, including attendant internal silences, mythologies and often quite fragmentary memory. For those of us who were quite young at the time, the knowledge that our childhood was cruelly interrupted is always present. More importantly, however, we are continuously mourning the family members we lost, and of course, the millions who tragically did not escape the ultimate horrors of the Holocaust.


Bak, S. L. (2009). The Jewish children were left behind by their parents. Interview inPoliteken and the Danish State Radio, Copenhagen, Denmark, July 4, 2009.

Yahil, L. (1965). The rescue of Danish Jewry: Test of a democracy. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Leo Goldberger, Ph.D. professor emeritus in clinical psychology at New York University, has researched and written widely on sensory deprivation, stress and coping. He was editor of Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, an interdisciplinary journal and author of the book “Rescue of the Danish Jews; Moral courage under Stress” (1987, NYU Press), which was awarded the “Merit of Distinction” by the Anti-Defamation League. Dr. Goldberger, consultant to various Holocaust organizations, was instrumental in securing the Danish rescue boat now on permanent display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 1993 Dr. Goldberger was awarded the order Ridder af Dannebrog by the Danish Queen in recognition of his many services on behalf of Danish-American relations.