By Aaron Simon Gross

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle.

Leo Goldberger’s experiences contributed to the composite character “Max” in the new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Quotes directly attributed to Goldberger are also used
throughout the exhibit.

This story was made possible by contributions made to the Local Journalism Fund.

LENOX — Leo Goldberger remembers the night he first saw his parents as
more than parents.

It was 3 a.m. when the Nazis banged on the front door of his family’s
Copenhagen home. They were looking for his father, an Orthodox synagogue’s

“We usually look up to our parents as being knowledgeable about everything,”
Goldberger, 93, said in a recent interview from his home in Lenox. “To see
them in despair, helpless — that was a major discovery and it was very painful.”

The story of Goldberger’s eventual escape is among the most prominent
featured in “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark,” which opened on Oct. 15 as a
permanent exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

The exhibit, which is the museum’s first specifically for young people, recounts “one of the most effective and exceptional instances of mass resistance in modern history,” according to museum leadership. Goldberger’s family was among the staggering 95 percent of Danish Jews who survived the war.

Through holograph-like videos, the exhibit — which is particularly aimed at 9-to 12-year olds — introduces characters like “Max,” a 10-year-old Jewish Dane. Max’s experiences are drawn from the testimonies of five survivors, including Goldberger.

Though a small number of Danish Jews were taken to the concentration camp Theresienstadt in the modern-day Czech Republic, the overwhelming majority managed to escape to Sweden. Once there,
none knew how long they’d have to stay.

“When you take a chapter of history, in hindsight, it’s very positive,” Ellen Bari, a project director and curator on the exhibit, told The Eagle. “But every step of the way, the people living it had no idea it would end so positively.”

Goldberger went on to become a prominent psychologist known for his work
on sensory deprivation; for years, he commuted between West Stockbridge
and Manhattan, where he taught psychology and served as director of the
mental health research center at New York University.

To this day, though, he struggles thinking about his experiences as a young refugee.

“I can still remember the stress of having to suddenly uproot from my home,” Goldberger, who was 15 at the time, said. “And I can’t forget it.”

That night the Nazis came to his family home, Goldberger’s father refused to open the door. He snuck into his sons’ rooms, imploring them to be as quiet as possible. After a few hours, they watched from their window as the German authorities, thinking the family wasn’t home, left.

The next morning, Goldberger’s father shaved his beard and brought the family to the Danish underground, where they were transported to a summer house — the first of many stops that would save their lives.

Goldberger escaped Danish soil a few months later. He remembers standing on the beach in the middle of a cold October night amidst the 20 others who’d be on his boat to Sweden, looking for the fisherman who’d transport them.

Far from the German officers who regularly patrolled harbors at night, he waited for a signal. And when his fisherman appeared, he hopped aboard.

In the middle of his three-hour journey, the boat simply stopped as if stranded in the ocean, to the Danish Jews’ great shock. “We’re not going any further,” the fisherman told them.

That fisherman, like many others, was scared of being apprehended by the Nazis when he returned to Denmark. So the group waited through the night for a Swedish boat that would bring them to the neutral country.

“I remember how poor [the fishermen] were and how dangerous it was for them,” he said. “If we were caught on the water, they would have been arrested and sent to a concentration camp themselves.”

Once Goldberger’s family arrived in Sweden, they were transferred to a refugee camp. Not long after, a Swedish rabbi found Goldberger’s father a job as a cantor in Gothenburg, a Swedish city.

“Within a week, I was in a Swedish school, wearing a Swedish hat, trying to learn Swedish as quickly as I could,” Goldberger said.

In Gothenburg, a school was created for the 100 Danish refugee children, half of whom weren’t Jewish. The non-Jews were the children of Danes wanted by the Gestapo for acts of resistance, like helping Jews escape or bombing German factories.

“They were the real heroes,” Goldberger said. “I don’t think people realize how many of those who helped us ended up becoming refugees.”

When the war finally ended, the Danes came home to find their homes had been looked after by their non-Jewish neighbors, who’d even hidden torahs in churches — “quite an extraordinary difference from the experiences of the rest of Jews in Europe,” Bari said.

After leaving Sweden, teenagers like Goldberger stayed connected to their lives there. “I had fallen in love with a Swedish girl and we continued to correspond for years,” he said.

Goldberger eventually moved to Canada, where he tried to move on from the Holocaust. “When I came to McGill [University], I wanted to forget everything and learn English,” he said. “But when I met Elie Wiesel, he told me it would be a good deed to tell the story and not to forget. And I have been doing that ever since, as a sideline to my work as a clinical psychologist.”

Goldberger has had a fruitful career, writing many books including
1998’s “Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage Under Stress.”

In 1993, he was awarded The Order of Dannebrog (Knight’s Cross), the Danish
equivalent of being knighted, by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

And although 80 years have passed, those experiences, as a young person, still
feel present.

“At age 93, it gets too stressful recounting escaping and being close to ending
up in a concentration camp,” Goldberger said. “Even after all these years, it’s
not easy.”