Danish native recalls harrowing tale of survival at Holocaust Exhibit

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Photo Gallery | 11th annual Holocaust Exhibit

CLARKSBURG — Leon Goldberger still vividly remembers waking early one morning to the drone of airplanes.

It was April 9, 1940. German Messerschmitts darkened the sky above the 10-year-old's home in Denmark, signaling the beginning of the country's occupation by the Nazi regime.

For three years, Goldberger said, the Danes feared the Nazis would strike against the Danish resistance. His family was jolted awake late one night by the menacing sound of gun butts against their front door.

"My father whispered to me to make no noise. He knew it was the Germans coming to pick us up," Goldberger said, addressing a crowded room at Clarksburg Elementary School on Thursday night.

But out of the night came the voice of a neighbor, he said, who yelled to the German soldiers the family was at their vacation home in the country.

Goldberger, now 85, said that gave his family time to flee to Sweden. He credits the selflessness of strangers for saving him and thousands of other Danes.

"It's important to have a 'dual memory' when discussing the Holocaust," he said in delivering testimony. "The worst, the unspeakable terror, the genocide — that is the Holocaust. And there is the light occasionally shown by these wonderful people that we are seeing today described. The rescuers."

Eighth-graders in teacher Michael Little's class spent three months learning about the Holocaust — the systematic murder of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, as organized by the Nazi regime.

The 11th annual event featured visual displays of students' research, in addition to artwork inspired by poetry, a movie screening and two speakers. The night's theme was "Rescue and Remembrance." Students researched people who risked their lives to help Jews escape the Nazi regime.

Eighth-grader Molly Wojnicki researched one such person — Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portugal's consul-general in Bordeaux, France. The German invasion of France in June 1940 pushed thousands of Jews to flee south with hopes of crossing into Spain and from there, Portugal, before sailing to the United States.

Sousa Mendes went against the government's orders and gave out visas to Jewish refugees so they could enter or pass through Portugal. Ultimately, he issued more than 1,600 visas.

"He could've just issued the visas, but he also brought people to where they needed to be," Wojnicki said. "And if someone couldn't afford one, he'd give them one for free. ... He couldn't watch people suffer."

The event aims, in part, to "eliminate prejudice and discrimination by teaching students that their choices really do make a difference," Little said.

Goldberger, a professor emeritus of psychology at New York University, wrote about his experience in his book "The Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage Under Stress." He has also studied stress and trauma on the psyche.

A Lutheran minister gave his family 20,000 Kroners so they could take a boat to Sweden. Like the sound of airplanes, he remembers the smell of fish that clung to a tarp they hid under, and the fierce anger he felt while waiting on the beach.

"What the hell did I ever do, or my parents," he said. "It didn't make sense to me."

Preceding Goldberger was Jim Shepard, professor of English at Williams College. Shepard read from his novel, "The Book of Aron."

A young narrator tells the story of educator and pediatrician Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. When the Nazis began the elimination of the ghetto, Korczak chose to accompany his 150 charges to the gas chambers at Treblinka.

Students also will take a trip in June to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The trip and annual speaker, Little said, are funded by Stockbridge residents Robert and Elain Baum.

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979.


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