Rescue in Denmark: My Family's Holocaust Story

Tina Lerno, Librarian, Digital Content Team,
barbed wire turning into flowers with 6 candles burning

This Saturday, January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day or Yom HaShoah. The United Nations chose this day as it was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a day to honor and remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism. It also a day to reflect on what we can do to educate ourselves to never let a tragedy like this happen again.

I have a personal connection to Yom HaShoah as my own family history is part of the narrative. My father Bent Lernø, who was Danish and Jewish, was very aware of his role as an educator of younger generations. He frequently spoke about the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, highlighting Denmark’s participation and resistance during the war. He used his personal story of escape, and of my grandmother’s story of capture and internment to teach children about the Holocaust. He was interviewed by the Shoah Foundation and his story can be viewed online with about 3000 others that have given their testimony.

Shoah Fountation Testimony for Bent Lernø

My dad was one of the Jews in Denmark who were to have been rounded up on Oct. 1, 1943 by the Nazis. Word quickly spread however, among the Jewish families about the plan hours before the midnight raid. All but about 700 of the 7000 escaped to Sweden. The Danes not only helped them reach Sweden by fishing boats, where they were assisted by Swedes, but they took care of their homes and businesses while the refugees were gone. Among those who did not escape, but were sent in cattle cars to concentration camps, were my grandmother and great aunt and uncle. My grandmother survived, and she and other internees were liberated from Terezin in 1945 through a deal made by the Swedish Red Cross. My father and his brother made it to Sweden, and after the war back to Denmark. He eventually came to the United States, spending several years in Texas before moving on to California.

My father gave a great deal of his time to talk about his Holocaust experiences. He was part of a Danish American club that gave scholarships to Danes wishing to study in America, and also was part of annual interfaith Holocaust memorial observances where survivors spoke about their personal Holocaust stories at churches and temples. He gave an annual talk at local high schools about Denmark’s participation during the war called, The Miracle of Denmark: The Rescue of the Danish Jews from Annihilation. He felt it was important to remember and share the past so as not to make the same mistakes in the future, and also felt it was his duty to give something back since his family was spared.

photo of Martha Lerno

My Grandmother: Martha Lernø

I used the library's databases, which are rich sources of information to help me with more in depth research on my family’s history. The newspaper archives, both recent, and historical, allowed me to search for any articles published about my family, as well as FamilySearch, and, HeritageQuest Online, and Jewish Data.

Our library also has some great historical fiction titles, as well as non-fiction, addressing the Holocaust. Here is a brief list of what’s available:

Somewhere There is Still a Sun
Gruenbaum, Michael,

The Librarian of Auschwitz
Iturbe, Antonio

A Boy in Winter: A Novel
Seiffert, Rachel,

The Orphan's Tale
Jenoff, Pam,

Konar, Affinity

Number the Stars
Lowry, Lois.

The Girl from the Train
Joubert, Irma,

Girl in the Blue Coat
Hesse, Monica

Gleitzman, Morris.

Lilac Girls
Kelly, Martha Hall

The Whispering Town
Elvgren, Jennifer Riesmeyer,

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History
Spiegelman, Art.

Darkness over Denmark: the Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews
Levine, Ellen.

Lidegaard, Bo, 1958-

Wildflowers of Terezin
Elmer, Robert.

Terezin: Voices from the Holocaust
Thomson, Ruth, 1949-

Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin
Rubin, Susan Goldman.

In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin