Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel
(New York: Other Press, 2020)
During the Holocaust, Denmark was the only European country that rallied around its Jewish population to save nearly every Danish Jew. Almost overnight, the resistance organized a rescue mission. Fisherman, eager to help, hid Jewish men, women, and children in boats and ferried them across the Swedish Kattegatt into safety in Sweden. As a Danish-American, I’ve always shared this story with a sense of pride, especially when people would point out my German heritage. It’s far better to associate with saviors than Nazis. I also always assumed, due to this fact of history, that Sweden played a benevolent role during World War II. Yes, it was incredible that in a time of rampant Anti-Semitism, a time when people would eagerly betray their fellow citizens in an attempt to protect themselves, that the Danish people defied their Nazi occupiers and refused to differentiate between Gentile and Jew. But as Jewish people experienced repeatedly, getting out wasn’t always enough. They had to rely on others opening their border and letting them in. If Sweden did this, if she opened her arms to embrace refugees from across the strait, then Swedes must have been the good guys, too. Right? Not exactly. I should have known better. I should have realized that history and human nature are always far more nuanced than that.
Elisabeth Åsbrink diligently explores the darker side of Sweden’s past in her recently translated book “And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain.” Young Otto Ullmann was only thirteen years old in 1939 when the Nuremberg Laws severely curtailed his freedom in Austria. No longer allowed to attend school or play soccer with his friends, he spent his days trapped in his apartment. It was no life for a child.
While Hitler was busy annexing Austria, the Swedish Archbishop contrived of a plan to rescue Jewish children. This plan hinged on the promise, the expectation, that these children would convert to Christianity. The children would have to travel alone. Not wanting an influx of Jewish people, the Swedish government refused to welcome refugees. They would host the children temporarily until their parents could make other arrangements, and secure visas to move elsewhere. Then they could pick up their children and resume life in another country. That was the hope, the dream that sustained Otto and his parents through years of separation.
Not only did Sweden wish to avoid aiding those who were being persecuted abroad, it also gave birth to its own Nazi organizations. Some Swedes were sympathetic to Hitler and completely supported his ideals. Ingvar Kamprad — the future founder of IKEA — was one young man who subscribed to the Nazi propaganda and defied school rules in order to attend political meetings. As a child, Ingvar was close to his wealthy landowning Grandmother, an immigrant who spoke only German. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, she celebrated with a party that roused the entire village.
In their late teens, the two boys met. Otto, restless and unhappy since his arrival in Sweden, moved frequently. To survive, he needed to work hard, a task he embraced despite his desire to go to school and continue his education. His parents never stopped writing to him, never stopped longing to hold him, but every attempt they made to flee Austria ended in failure. Knowing he needed a skill that would carry him into the future he took up farming. So it was as a farmhand he moved to Kamprad farm. Ingvar’s father, Feodor, was anti-Semitic, but somehow that never affected the family’s relationship with Otto. Soon, the boys became close friends.
Åsbrink constructed the story around more than 500 letters that Otto’s parents wrote him in exile. She also included letters written by key political and religious figures, consulted with historians, and referred to local newspaper articles. In the beginning, the letters from Otto’s parents are filled with hope, and pride in his ability to survive on his own. But in time, as his parents grow desperate, the letters take on a melancholy tone, the sadness and fear hidden behind the constant repetition of sentences and sentiment: “My beloved boy. It has been a long time since we’ve heard from you. I hope you are healthy. thankfully we are….Take care of yourself and may God be with you. Greetings to all, a thousand kisses from your mom and dad.”
Despite only having one side of the story (Otto’s letters have been lost) Åsbrink was able to recreate Otto’s early life in Sweden. Though at times it feels shadowy and lacks detail it’s not due to any fault of the author, only her lack of primary documents. The history of Sweden, their transformation from a nation that wished to shut out refugees to one that welcomes their Danish neighbors is intriguing. A lesson perhaps to others today — to be mindful of who we exclude and the terrifying consequences of denying entry to people fleeing persecution.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in The Story Pub, Ovunque Siamo, River and South Review, Trash Panda Poetry, Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!