• Sweden's news in English
 

Stalingrad, the Nazis and Sweden: An Xmas story

Published: 29 Dec 2013 11:30 GMT+01:00
Updated: 29 Dec 2013 11:25 GMT+01:00

Four angels destroying a Nazi swastika. I love this image. It’s close to my heart. It’s also an artefact that is a witness to the most epic period of European history, as viewed from Sweden – specifically Helsingborg.

With the recently-released Russian movie Stalingrad suddenly capturing the world’s attention, I'm again reminded of this Swedish wartime artwork that has survived the decades since, and made an extraordinary journey around the world.

Indeed, it’s a piece of art that would likely never have been created had the battle of Stalingrad proved to be the turning point of World War II. It’s actually a simple New Year’s greeting card but one with a remarkable narrative.

When Nazi forces surrendered at Stalingrad in February 1943, the tide of the war had turned. Throughout 1943 enough information filtered out from the Eastern Front to the outside world for a dawning of the realization that the Third Reich was doomed.

While Sweden remained officially neutral during the conflict, many Swedes nevertheless were left disgusted by Nazism.

One nationally renowned-artist was particularly appalled. His name was Hugo Gehlin, who, during WWII, lived in the southern Swedish city of Helsingborg. At this time in his life he was a rather overweight bald 50-something, known as a garrulous socialite with a large network of friends and admirers.

He was also a creature of habit, and every year he printed up a limited edition of about 600 Christmas cards that traditionally featured a topical woodblock. This was what he sent out to friends, family, and people in the arts scene in which he frequented.

No Christmas card he put in the mail was more memorable than that which he created for 1944, whose text simply read: “Thank you for 1943” and “Happy New Year." 

It featured four angels sawing up a swastika, the demise of Nazism having become apparent over 1943, a process that began in Stalingrad (now named Volgograd).

Gehlin was evidently unaware that his intended Nazi swastika was in fact a Buddhist symbol (Nazi swastikas are 'tilted', they do not lie flat with a vertical axis), but its message – the inevitability of the triumph of good over evil – was most welcome at a time when evil had been triumphing over good for too long.

This particular card in my possession was sent to a good friend of Hugo Gehlin’s – my late grandfather - Gustaf Lindgren. He was an art historian who in 1943 worked at the Waldemarsudde mansion of the arts as the personal secretary of Prince Eugén, fourth in line to the Swedish throne and known as “the Painter Prince." 

After this woodblock print was placed in a drawer in my grandparents’ Djurgården home, probably sometime in early 1944, it was forgotten until resurfacing unexpectedly so many decades later in the 21st Century.

When my grandfather died in 1989, the card – one item in a large cache of papers and memorabilia – became property of his widow, my grandmother, Carin. When she passed away in Stockholm in 2001, the artwork ended up in a cardboard box that served as a receptacle for unwanted items and rubbish uncovered as family members cleaned up the house and made preparations for Carin’s funeral.

When this artefact caught my eye, amid broken crockery and withered potted plants, I swiftly rescued it and began researching its history. Gehlin died in 1953 but I was fortunate enough to speak with his son, Jan Gehlin, less than a year before he died at the age of 88 in 2010.

At that time, he was living in central Stockholm and shared his vivid memories of the time when the family home in Helsingborg was a sanctuary for Jews fleeing from Denmark.

“My father was a courageous and principled man, and, despite his natural modesty, was proud of his actions during the war,” Jan Gehlin told me.

The elder Gehlin evidently passed the torch of a brightly burning social conscience to Jan, who, in the view of Sweden’s post-war media, nobly upheld his father ideals both as a left-leaning novelist and a staunch trade unionist who served as president of the Swedish Writers’ Union (Sveriges Författarförbund) and its predecessor from 1965 to 1982.

“My father passed on his world view to me. We were very close as father and son. He was a passionate man. He was passionate about his art and all his work. And he was an anti-fascist with a passion that never wavered, especially during the war. His anti-Nazism burned all the more ferociously because his wife – my mother – was Jewish," Jan Gehlin recalled.

Helsingborg, on Sweden's southwest coast, is the closest Swedish city to Denmark. During the autumn of 1943, Hugo Gehlin and his wife Esther – a famous artist herself of Danish-Swedish parentage – were two of many Helsingborg residents who actively participated in the evacuation of almost 8,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied Denmark.

The year he sent out the Christmas card now in my possession proved to be the year he played a role in saving most of Denmark’s Jews from Nazi death camps.

Over the course of several weeks during the autumn of 1943, the Gehlin home was refuge to a large number of Danish Jews making their way to safer parts of Sweden. Despite Sweden’s neutrality, the actions of activists like the Gehlins were still somewhat perilous.

“It was only as an adult researching his life that I realized how he truly never missed an opportunity to express – through his art and his words – what he felt had to be said. He was hugely protective of his right to say and do the right thing,” Jan Gehlin said of his father.

The half-Jewish Jan joined his father in speaking out. And, like his father, he let his work do the talking. He was only 21 when he published his first collection of poems, also in that pivotal year, 1943. The message of the collection, Att gripa varligt (To seize tenderly) was that society had a duty to stand up against anti-Semitic bigotry.

Jan Gehlin was also immersed in politics at an early age.

“My father was a very friendly and very open man. We often had visitors in the house. And the talk always quickly turned political. It was my upbringing,” he said.

When I asked him about the poem on the back of the angel-swastika print made by his father, he offered some insight on Hugo Gehlin's intended message with the card.

“Because it featured a swastika, my father was concerned that the card would be misinterpreted, and so he asked one of his best friends, a conspicuously Jewish personality – and at that time one of Sweden's most internationally renowned painters – Isaac Grünewald, to pen a poem about the four angels featured in the woodcut.

Mr. Grünewald was happy to oblige," he recalled.

Isaac Grünewald was one of the most famous Jewish Swedes of his day, but died at the age of 57 in a plane crash only three years after he wrote the poem. He had led a remarkable life. A native Stockholmer, at the age of 19 Grünewald travelled to Paris to study art under painter legend Henri Matisse.

Grünewald regularly exhibited at home and abroad and art historians now often cite him as being responsible for introducing modernism to Sweden.

Hugo Gehlin died only six years after Grünewald of a heart attack. But he had already shaped the next generation of politically active Gehlins.

“Fascism cannot be compromised with. Have you been to Poland, have you seen Auschwitz?” the younger Gehlin asked, speaking with the clarity and passion of a man fifty years younger.

“We have a real duty to remember and to tell. And to preserve the truth, no matter how painful it is, in the interests of peace, freedom and for our own sons and daughters.”

And this sentiment is precisely why a Christmas card sent to my grandfather 70 years ago, holds so much meaning for me.

Lost for decades, and then chucked in a box of rubbish destined for some landfill, this unlikely witness of history managed to defeat capricious fate and the vicissitudes of generational change – and survive to tell its story.

Today the artwork occupies a place on one of the walls of my home in Phuket, Thailand, on an island that greets almost 100,000 Swedish tourists every year and is home to hundreds of Swedish residents. And whenever a guest – Swedish or otherwise – asks about the 70-year-old framed card on the wall, they get a history lesson.
          

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Analysis
Rocky six months for new Swedish PM Löfven
Swedish PM Stefan Löfven on a visit to the US. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Rocky six months for new Swedish PM Löfven

The Swedish centre-left coalition government's first six months in power since last year's general election have not been the whopping success that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven had been hoping for. READ  

Swedish pilots fail to reach deal with SAS
Negotiations between Swedish pilots' unions and SAS are ongoing. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Swedish pilots fail to reach deal with SAS

A deal between Swedish pilots and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) is being automatically extended a week at a time after the agreement ended at midnight on Tuesday. READ  

Presented by ConnectSweden
CEO: Bromma 'essential' for Skanska's success
Pierre Olofsson, CEO of Skanska Sweden. Photo: Skanska

CEO: Bromma 'essential' for Skanska's success

The future of Bromma Airport has sparked a torrent of political debate, with supporters arguing it’s essential for Sweden's connectivity. But it’s more than that, says Skanska Sweden’s CEO Pierre Olofsson. It’s also critical for work-life balance. READ  

Thousands lose global TV channels in Telia row
Several channels are affected. Photo: Telia

Thousands lose global TV channels in Telia row

Up to 700,000 households that subscribe to Nordic telecoms giant Telia’s television packages have seen several channels – including Eurosport – disappear due to a dispute with broadcaster SBS. READ  

April Fools' Day
Sweden's silliest April Fool jokes for 2015
Could Swedish supermarket shelves look like this? Photo: TT

Sweden's silliest April Fool jokes for 2015

Alcohol is set to be sold in a Swedish supermarket, buses are introducing 'selfie zones' and Malmö football club's new grass contains cannabis, if you believe the country's newspapers. Here's The Local's round-up of this year's April Fool gags. READ  

The Local List
Six super Swedish family Easter traditions
Easter witches in Sweden. Photo: Lena Granefelt/Image Bank Sweden

Six super Swedish family Easter traditions

The clocks have gone forward and the supermarket aisles are piled high with chocolate delights. It must be time for Easter. But what do secular Swedes do slightly differently to other nations when it comes to celebrating the festival? READ  

April Fools' Day
April Fools' Day: The Local's 2015 gags
We had many readers fooled that a town in southern Sweden said "no" in a Scottish way. Photo: Shutterstock

April Fools' Day: The Local's 2015 gags

No, you weren’t going crazy when you scrolled through The Local this morning. Today, our network of sites across Europe temporarily lost its marbles for April Fool’s Day. So, now the clock has struck 12pm, it’s time to fess up and reveal which of our own stories were red herrings. READ  

Presented by ConnectSweden
ConnectSweden: Examining Sweden's place in the world

ConnectSweden: Examining Sweden's place in the world

Read The Local's ConnectSweden ambassador series, in which we interview prominent figures in Sweden's business, diplomatic, and cultural spheres to learn more about Sweden's place in the world, both literally and figuratively, and how international air connectivity affects perceptions of the country abroad. READ  

April Fool's Day
The Swedish Viking town using a Scottish sound
Åkeby is situated in south east Sweden. Photo: Shutterstock

The Swedish Viking town using a Scottish sound

The way Swedes say 'no' is slightly different in one isolated town in the south of the country, where many Vikings settled in the 10th century after returning from Scotland. The Local's Maddy Savage has been to Åkeby in Kalmar to investigate why a strange, Scottish-sounding phrase has stuck around for centuries. READ  

Swedish Astrid Lindgren prize for African group
Books used by the winning PRAESA group. Photo: TT

Swedish Astrid Lindgren prize for African group

An association that promotes reading among children has become the first African group to win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world's largest prize for children's and young people's literature. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Beaver bite at Swedish bus stop
Sponsored Article
ConnectSweden: Examining Sweden's place in the world
Gallery
Property of the week: Åreda
Sponsored Article
Why Stockholm is the 'Boston of Europe'
National
How this Syrian travelled to Sweden
Blog updates

27 March

Celebrating Three Great English Exports In 2015 (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"Deputy Head of Mission Aidan Liddle joins us for another guest blog today. In 2015, England..." READ »

 

27 March

Editor’s blog, March 27th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hi readers, Europe remains in shock following the Germanwings plane crash in the Alps that killed 150..." READ »

 
 
 
Was Swedish TV host too harsh on nationalist leader Åkesson?
Sponsored Article
'Sweden must embrace openness and diversity'
National
Travelling over Easter? Don't miss our guide to rail disruption
Scandinavian airlines change cockpit rules after Greenwings crash
National
Sweden remembers Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer
Politics
Why petrol prices are going up
Gallery
People-watching: March 28th
What's on in Sweden: March 26th - April 2nd
Stieg Larsson's partner blasts Millennium trilogy sequel
Society
How to never miss your favourite weekly features on The Local
Gallery
People-watching: March 25th
National
Which words are changing in Sweden's latest dictionary?
National
Is this house 'un-Swedish'?
National
Sweden pays tribute to victims of Germanwings Alps crash
National
Neo-Nazi activity rising in Sweden
National
How to make Swedish Waffles
Gallery
Property of the week: Torslanda - Hjuvik
National
Stray dog Arthur moves in with Swedish owners
Sponsored Article
Ten tips for succeeding as a start-up in Sweden
National
Sweden triples maximum limit at asylum centres
Gallery
People-watching: March 21st
National
Why elderly Swedes are among the world's happiest people
National
TIMELINE: Gothenburg shootings
National
Can Sweden's feminist party score success in neighbouring Norway?
National
Why Brits can't get enough of Sweden
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's solar eclipse
National
What's on in Sweden this week
Royal wedding countdown begins
National
Viking ring reveals Islamic ties
National
TIMELINE: Julian Assange sex allegations in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: March 18th
National
One in three Russian diplomats are spies, says Sweden's Security Service
National
Hitchcock opera set to hit Gothenburg stage
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Northern Lights on show across Sweden
Technology
Why Swedish pop star Robyn is pushing for more girls in tech
Gallery
Property of the week: Umeå
National
Introducing Sweden's Eurovision 2015 entry Måns Zelmerlöw
Gallery
People-watching: March 13th - 15th
National
Why have Swedish prosecutors made a U-turn in Julian Assange case?
Sponsored Article
How Sweden and India can work together
Politics
Who's the new young leader of the Christian Democrats?
Travel
Why are Swedes so obsessed with Mallorca?
Gallery
Princess Estelle celebrates her mother's name day in Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Stockholm job fair helps immigrant entrepreneurs
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

3,442
jobs available
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
psdmedia.se