• Sweden edition
 
Stalingrad, the Nazis and Sweden: An Xmas story
The Christmas card sent out by Hugo Gehlin in 1943 featuring the swastika. Photo: Nick Walker

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
Row over line-up at Sweden's biggest festival
Robbie Williams will headline Sweden's biggest music festival in 2015. Photo: TT

Row over line-up at Sweden's biggest festival

This week Robbie Williams was announced as the headline act at Bråvalla - one of the largest music events in Scandinavia. But the British star has proved a controversial choice for the three day festival in southern Sweden's Norrköpping, which takes place in June 2015. READ  

Swedish shoppers embrace 'Black Friday'
The Swedish Trade Federation said that three times as many companies in Sweden were staging Black Friday deals in 2014 compared to last year. Photo: AP/The Canadian Press/Justin Tang

Swedish shoppers embrace 'Black Friday'

More companies in Sweden are rolling out the imported American shopping phenomenon known as 'Black Friday' by slashing prices for post-Thanksgiving purchases. READ  

Skanska quits South America over corruption
File Photo: Gorm Kallestad/TT

Skanska quits South America over corruption

Swedish engineering giant Skanska has decided to pull out of the South American market after being dragged into a corruption scandal involving the Brazilian oil major Petrobras. READ  

Jobs and immigration cost Moderates election
Former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt exits the stage after the 2014 election loss. Photo: TT

Jobs and immigration cost Moderates election

Sweden's Moderate Party slumped at the polls on election day as it lost the jobs, welfare and immigration debate, according to the party's post election analysis. READ  

Swedes cook up win at culinary world cup
Chefs at work:Shutterstock

Swedes cook up win at culinary world cup

Sweden claimed two gold and two silver medals at the culinary world cup in Luxembourg this week, which features over 100 teams from around the world competing for gastronomic greatness. READ  

The Local Recipes
How to make Swedish potato and fish gratin
Traditional Swedish potato and fish casserole. Photo: Magnus Lundquist/Flickr

How to make Swedish potato and fish gratin

Feeling the need for some comfort food during the cold weather? The dish Swedes call Janssons frestelse is popular during the winter and is often found on the Christmas smorgasbord. Food writer John Duxbury shares his recipe with The Local... READ  

More rats creep into Sweden's cities
Rats like these are common in Stockholm. Photo: TT

More rats creep into Sweden's cities

Sweden is experiencing a rapid increase in its rat population according to the country's biggest pest control company, which says that the growing trend for outdoor food stalls is partly to blame. READ  

What's On in Sweden
What's On: November 27th - December 4th
A Christmas market in Skåne. Photo: Visit Skåne

What's On: November 27th - December 4th

Northern Sweden's Umeå is fighting the encroaching darkness with a bright pop festival, horses are trotting into town in Stockholm, Gothenburg is celebrating French culture and winter markets are popping up everywhere this week. READ  

'Tinder for jobs' app in discrimination row
Selfiejobs has launched in Stockholm. Photo: Selfiejobs

'Tinder for jobs' app in discrimination row

A smartphone app designed to match young job seekers with potential employers has gained more than ten thousand likes since it launched in Stockholm a week ago. The company is already planning to target other capitals, despite criticism that it promotes discrimination. READ  

'Wild west' taxi drivers face tough new rules
Taxis at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport. Photo: Claudio Brescani/TT

'Wild west' taxi drivers face tough new rules

Stockholm taxis have a reputation for being among the most expensive in the world, but new regulations designed to make costs more transparent have been agreed on by Stockholm's Traffic Committee. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Lifestyle
Five magical Swedish winter markets
Sponsored Article
SIS: the thinking behind globalised learning
Lifestyle
Top ten Swedish Christmas presents
Lifestyle
VIDEO: How to stay stylish in Sweden in November
Imagebank Sweden
Society
Decorating your home for Swedish Christmas
Blog updates

25 November

Sexual Violence: It’s Still Time To Act (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"In 2013, a World Health Organisation report found that 35% of all women in the world..." READ »

 

26 November

Is Putin trying to buy up Europe’s nationalists? (Globally Local) »

" Photo: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP Political funding is a murky business at the best of times. If a party..." READ »

 
 
 
Gallery
People-watching: November 26th
Sponsored Article
How to get your own office anywhere in the world
National
'I'm a Swedish 'expat' in my home country'
Sponsored Article
Introducing... Family life in Stockholm
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's 2015 Eurovision hopefuls
Gallery
Property of the week: Rosengården
National
'Racist' Black Pete party scrapped in Sweden
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's Christmas gifts through the years
Lifestyle
'I'm spreading Japan's 'cute' culture in Sweden'
National
Ebola: Sweden's leading expert speaks
National
Why this Swedish rabbi is facing death threats
National
Fears up to 300 Swedes fighting with Isis
Lifestyle
How to make Swedish mulled wine
Gallery
People-watching: November 22nd - 23rd
Society
What's on in Sweden: November 20th to 27th
National
How to boost your career in Skåne, Sweden's south
Lifestyle
How an Umeå museum is rewriting Swedish history
National
Timeline: Julian Assange sex allegations
Lifestyle
Five unique backpacker hostels in Stockholm
National
Bones show off Sweden's history
National
What new word are Swedes voting on?
National
Why African Swedes are angry about Santa's helper
National
Pine, tar, and tinder: flavours from the north
Gallery
Selfies, solidarity and Hillary Clinton: Stefan Löfven on tour
Gallery
People-watching: November 19th
Society
Why are international professionals leaving Sweden?
Business & Money
Meet the Swedes who made suits for The Hunger Games
Technology
'I'm among the first Swedes with a microchip'
National
What is Sweden doing about bird flu?
Gallery
Property of the week: Eriksberg
National
Vecka45: Sweden's most innovative week
Gallery
In Pictures: The clubs and loves of Sweden's Sven-Göran Eriksson
Society
What's On in Sweden: November 13th to 20th
Gallery
People-watching: November 16th
National
Driving (expats) home for Christmas?
Lifestyle
Make your own Swedish pea soup
Politics
"Totally unacceptable": Defence Minister on Stockholm submarine
Society
The A-Ö guide to making life in Sweden easier
National
How a Swedish party inspired a masterpiece
National
Seen the new Ace of Base yet?
Sponsored Article
The best options for oversea transfers
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

837
jobs available
Swedish Down Town
Consulting & Productions

We are an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish authorities, Swedish language practice, and general communications.
Call 0731 004 781 or visit:
swedishdowntown.com
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
If you want to drink, that’s your business. If you want to stop, we can help.
Learn more about English-language Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden. No dues. No fees. Confidentiality assured.
aa-europe.org/sweden
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply
Counselling and Psychotherapy in English
Sometimes living in another culture can cause stress, confusion and feelings of sadness and loneliness. Talking to a professional psychotherapist/counsellor might help you. I am a UKCP Reg. psychotherapist. My practice is in Södermalm, Stockholm.
Contact me to discuss your options