• Sweden's news in English
 
jobs_header_v3

Stalingrad, the Nazis and Sweden: An Xmas story

The Local · 29 Dec 2013, 11:25

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

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

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)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit


Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Swedish Lucia advert sparks love and hate online
Photo: Janerik Henriksson / TT

An advert for Sweden's Åhléns has unleashed a heated online debate after the department store chain unveiled a new campaign featuring a dark-skinned child, whose gender wasn't obvious to all, dressed as a Lucia.

IKEA founder Kamprad suffers broken hip
Photo: Thord Nilsson / TT file picture

Ninety-year-old IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad has suffered from a broken hip, which temporarily resulted in him being hospitalised, but is now in good recovery, his assistant said on Sunday. He may have to skip the traditional IKEA Christmas celebrations in his native Älmhult though.

What are Swedish values? Many Swedes are unsure
Photo: Erik Johansen / TT

Although perhaps one of the hottest potatoes in the Swedish political debate right now, many Swedes still find it hard to pinpoint exactly what Swedish values are, a new study shows.

Swedes protest cutbacks in personal assistance budget
Demonstrations were held in 25 towns and cities across Sweden on Saturday. Photo: Janerik Hansson / TT

Thousands of people staged demonstrations across Sweden on Saturday to protest recent cutbacks in the budget funding personal assistance for people with disabilities.

Police launch manhunt after deadly Stockholm shooting
No suspects have yet been arrested over the attack. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Swedish police have launched a massive manhunt after masked gunmen barged into a Stockholm café and shot two people to death late on Friday.

Sweden has fourth happiest workers in the world: report
Is Swedish fika the secret? Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Sweden is home to the fourth happiest workers in the world, an international survey has claimed.

Here's how much Ikea staff are getting for Christmas
Christmas comes early for Ikea staff. Photo: Vegard Wivestad Grøtt/NTB scanpix/TT

Staff at Ikea are getting an early Christmas treat in the form of millions of euros to share between them.

Sweden threatens action to stop Facebook 'hate and lies'
Should Facebook crack down on hate speech? Photo: AP Photo/dapd, Timur Emek

Sweden could impose legal obligations on Facebook as a last resort if the social network does not crack down on hate speech and fake news, the culture and democracy minister has threatened.

In pictures
This is what Sweden's new Icehotel looks like
An artist's impression of the hotel in winter. Photo: PinPin Studio/Icehotel

The famous Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi has just opened its new year-round section. Have a look at some of the first pictures of one of the world's most unusual hotels here.

The Local List
Sweden's pioneering free press act turns 250
It doesn't look bad for 250 years old. Photo: Regeringen

On the day of its 250th anniversary, The Local looks at five facts worth knowing about Sweden's groundbreaking Freedom of the Press Act.

Sponsored Article
Smart songwriters: Sweden's next big music export?
National
Final proof that Sweden has NOT banned Christmas lights
Sponsored Article
Why Stockholm attracts so much talent from abroad
Travel
IN PICTURES: Stockholm's new myth-busting Viking museum
The Local Voices
Job market matchmaker hooks up 1,300 newcomers and Swedes
Blog updates

14 November

Hello darkness, my old friend (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"I started thinking about November’s blog for The Local at the end of October, as the…" READ »

 

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »

 
 
 
Sponsored Article
18 Stockholm innovations to keep an eye on
Gallery
People-watching: November 30th
Sponsored Article
Sweden to Hong Kong: The Local guide
National
This is how cold it's going to get in Sweden this week
Gallery
Property of the week: Skellefteå
National
Inside Sweden's perilous Sami reindeer pilgrimage
Sponsored Article
Programmers' bootcamp: Change your life in 12 weeks
The Local Voices
'My name is Sami and I am a proud Swede - it hurts when people say I'm not Swedish'
Sponsored Article
We visited 5 'murder spots' in Malmö
National
Swedish Advent 'less popular than Christmas Eve'
Gallery
People-watching: November 25th-27th
Sponsored Article
Why Stockholm startups are teaching kids to program
Swedish city to put all workers through LGBT course
Sponsored Article
Smart songwriters: Sweden's next big music export?
National
The five weirdest attacks on Sweden's giant straw yule goat
Gallery
People-watching: November 23rd
Sponsored Article
'Learning to trade gave me the life I wanted'
The Local Voices
'Swedes are stylish: you need to dress well if you want to fit in'
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: leading the way in clean energy innovation
National
Critics slam Swedish paper's Donald Trump cartoon as anti-Semitic
Sponsored Article
Michael Björklund: 'Being a chef is crazy work'
National
Men call Sweden's mansplaining hotline for mansplaining tips
Sponsored Article
We visited 5 'murder spots' in Malmö
Gallery
Property of the week: Gotland
Sponsored Article
HIV in Sweden today is not like it was yesterday
Gallery
People-watching: November 18th-20th
Sponsored Article
Mette Helbæk: ‘We have a basic human need to connect'
Culture
Shooting starts on The Bridge 4
Sponsored Article
Terje Håkonsen: 'I try to make everything count'
Travel
Sweden's ten most beautiful places
Sponsored Article
Lina Thomsgård: 'I try to break down barriers every day'
The Local Voices
Having a Swedish girlfriend didn't help this Egyptian evade culture shock
Sponsored Article
'We wanted to turn ideas into action'
Gallery
People-watching: November 16th
Culture
What the world of Harry Potter would look like... set in Sweden
National
Here's where Sweden's best non-native English speakers live
The Local Voices
This new book by a Syrian writer gives refugee children their own hero
Politics
Do Swedish polls underestimate support for Sweden Democrats?
3,496
jobs available