The Holocaust: Sweden’s complex legacy

On 27th January 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz, an event commemorated around the world on Holocaust Memorial Day. David Stavrou looks at the complex legacy of the Holocaust in Sweden, where the battle to promote tolerance still rages.

Chavka Folman-Raban is a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who arrived in Sweden a few days before the end of the Second World War. Like many other survivors, she was liberated by the Red Cross and found refuge in Sweden.

“I’m not sure I can describe with absolute certainty the transition from being a prisoner in a concentration camp to being a free person”, she says.

“There was a great deal of excitement, with many events happening one after the other – it was an absolute shock.”

Folman-Raban was only 15 when she became a member of the ZOB (the Jewish Fighting Organization) in Warsaw. She risked her life many times as a courier between the Jewish ghettos in Poland, and was sent to Auschwitz after being captured by the Germans while workind for the resistance in Krakow.

“I will never forget that warm human touch”, she says when remembering the Swedish nurses who treated her when she arrived in Malmö.

In Sweden, she discovered that most of her family and many of her friends and comrades had perished in the war. Still, when she describes her first days at the refugee camp in Lund, the memories are good ones: “The Swedish residents of the city would crowd beside the gate and give us food and clothes, anything they thought might make us happy.”

Folman-Raban, who later moved to Israel, was a beneficiary of Sweden’s policy of accepting Jewish war refugees. Sweden was neutral and took in thousands of refugees from neighboring occupied countries during the war and many more after it ended. Swedish diplomats and members of the royal family also engaged in rescue attempts, humanitarian efforts and intelligence-gathering for the allies.

But Sweden’s role in the Second World War had its darker side. It continued exporting vital iron ore to the German armaments industry and allowed the Germans to transit troops, supplies and communications through the country.

Unlike Denmark, its southern occupied neighbor, which won the “Righteous Amongst Nations” award for saving nearly all its Jews, official Sweden played the role of a “bystander amongst nations”, turning a blind eye to what was happening in Europe and looking after its own interests.

An exhibition on Sweden and the Holocaust, opening in Lund, not far from where Chavka Folman-Raban enjoyed her first weeks of freedom, aims to shed light on this darker side of Sweden’s relationship to Nazism. The exhibition, accompanied by seminars and publication of new research, shows how Swedish industry benefited from the war and how Swedish scientific institutions were leaders in the fields of race biology and eugenic research.

The exhibition also shows how Nazi ideals found Swedish sympathizers and how Sweden limited freedom of speech, and introduced immigration laws which turned away asylum seekers from Germany, many of whom were later murdered in concentration camps.

The Lund project is one of a number to tackle the question of Sweden’s relationship with racial ideologies. Another recent exhibition, in Dalarna, deals with Sweden being the first country in the world to establish a National Institute for Race Biology in the twenties.

The exhibition renewed the debate on local racism, anti-Semitism and historical programmes of forced sterilization and race strengthening. Other recent studies show how during the Second World War, pro-Nazi Swedes took part in German propaganda broadcasts and how Swedish priests and courts applied Nazi race rules to marriages between Swedes and Germans.

Today, the Holocaust leaves a complex legacy in Sweden. On the one hand, the country is a leader in Holocaust education and the struggle against racism and intolerance. On the other hand, Sweden has seen continued clashes between neo-Nazis and left wing activists, and demonstrations against Israeli policy have turned anti-Semitic.

Leading the campaign for Holocaust education is the Forum for Living History, a government agency commissioned to promote democracy and human rights, with the Holocaust as its point of reference.

“We are forced to reflect on issues such as justice, humanity and personal responsibility but we avoid taking a political stand,” says The Forum for Living History’s Johan Perwe.

“We focus on spreading knowledge about the darkest sides of human history, and want to influence the future”.

Reports and studies published by the Forum deal with various forms of modern intolerance amongst young Swedes, including Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism and homophobia.

As in many other societies, such intolerance frequently breaks to the surface: violence and arrests have become an annual occurrence in clashes between Neo-Nazis and left wing activists in Salem near Stockholm.

The last couple of years have also seen other right wing extremists growing stronger and marching in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Linköping. A placard at an anti-Israel demonstration in Malmö last summer equated the swastika with the Star of David, firing a debate on whether the bearer should face criminal charges. And in January, a college teacher from Stockholm resigned after participating in the Holocaust denial conference in Iran.

More broadly, reports show that hate crimes against minorities – mainly gay people and immigrants – have risen during the last few years.

Some may say these are isolated events from the fringes of Swedish society. But Sweden’s most popular far-right political party, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), seems to be coming closer to the mainstream.

The Sweden Democrats have their roots in racist movements from the eighties; in last September’s general election the party gained 2.93 percent of the national vote, a figure that rose to 22 percent in the southern town of Landskrona.

The party denies being racist, but many are sceptical to these claims. The 2003 party manifesto proclaimed: “The critical ingredient of a safe, harmonic, solid and supportive society is the common identity, which in turn requires a high degree of ethnic and cultural uniformity amongst the people. From this, it follows that the nationalist principle of one state, one nation, is absolutely fundamental.”

Yet while the Sweden Democrats’ rhetoric and racism of extremist demonstrators may bring uncomfortable echoes of the wartime past, there is one crucial difference: mainstream Swedish society today goes out of its way not to be indifferent.

When he announced Sweden’s official Remembrance Day in 2000, former Prime Minister Göran Persson declared: “Our quest must be to increase our efforts to pass on the legacy of our past to future generations. We must be able to say to our children: There is always a choice. Not to choose is also a choice.”

Indeed, the empahsis of Holocaust Remembrance Day is not only on remembering the past; it’s about the future too. The lessons of Humanism, Democracy and Equality are vital ones for Sweden – and they are words that permeate debate in the country.

“We continue living, we go forward, while inside our heart there is a wound”, wrote the young Auschwitz survivor Chavka Folman Raban in a letter she sent from Sweden, just after the war, “But at the same time this wound commands us to continue the eternal struggle for a better and more beautiful life”.

David Stavrou