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How Stockholm is restoring dignity to the neglected graves of 100 Holocaust victims

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How Stockholm is restoring dignity to the neglected graves of 100 Holocaust victims
The gravestones have sunk to 15 cm below ground level, and are often covered with lichen and moss during the warmer months. Photo: Roman Wroblewski.
07:59 CET+01:00
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, here's the story of 100 Holocaust victims buried in Stockholm, and how, after more than 70 years of neglect, they may finally be recognized and honored.

In Stockholm's Northern Cemetery (Norra begravningsplatsen) is the large and well-maintained tomb of Count Folke Bernadotte, a member of the Swedish royal family whose role in negotiating the release and transport of some 21,000 prisoners of Nazi concentration camps to Sweden is well-documented.

In the Jewish area of the cemetery not far away, lie the derelict and all-but-forgotten graves of 100 victims of the Holocaust. These were mostly very young women, who died not long after arriving in Sweden for medical treatment in 1945. Though their histories have as much or more value as Bernadotte's, as well as the power to educate the public about the Holocaust and other genocides, both the victims and their graves have been overlooked for more than 70 years.

This stark contrast and the manifestations of neglect that underline can help us comprehend how people around the world have become so under- and misinformed about the facts and realities of the Holocaust – the genocide that claimed the lives of some six million European Jews – and the murder of millions of other individuals at the hands of the Nazis.

Histories that focus on the rescuers, heroes, and notable survivors of the Holocaust serve a valuable function, but they may also shift the emphasis away from the lives and experiences of the victims, which can communicate a great deal about the magnitude and brutality of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.


The Northern Jewish Cemetery in Stockholm. Quarter J, where the Holocaust victims who died in Stockholm are buried. Photo: Roman Wroblewski. 

When the United Nations designated January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, in 2005, it acknowledged that more needed to be done to document and record this aspect of history.

Unrecognized and virtually unknown, the graves of the Holocaust victims in the Northern Cemetery have been a missed opportunity to, in the words of Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, "educat[e] about the causes, consequences and dynamics of such crimes so as to strengthen the resilience of young people against ideologies of hatred."

So it is timely and appropriate that a proposal was recently presented to the City of Stockholm to revitalize the site of these graves. Developed by Roman Wroblewski, a second-generation Holocaust survivor from Stockholm, the proposal outlines a plan for the restoration of both the identities and the graves of the Holocaust victims in the Northern Cemetery, as well as the installation of a monument with an educational component. If all goes according to plan, the site of the graves will be transformed by International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020.

Wroblewski is driven by his vision of the city as a place where it can never be forgotten that all people are equally worthy. This was as much on his mind when he conceived the idea for the Stockholm Holocaust memorial in 1993, as it is now.

"There is good reason to illuminate human distress, injustice, and vulnerable groups, and that is to increase understanding and give passers-by and visitors the opportunity to reflect on historical events," Wroblewski said.


A model of the proposed “1945 Monument” at Quarter J in the Northern Cemetery. The concept was developed by artist Justyna Bamba and Roman Wasserman Wroblewski. Photo: Roman Wroblewski.

At the moment, this is impossible at the Northern Cemetery. Anyone walking past the graves would probably never even know they were there, much less the stories they stood for. Most of the gravestones that lie flat against the earth have been rendered invisible: over time, they have sunk below ground level and been covered by moss and lichen. Other than small, numbered markers that rise just above ground level, and a stone marker standing off to one side, there is little to indicate that the area is more than a barren patch of land.

In the process of uncovering some of the gravestones, Wroblewski and other volunteers have discovered that many have been badly damaged by decades of neglect and weather.

Beyond what can still be read on the gravestones once they've been uncovered, there is no information – and certainly no QR codes, as there are in other parts of the cemetery – to explain who these individuals were and how and why they died far from home in Sweden.

Wroblewski has already dedicated hundreds of hours of work, both at the site and in archives, to begin to uncover the long-neglected history. A great deal more work is necessary, but his early findings are both compelling and tragic, and add new facets to Stockholm's history.

All of the victims buried at the site share several similarities, starting with the fact that most of them had been transferred from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Northern Germany, where they were eventually liberated on April 15th, 1945.

Though they managed to survive to liberation, they were seriously ill when they boarded the S/S Kastelholm, one of the Swedish Red Cross' "White Ships" that transported survivors from Germany to Sweden, in the summer of 1945. In two crossings, the ship carried 400 survivors from Lübeck, Germany, to Stockholm's Frihamnen port, including all of those buried in the Northern Cemetery.


In June and July 1945, the S/S Kastelholm was one of the “White Ships” which transported survivors of the Holocaust to Stockholm. Photo: Public domain

From there, Wroblewski explains: "All were transported from Frihamnen to Ropsten sanitary facility [where a Tunnelbana station now stands], and from there to the Epidemic Hospital at Roslagstull [present-day Roslagstull Hospital] in Stockholm or the field hospital (beredskapssjukhuset) located in school buildings in Sigtuna. In those places, they died as early as the summer of 1945, sometimes only days or weeks after arrival."

These commonalities are significant, as is the fact that so many of the victims buried in the Northern Cemetery were young women. As Wroblewski points out, "There are several victims not unlike Anne Frank buried in the Northern Cemetery."

Like the victims buried in Stockholm, Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager whose diary written while hiding from the Nazis became world-famous, was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen. When the camp was liberated, the bodies of Anne and her sister Margot were among thousands of unburied corpses. Had she lived, Anne could easily have been among the survivors brought to Sweden, and even one of those buried in the Northern Cemetery.

It's thanks to her diary that Anne's fate has not moldered in obscurity like that of Frimetta Einhorn, whose grave is among those in the Northern Cemetery. Frimetta and Anne shared very similar experiences and fates. Both were slave laborers at Auschwitz before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where a typhus epidemic broke out in early 1945. While 15-year-old Anne, weak from hard labor and malnutrition, likely died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in February, 16-year-old Frimetta lasted only a few months longer, dying of complications from malnutrition and typhus in Sweden that July.


Two gravestones that were below the ground surface at the Northern Cemetery, which have been cleaned and by Wroblewski and other volunteers, including that of 16-year-old Frimetta Einhorn (whose name was misspelled at some point in Sweden) from Poland. Photo: Roman Wroblewski

READ ALSO: The forgotten Nazi concentration camp survivors in the forests of Småland

If little more than the presence of primary sources separates the legacy of the two teenagers, then it stands to reason that there is much to be gained by seeking out information about Frimetta and the other Holocaust victims buried in the Northern Cemetery.

Their stories of surviving Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and slave labor, only to die not long after arriving to Sweden, have tremendous potential to teach and inspire. What their lives were like in countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania before the Nazi terror, and what they might have become had they never been subjected to it in the first place, can serve the vital function, articulated by the United Nations, as "a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice."

Much more research is required to put together these pieces. What is eventually uncovered will be curated, digitized, and made available to the public via QR barcodes located at the site with the support of the Stockholm City Museum. The QR codes – including one for each person buried at the site – would provide immediate access to several layers of linked digital content, including both text and audio guides, images, maps, and a host of other materials.


All the victims buried in the Northern Cemetery came to Stockholm from Bergen-Belsen, and were transported from Lübeck, Germany, to the port of Frihamnen in Stockholm, on the Red Cross vessel S/S Kastelholm. Photo: Public domain

The QR codes would also be an integral part of the monument proposed by Wroblewski, which has been conceptualized by artist and stone conservator Justyna Bamba. The dominant feature of the design consists of six stones of light gray granite that symbolize both the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, as well as the six extermination camps – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Sobibór and Bełżec. Each stone would be engraved with the name of one of the extermination camps.

Projected to be 60 centimetres tall and exactly the width and length of the existing black granite gravestones, the monument stones would occupy six empty spaces randomly and inexplicably distributed among the graves. The existing gravestones, which have sunk several centimeters below ground level over time, would be excavated, cleaned, and re-erected above the ground surface at a 15-degree angle to prevent further damage from standing water.

The intended result is not only a site that cannot be missed by visitors and passers-by, but also one that provides myriad opportunities for commemoration, education and reflection. Perhaps most importantly, it will offer a place to listen, figuratively-speaking, to the voices of those who can no longer speak, but who have much to tell us about ourselves and the world in which we live.

READ ALSO: The unexpected things cemeteries can teach you about Sweden and its history

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

 
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