Jews of Sweden: Stockholm conference puts spotlight on Sweden’s Jews
Stockholm, Sweden – Swedes recently have become used to seeing their prime minister wearing a yarmulke. During the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in late January, Prime Minister Göran Persson addressed a World Jewish Congress event and a remembrance ceremony on separate nights in the Great Synagogue of Stockholm.
Included in the massive Swedish press coverage of the international conference was a short article about the variety of kipot seen in the synagogue and on the heads of visiting religious Jews. Aftonbladet, the afternoon tabloid newspaper, noted that Persson’s kipa neatly covered his bald spot.
The Stockholm conference was big news throughout Europe, and with that notice came attention to Sweden’s Jewish community.
“In Stockholm, we have approximately 5,200 members or affiliated,” explained Lena Posner-Korosi, president of the Jewish Community of Stockholm. “There are approximately 10,000 Jews living in Stockholm, not all affiliated. All together 20,000 Jews in Sweden, so it is a small community, mainly consisting of survivors and children of survivors.”
Posner-Korosi noted that the Jews in Sweden were “very excited” about the Holocaust conference and the international “attention to Sweden and our government and on these very important issues.”
Jews- who live mainly in Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg, with smaller communities in Boros and Uppsala- are relative latecomers to Sweden.
The first Jew to live as a Jew in Sweden was Aron Isak, a seal engraver who came from Germany in 1774. According to the book “Jewish Communities of the World” (Lerner), Isak was given the chance to reside in Sweden, on the condition that he accept Christianity.
“I wouldn’t change my religion for all the gold in the world,” replied Isak, whose refusal to bend so impressed the Lord Mayor of Stockholm that he advised the Jewish artisan on how to make a legal protest to King Gustav III. Isak became Sweden’s first Jew.
The monarch, recognizing the need to boost Sweden’s developing economy, eventually lifted the ban on Jewish immigration. Jews were allowed to settle in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Norrkoping, but restrictions on areas of settlement and holding of political office remained in place for decades. It was not until 1951 that the final restriction, the right to hold ministerial office, was lifted.
The World War II era saw a mixed response from Swedish authorities regarding the plight of European Jewry. Sweden accepted only 3,000 Jews during the years 1933 to 1939; another 1,000 were allowed to use Sweden as a transit stop.
Swedish hostility to refugees moderated by 1942, when the extent of Nazi barbarism was clear. First, Sweden allowed the immigration of 900 Norwegian Jews in 1942. Then some 8,000 Danish Jews, transported in a flotilla of small fishing boats, found refuge in Sweden in October of 1943.
In recent years there has been considerable discussion in Sweden about the dimensions of the nation’s “neutrality” during the war. While the contributions of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Budapest, are celebrated, it is also known that Wallenberg’s relatives made money by converting Nazi gold into Swedish crowns. Sweden also provided iron ore and ball bearings to the Third Reich, which enabled Hitler’s war machine to prolong its assaults.
Also, a series of Swedish TV documentaries in January revealed that several hundred Swedes had actually fought with the Nazis, and, in some cases, worked as concentration camp guards.
In the post-war period, Jewish Holocaust survivors were brought to Sweden for rehabilitation. However, Swedish military authorities also arranged for some 1,200 refugees from the Baltic countries- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania- to enter Sweden, and it has been revealed that many of those immigrants were Nazi collaborators.
In 1986, the Simon Wiesenthal Center passed on the names of about a dozen suspected Baltic war criminals living in Sweden, and asked Swedish authorities to conduct an investigation. Official investigators told the Wiesenthal Center that it determined it was “unlikely” that a “meaningful examination” could be made of the suspected war criminals.
In the week before the Stockholm conference, Prime Minister Persson stood in the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, and addressed some of these issues:
“I would like to see a full analysis of both the official Swedish policy on Hitler Germany and the attitude of individual Swedes to the Holocaust,” said the premier. “Who knew what? What were relations really like between the business community, the Church, the defense forces and other public institutions and Nazi Germany? There is a long list of questions. I- and many Swedes along with me- want some answers.”
Persson also allowed that some of the “gold handled by the Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank), as a result of Sweden’s trade with Nazi Germany during the war, may have been gold that had been looted from Jews and other persecuted groups.”
The premier pledged to take another look at declassifying material related to World War II in Swedish archives.
Persson also announced in his Jan. 19 address that the Swedish government would be appointing a “committee of inquiry assigned with the task of abolishing the period of limitation for inter alia war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” The country’s statute of limitations has prevented authorities from dealing with alleged war criminals who reside in Sweden.
In his apologia in the Swedish parliament, Persson noted that the Holocaust “constituted an attempt to wipe out Jewish history, culture and Jewish communities. It is important for future understanding and tolerance in society that we assume responsibility for supporting studies and measures to uphold the culture and the cultural heritage that was threatened by total annihilation.” The premier than announced an appropriation of 40 million Swedish crowns (about $5 million) “for such measures.”
At the concluding press conference of the Stockholm forum, in response to a question from The American Jewish World, Persson explained that 40 million crowns from the Riksbank, the Swedish treasury, will go to the Swedish Jewish community to support educational and cultural programming. He expressed the hope that other donors would enlarge the fund, and emphasized that spending decisions would rest with the Jewish community.
In the press conference, Persson also stated that he would encourage closer cooperation among law enforcement agencies in Sweden to clamp down on neo-Nazi activity. He mentioned that he would see what measures could be taken to discourage proliferation of “white power” music.
In the final plenary session of the Stockholm conference, Jerzy Einhorn came to the podium. An eminent Swedish Jew, Einhorn is a Holocaust survivor, a noted cancer researcher and professor emeritus at the Karolinska Institute, and a former member of the Swedish parliament.
“We must take the growing Nazi much more seriously than we do today,” Einhorn told the conference delegates. “We must develop effective methods for fighting [Nazism]; if necessary, change our legislation, and we must do it rapidly. This conference is already a success, but it will be an even larger success if it represents a first step toward the organization of a forceful international network with wide authority to fight against international Nazism.”
Einhorn mentioned that neo-Nazi elements had already wreaked harm, intimidated public officials, and murdered some Swedes, including police officers, a labor union official and a journalist. He mentioned that he and his fellow survivors are now in their 70s and 80s, and “few of us, if any, will be left to testify” in ten years.
“We appeal to you all, for your own sake, and for the sake of your children, do not forget, you must never forget when organized Nazism gets established in your countries.”