The Swedish Jews and the Holocaust
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The Swedish Jews and the Holocaust

Pontus Rudberg

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eBook - ePub

The Swedish Jews and the Holocaust

Pontus Rudberg

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About This Book

"We will be judged in our own time and in the future by measuring the aid that we, inhabitants of a free and fortunate country, gave to our brethren in this time of greatest disaster." This declaration, made shortly after the pogroms of November 1938 by the Jewish communities in Sweden, was truer than anyone could have forecast at the time. Pontus Rudberg focuses on this sensitive issue – Jewish responses to the Nazi persecutions and mass murder of Jews. What actions did Swedish Jews take to aid the Jews in Europe during the years 1933–45 and what determined their policies and actions?

Specific attention is given to the aid efforts of the Jewish Community of Stockholm, including the range of activities in which the community engaged and the challenges and opportunities presented by official refugee policy in Sweden.

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1 The first phase

This chapter examines the Swedish Jewish responses to the plight of the Jews in Europe from the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 until the November 1938 pogroms. The unrest in Germany in March 1933, with violent attacks on Jews in the streets and raids on apartments, was followed by a boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April and several anti-Jewish laws that aimed to exclude Jews from public life. The violent anti-Semitic waves during the spring of 1933 were followed by a relative calm. However, in 1935 another anti-Semitic wave was launched with a policy of segregation and expulsion, the Nuremberg laws and their repercussions. During the period, there was a slow increase in the number of refugees coming to Sweden: 154 refugees arrived in 1933; another 101 came in 1934, 161 in 1935 and another 167 in 1936. In 1937 the number rose to 316 and in 1938 another 531 refugees – a consequence of the worsening conditions in Germany – were admitted into the country before November.1 These figures include non-Jewish refugees, but not children under the age of 16 who had come to Sweden with their parents.2 Neither do the statistics include foreigners who were not accepted as refugees by the Swedish authorities nor those who stayed for a short time without registering with the authorities before emigrating further. So-called illegal immigrants are also absent from the statistics. However, there were not many illegal immigrants at the time.3 According to an estimation made by one of the MFST’s officials, the actual number of refugees (both Jewish and political) in Sweden in November 1938 was between 2,700 and 3,200.4
To what extent did the policies and actions of the Swedish Jews influence these figures? Before we deal with that question we will have to look at two other crucial questions. As Giddens points out, the possibility to not just reproduce the same pattern of action but to initiate action depends either on the discursive consciousness or on the pattern being interrupted by actions external to the social system. Thus, in the two following sections we will first look at what the MFST and the Swedish Jews knew of the situation for German Jews, and how foreign Jewish organizations and individuals influenced the MFST’s responses.

What did they know?

One was upset, of course, but there is a huge difference between when you see it from a historical perspective, and when you see it as it happens. This whole development was so strange from a modern liberal point of view, you know, and you just would not believe all the information that was at hand, about how they were advancing in Germany. But of course, you were upset and afraid.5
This is Grünberger’s recollection of his reactions to the Nazis coming to power in 1933, when interviewed 46 years later. Grünberger points explicitly to the fact that although he saw what had just happened in 1933, he could hardly believe it.
As Grünberger indicates, the MFST was well informed from the start. Not least through its close connections with Jewish organizations in Germany. Grünberger also mentions that the MFST had contacts with the religious leadership in Berlin. According to Grünberger, Ehrenpreis and the foremost German Jewish leader, Rabbi Leo Baeck, had met several times in both Sweden and Germany.6 There are, however, no other sources confirming Grünberger’s claim that the two rabbis met personally several times after Hitler’s rise to power. It is unlikely that they would have met in Sweden since such a meeting would hardly have gone unnoticed in the Jewish press. Be that as it may, there is no shortage of evidence that the Jewish leadership in Stockholm corresponded frequently with their German counterparts, including Baeck. Furthermore, a number of notable German Jewish representatives did visit Stockholm between 1933 and the outbreak of war. Additionally, information came from the first refugees who started arriving soon after the first anti-Jewish measures were taken in spring 1933.
The Swedish Jews like many others initially believed that Nazi rule was a passing phenomenon and that German civilization would soon come to its senses. Ehrenpreis believed that the Nazi reign could not last long since he thought the German economy would break down without Jewish contributions. Likewise, the former senior official in the German Ministry of Finance, Hans Schäffer, who was exiled in Sweden, stated that Hitler’s so-called Third Reich would be a short passing episode. Another prominent Swedish Jew, Tor Bonnier, dismissed Nazism as mere ripples on the surface of the great German culture.7 But by January 1935, in an appeal for donations to the Relief Committee, it was declared that the situation no longer could be viewed as accidental but rather as a chronic state.8 As will be discussed in more detail, the MFST and its committees in their appeals gave brief accounts of the general situation for Jews in Germany and later also in the territories controlled by Germany. Furthermore, the two major Swedish Jewish periodicals Judisk Krönika and Judisk Tidskrift both published continuously about anti-Jewish developments from early 1933 and throughout the entire period of Nazi terror. Judisk Tidskrift published long and detailed articles about the deteriorating situation for Jews in Germany and other European countries, as well as articles on anti-Semitism and news about the refugee question. They also published key documents and reports from the Swedish and international press. The gradually worsening conditions were also reported in the mainstream Swedish press, which reported extensively on the first anti-Jewish measures in 1933, the Nuremberg laws in 1935, and the pogroms of November 1938, although some Swedish newspapers showed their indifference towards the atrocities.9
Shortly after the Anschluss of Austria, Judisk Tidskrift published Göring’s speech in Vienna on 12 March 1938 under the headline “Death sentence over the Jews of Vienna”, in which Göring “guaranteed” that all Jews would be gone from the city within four years.10 The MFST sent Grünberger to Vienna to discuss the situation with the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IK), the Jewish community there. He was there for little more than a day, only a few days after the Germans marched in. He remembered feeling completely helpless after meeting “desperate people with all kinds of possible and impossible proposals”. He also remembered that on his way to the IK’s office, German SS-men were lined up outside on the street. In the meeting, which took all day, they discussed what actions and what escape routes might be possible. Afterwards, when Grünberger set out to get something to eat, he experienced the Nazis’ humiliating practices first hand. After having strolled for some time he entered what he thought was a half-decent restaurant without noticing the sign on the door that read “Juden und Hunde sind verboten”.
I wasn’t the least bit afraid because I had my Swedish passport, and I was holding on to the illusion that if you had a Swedish passport, nothing could happen. And then this bloody bastard showed up and said something. I don’t remember what, but I remember that I answered “vad?” [Swedish: what?] because I had forgotten where I was, more or less. “Sind der Herr Jude?” he asked, and then I stood up and walked out, of course, a moment later. I remember that very well.11
The MFST also subscribed to the bulletin of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), an international agency that served the Jewish communities with news and information. In January 1937, the JTA’s representative, Jacob Landau, toured Scandinavia, visiting the Jewish Communities of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Copenhagen. In Stockholm, he met with the MFST executives who promised him to make an effort to enrol subscribers to the JTA service. In December 1934, the MFST also decided to support the Jewish Central Information Office, an organization set up by German Jewish refugee Alfred Wiener in Amsterdam to record the spread of Nazi propaganda and anti-Jewish actions, with 2,500 SEK. The MFST also kept an eye on anti-Semitic campaigns in the German press.12
All in all, it is safe to say that the Swedish Jews were well informed of the development of anti-Jewish legislation and other measures, and of the situation for Jews in general, and also of the type of anti-Semitism the German Jews were faced with in the 1930s. There was also first-hand information as the Swedish Jewish volunteers met the newly arrived refugees on a daily basis and the leadership attended international conferences and met with German Jewish representatives.
The historian Sven Nordlund has argued that the horrible things that happened to Jews in Germany were generally perceived as something that happened in Germany, not in Sweden.13 In general people tend to establish a personal relationship to what is going on first when the terror strikes someone they know, can see, or identify with.14 Nordlund also claims that “the numbness of the Swedish Jews was let go and their eyes opened” first in 1942 when the Norwegian Jews were deported to their deaths.15
However, by that time German Jews who had personal experience of the Nazi persecution, assaults, violence, and whose relatives in many cases were still caught in the Nazi death trap had been arriving in Sweden for nearly a decade. Several of the MFST’s refugee aid-workers were, as mentioned, German Jewish refugees who tried desperately to bring their families to safety in Sweden.16 For every two Swedish Jews there was approximately one Jewish refugee in Sweden by the end of 1939. German Jews gave lectures in the Swedish Jewish cultural clubs and German refugee musicians played at their events. Thus, there were plenty of occasions for interaction between the refugees and the Swedish Jews.17 There are also hundreds, if not thousands, of personal letters in the MFST’s archive, many with pictures, asking for help.18 If Swedish Jews were “numb” to the plight of German Jews it had very little to do with a lack of information. The MFST was not only well apprised of the situation for Jews in Germany, but also of the position of Jews in other countries. There was widespread knowledge of the worsening situation for Jews in Poland as first-hand accounts were available. In response, the Relief Committee in 1934 decided that part of its aid activities would be directed to Eastern Europe. In 1938 Marcus Ehrenpreis published a long, detailed article about the deteriorating situation for Jews in Romania.19
Thus, Swedish Jews in general, and the community workers in particular, were well informed of the persecution in the 1930s. However, there was no way they could know that the policy of discrimination and forced migration would turn into the mass murder of millions of European Jews. Not even the perpetrators knew that.

Foreign impulses and influences

Traditionally, it has been more or less an obligation, partly based on a religious duty, for Jewish communities in Europe to help travelling Jews to get to the next Jewish community. However, it was not until the late 19th century that this form of philanthropic work was organized. The Franco-Jewish organization Alliance Universelle Israélite was founded in 1860 to defend Jewish rights, although education was its main task until the end of the century. The Alliance has been described as “the very incarnation of the reforming impulse of Western Jewry”, and since the 1880s had handed out poor relief and sponsored the transatlantic migration of Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe. By the 1890s other Jewish organizations in Germany, Austria, Britain, Belgium, and Holland were active in the same field. In Sweden, the Jewish communities carried out similar work. Frequently this was conducted in cooperation with organizations in other countries.20
In the 1930s there were two major, partly overlapping, transnational networks of Jewish organizations. One was liberal and included Centralverein Deutscher Staatsbürger Jüdischen Glaubens, (Central Union of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, henceforth CV), the Board of Deputies and Jewish Refugees Committee (JRC) and other organizations in Great Britain, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the American JDC, and several other organizations in Europe and the United States. The other large international network was connected to the Zionist Organization (ZO), the Jewish Agency, and from 1936 the World Jewish Congress (WJC). In Germany, the umbrella organization RVt and its affiliated German organizations tried to bridge the political and religious differences among German Jews.

The MFST and the German Jewish organizations

The MFST Relief Committee was created in April 1933. In one of its first reports on its activities, in October 1933, it was stated that the use of the lion’s share of the funds, 60,000 SEK, had been decided in consultation with the German Jewish aid organization Zentralausschuss für Hilfe und Aufbau der deutschen Juden (ZA).21 It is therefore surprising that previous research has not acknowledged the importance of the influence of German Jewish organizations’ influence on the MFST. However, Hansson does refer to the previously mentioned interview where Grünberger claimed that Rabbi Ehrenpreis had met and conferred with Leo Baeck on several occasions in the 1930s. According to Grünberger, Baeck and Ehrenpreis had discussed how to react to Hitler’s politics against the Jews and had agreed that organized emigration from Germany to Sweden was not right at the time. According to Grünberger, they had thought that it would harm the position of the remaining German Jews and further aggravate their situation.22 As mentioned, in his youth Ehrenpreis had studied with Baeck at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. Although Baeck may not actually have met with Ehrenpreis in Stockholm, the two consulted with one another and corresponded by mail.23
It is obvious that the policy of the German Jewish organizations influenced the Swedish Jewish response to the plight of their German brethren. So, what was the policy of the German Jewish Organizations? And how and to what degree did their policy influence the MFST’s work?
The ZA founders Ludwig Tietz and Max Warburg were themselves non-political and saw themselves as the natural bridge between liberal and Zionist groups in Germany. While Tietz established connections with Anglo-Jewry through Chaim Weizmann in London, Warburg’s brother was the leader of the JDC in America. The ZA was staffed by a number of skilled social workers and administrators and was chaired by Rabbi Leo Baeck. Tietz himself was appointed the first Executive Secretary and led the ZA’s work together with a group of Zionists and a few members of the CV, including banker Werner Senator a...

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