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Imagining Jewish Culture in the Land of the Vikings
This volume may seem to be the least likely one to appear in the series called Jewish Writing in the Contemporary World. The land of the Vikings is hardly the first place one imagines when thinking about the Jewish Diaspora. In fact as far as Europe is concerned, it may well be the last, a relatively large area on the map where most observers would be surprised to find any national literature with a strong Jewish component. There can scarcely be a significant European cultural space that seems farther removed from the Jewish world of Isaac Singer, Primo Levi, and Edgar Hilsenrath than the Sweden of Astrid Lindgren, Tomas Tranströmer, and Ingmar Bergman—unless of course it is the Norway of Knut Hamsun and Jon Fosse, the Denmark of Peter Hoeg and Benny Andersen, the Finland of the brothers Kaurismaki, or most remotely the Iceland of Halldor Laxness and Einar Már Gudmundsson. The very names of these authors suggest an ethnic single-mindedness that leaves little breathing space for any potential northern wanderers of the Diaspora. The World Jewish Congress does not even include Iceland on its list of places with Jewish populations exceeding ten people, and it seems safe to predict that there will not be an Icelandic volume in this series.(1)
Another complication in considering the possibility of a Northern European anthology of Jewish literature is that there are relatively few people living in Scandinavia. With the exception of compact Denmark, these are countries with large areas of cold tundra, boreal forest, and mountains that cannot support the numbers of people living in continental Europe, and the overall population thus remains limited. Sweden, with almost nine million people, has almost half again as many inhabitants as Finland or Denmark and twice as many as Norway. Remote Iceland has but 280,000 people. The combined population of all of Scandinavia is less than that of California, and there are fewer Jews in all the Nordic countries than in sections of New York City. The total Jewish population in Scandinavia is about 30,000—Sweden has 19,000, Denmark 8,000, Norway 1,500, and Finland 1,200.
Moreover, the people of these countries do not speak one common language but three different if mutually comprehensible Germanic languages—Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish—and Finnish, a totally unrelated Finno-Ugric language. The editor of a volume dealing with only one of the Scandinavian nations would have to choose from among these four possibilities. A potential pan-Scandinavian volume would run the real risk of searching for shared Jewish content in four communities that had completely different experiences in World War II and whose literatures reflect this.
Contrary to the intriguing satirical conjectures attributed to the Austrian author Friedrich Torberg (who is clearly understood by that culture to be 'Jewish'), there were no rabbis on the Viking ships, and Jewish settlers filtered only slowly into the land of the Vikings.(2) During the period of nation building in the various Scandinavian countries, there were few Jewish settlers, and Judaism did not play a large role in forming national identities as it did in Central Europe or North America. It was in any case difficult for an immigrant to Scandinavia to carve out an identity significantly different from that of the overwhelming Nordic majority. Thus there was great pressure everywhere in Northern Europe for the few members of the largest religious minority, Judaism, to assimilate into the Scandinavian cultures and their common national religion, Lutheranism. By the late nineteenth century the only northern cities with anything resembling significant Jewish communities were the capitals of Denmark and Sweden.
By 1930, although the Jewish population of Sweden had more than doubled in half a century, it still amounted to just sixty-five hundred people—hardly enough to make a major cultural impact. But since then there has been a sea change in the demographics of the Jewish populations of the European states as a result of World War II. The Polish volume in this series, for instance, includes work by only four living authors, none of them writing in Yiddish, although Poland was the core of European Jewish settlement before 1935 and the heart of Yiddish literature.(3) There are now an estimated five thousand Jews left in a country that a few decades ago had a population in the millions. Few living Jewish authors write in Polish, and apparently there is not a single Yiddish writer of consequence in the land where the Singer brothers and their colleagues wrote masterpieces only sixty-five years ago. The Jewish communities of most Central and Eastern European states have simply never recovered from their virtual destruction in World War II.
Scandinavian Jews in World War II
Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, while not an obvious goal of large numbers of Jewish immigrants, also did not deport those who had legally seeded there, as did most other European lands at some point in their history. And compared to the rest of Europe, Scandinavia was a relatively fortunate place to be if you were Jewish during World War II, when expulsion was often merely a prelude to murder. It is true that not all Scandinavian Jews escaped the war unscathed. After the defeat of the Norwegian resistance in 1942, the occupying German troops rounded up about nine hundred Norwegian Jews (half of the Jewish population) and deported them to Auschwitz or, in smaller numbers, to slave labor camps where few survived. In addition, 472 Danish Jews failed to make it to the assembly points on the east coast on the nights in October 1943 when the rescue to Sweden of some five thousand Jews and two thousand mixed-marriage Jews took place. Those subsequently captured were deported to Terezin, the Czech concentration camp used as a marshaling area for the death camps. Due to intervention by the Danish government, none of them was sent on to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek. The fifty Danish Jews who died in Terezin succumbed to what were listed as 'natural causes.'(4)
The Finnish government ignored German demands that the authorities pass laws discriminating against their own Jewish citizens, and almost all of the approximately two thousand Jews of Axis-partner Finland supported their national army in its two desperate wars against the invading Soviet Union. Twenty-three Finnish Jews were killed in action.(5) But in the end, most threatened Scandinavian Jews made it safely to Sweden and survived the war. Half the Jews of occupied and war-torn Norway crossed the mountains, and almost all the Jews of occupied Denmark crossed the water to the safety of Sweden during the most deadly part of the war.
They had arrived in the only Scandinavian country that was not involved in direct military action during World War II. Sweden has remained neutral in all conflagrations since 1814, when it was forced to give up Finland to Russia in the course of the Napoleonic conflicts. The Jewish population of Sweden had been steadily growing for more than a century and a half and, of course, benefited greatly from this neutrality during World War II. Although many Jewish refugees (especially from Poland and Germany) who were refused entry at the border during this period ended up in the Holocaust, about five hundred Jewish women and three hundred children were allowed to enter, and all Jews on Swedish soil remained out of reach of the Nazis. As a result of the immigration of approximately eight thousand Danish and Norwegian Jewish refugees in 1942 and 1943, the Jewish population of Sweden doubled during a period when the Jews of other continental European countries were being annihilated.
In addition, at and after the end of the war, ten thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi concentration and labor camps, mostly women and children, were rescued by the Swedish Red Cross and affiliated organizations and transported to Sweden. One third of them subsequently stayed on and became Swedish citizens. Between 1956 and 1972 a further thirty-five hundred Jews immigrated from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Haifa dozen authors in this anthology were not born in Sweden but rather in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Germany, and several others write about their immediate ancestors in stories set in western Russia, central Bulgaria, mysterious Prague, or more familiar Karlsruhe. Because of the war, Polish- or Hungarian-born Jewish authors, and many of their children, ended up writing in Swedish, and the German-born authors in this anthology include such major figures as Peter Weiss and Cordelia Edvardson. I regret not being able to include Nelly Sachs, the Nobel Prize laureate and friend of several contributing authors, among them Georg Klein, who dedicates his piece to her. Although she spent the last decades of her life in Stockholm and became a Swedish citizen and prominent member of the city's Jewish community, she continued to write only in German.
In his excellent introduction to Contemporary Jewish Writing in Britain and Ireland, the first volume to appear in this series, Bryan Cheyette calls the 450,000-strong Jewish community of Britain 'the only surviving European Jewish community after the war.'(6) But he has overlooked the not inconsequential Swedish community of close to twenty thousand people—who not only maintained their long-standing population base during the war years but actually strengthened it significantly, as this anthology attests—and the Swiss community of about the same size. In dramatic contrast to the Polish and Austrian volumes in this series, the Swedish volume includes more than twenty works by writers who are unquestionably 'contemporary'; with only two exceptions, all are alive today. The exceptions are Joachim Israel, who died in the fall of 2001, and the renowned 'German' writer Peter Weiss, who died in 1982. The opportunity to secure the English rights to part of Weiss's recently unearthed novel Situationen (The situation), written in Swedish in 1956, was simply too compelling not to pursue. The Swedish anthology includes the first English translation of a significant section of Weiss's novel about the lives of his Swedish artist friends on the day the Hungarian Revolution was crushed. This manuscript was refused by the major Swedish publishers, subsequently disappeared into a German archive, and first appeared in 2000 in German translation.(7) After this experience, Weiss wrote almost all his works in German, and twentieth-century Swedish literature lost one of its major authors. Please note that the English translations of titles that have not already appeared in English are presented after the Swedish tides, in roman type, and with sentence-style capitalization.
The Jewish Component in Contemporary Swedish Literature
Any serious observer of contemporary Swedish literature knows that many of the leading Swedish writers, particularly those living in Stockholm, are not ethnically Nordic, as almost all Swedish authors were before the war. Due to immigration fostered by a government that considered this an economic necessity, Sweden, unlike its Scandinavian neighbors, is attempting to become a multicultural society, rather like the Netherlands. While it is having obvious problems with ghettos developing for some prominent minorities and less than perfect racial harmony, particularly in the suburbs of the major cities, Sweden has undeniably become a much less Nordic place than it was only a couple of decades ago. Its literature has changed accordingly.
Nevertheless, when Sander Oilman first asked me to consider editing the anthology on Sweden in the series Jewish Writing in the Contemporary World, I was initially somewhat skeptical. I wondered just how prominent the Jewish experience was in literature. When I consulted with Swedish writers whom I knew, my skepticism scarcely diminished. Many had the same reaction as people elsewhere hearing about the project: Jewish literature in Sweden—that will be a thin volume. A friend who is one of the country's most successful contemporary authors told me over a beer on neutral territory that offhand, he could not think of a single major Swedish writer who was Jewish. When I began to list the authors who had already agreed to appear in the anthology, he admitted his surprise at his own ignorance of the ethnic background of such prominent colleagues. He acknowledged that he had never considered these authors in the context in which the volume placed them. This was an experience that was repeated many times.
Deciding who should be considered a Jewish writer is a problem that concerns every editor of this series, but it is particularly difficult in a society with such a small official Jewish population and where there is a great deal of intermarriage. Swedish publishers presented me with a solution to this problem. Before negotiating the rights to any English translation and contrary to their usual procedures, the publishers requested that I receive direct confirmation from all authors that they wished to appear in the volume, which I did. The reason was clearly because the book's title identified them as being Jewish.
The series, however, must be more than just a collection of writings by Jewish authors. Each volume should present a picture of what it means or has meant to be Jewish in the national context and perhaps also in the national language. This is thus an attempt to fill in a map of terra incognita, the Jewish part of Sweden. It is hard to imagine a discussion of the literature and cultures of New York, Montreal, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Budapest, Warsaw, Bucharest, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Buenos Aires, or Johannesburg without some attention being paid to Jewish writers and artists in these cities. But it is easy to imagine that with regard to Stockholm, Göteborg, or Malmö. One of the aims of the volume is to fill in this cultural lacuna.
Jewish Figures in Scandinavian Film and Literature
The most sarcastic skeptic about the viability of this anthology suggested that the tide was more appropriate for a Woody Allen script, perhaps paying homage to Woody's favorite film director, Ingmar Bergman. Woody's joke then would be that it sounds farcically incongruous to forge together Jewish authorial presence and what would seem to be a quintessentially non-Jewish land and language. Yet, as Woody well knows, while the great Swedish author and film and theater director does not obviously fit any definition of what it means to be Jewish, Bergman has sprinkled some of his most memorable films with key Swedish characters who have Jewish names.
Consider, for instance, the musicians Eva and Jan Rosenberg in Shame or their nemesis, the fascist mayor Jacobi. Is it of any importance that Bergman has so often suggested Jewish backgrounds in Swedish situations where it does not seem important, or even clear, whether the characters are Jewish? Erland Josephson, one of Bergman's favorite actors, who appears in this anthology in his other role as a novelist, has said that he felt there was 'something Jewish' about Dr. Tomas Jacobi, whom he portrayed in Face to Face.(8) What exactly did he mean by that? Josephson also portrayed one of Bergman's most popular and most Swedish characters, the wayward husband Johan in Scenes from a Marriage. Is there anything Jewish about Johan, or what exactly is it that makes a native Swede identifiably Jewish? The attempt to answer this question automatically conjures up the serious matter of identifying individuals by characteristics that are understood to make them designated outsiders in a society controlled by insiders. A threatening anti-Semitism is always a possibility under such circumstances.
The literature describing this process in the Jewish community of increasingly xenophobic Denmark offers an interesting commentary on these observations. A historical overview of the presentation of Jewish life in the literatures of the Scandinavian countries could hardly overlook the fact that the major nineteenth-century novel on this topic was written in Danish by Meir Goldschmidt. His novel A Jew portrays a Danish society infiltrated by a kind of muted but pervasive anti-Semitism at odds with Denmark's reputation as a bastion of tolerance.
When that work is considered alongside Hans Christian Andersen's puzzling stories about Jews, such as The Jewish Girl, there is a clear suggestion that Jewish Danes, not to mention Danish Jews, were not quite the same as Danish Danes. These Danish stories suggest a more difficult and complex relationship between majority Nordic populations and their tiny Jewish minorities, at least in the context of the previous century. In its presentation of a kind of benign but pervasive anti-Semitism, Goldschmidt's A Jew is certainly one of the most effective and important nineteenth-century European novels on the topic. It does without the spectacular dramatic accounts that characterize German-language renderings of similar dysfunctional social relationships, such as Gustav Freytag's Soll und Haben, and was all the more convincing for this reason. These strong undercurrents suggest a more ambiguous and less harmonious relationship between an overwhelmingly Nordic majority and a small but potentially conspicuous religious and ethnic minority population. Like all the Scandinavian countries, of course, Denmark and Sweden share flags with crosses.
Danish Jews, Jewish Danes, Swedish Jews, Jewish Swedes
The American intellectual historian and Kierkegaard expert Bruce Kirmmse has argued that the rescuers of the Danish Jews actually understood that they were rescuing Danes who happened to be Jewish, not Jews. While this may be a flattering comment on the ability of the old Danish society to include outsiders who have adopted Danish ways, it does not necessarily imply that they would have risked their lives for Jews who were not considered Danish. Kirmmse illustrates the difference between a Jewish Dane and a Danish Jew by referring to an incident he witnessed involving the Danish-born pianist/comedian Victor Borge:
I was at a 50th anniversary celebration of the Rescue (of Danish Jews to Sweden in the /all of 1943) in the synagogue in Great Neck, Long Island, New York. The two principal speakers were the late Victor Borge and the Danish consul in New York, Leif Donde, who introduced Borge. After the Danish consul referred to himself quite buoyantly as a Jewish Dane,' Borge pointedly referred to himself as a 'Danish Jew,' and there was an awkward feeling in the crowd. Perhaps this applied mainly to Americans, who have become accustomed to referring to themselves as hyphenated Americans, with the accent on the noun, being American that binds us together with the hyphenated adjective merely serving as a specifier. Here was Donde, clearly emphasizing that he was a Dane first, and a Jew second, perhaps merely by religion. And here was Borge, clearly stressing that he was a Jew first, who happened to be from Denmark. This painful bit of grammatical sociology plays itself out somewhat differently in the US or Danish contexts.(9)
What exactly was the difference between a Jewish Dane or a Jewish Swede and a Danish or Swedish Jew? Did the answer to that question have something to do with the fact that after the war, Victor Borge became a famous American comedian with a very Danish accent and never returned to live in Denmark, where he certainly could have been a prominent Copenhagen entertainer?
Perhaps because of the ambiguous nature of speculation like this, I also received vigorous encouragement from some who argued that precisely this kind of volume was not only justified but needed. It was an important issue unlikely to be addressed in the foreseeable future in Swedish, as Christian Swedes preferred to identify Jews living in Sweden as Swedes who happened to be Jewish, not the other way around—a stance that would make an anthology like this irrelevant. In addition, the biographies of some of the most important Swedish writers included a Jewish component that often appeared in their writings, sometimes in a hidden and oblique way. While a collection like this would be a standard anthology in many literary traditions, it would open a new perspective on Swedish literature, as the works of a group of major authors could be seen in a different light. A decade ago it would have been much harder to assemble such an anthology, because Swedish authors were not accustomed to being organized in this way.
But times have changed, and a multicultural society, by definition, has many minority groups clamoring for attention. An increasing number of Swedish minority groups, who once understood that they would be part of Swedish society only if they assimilated into Swedishness, now think of Sweden as a place where many different cultures can live.(10) And there is a second and perhaps more important factor: Swedish archives have recently been opened, detailing provisional Swedish government positions toward its Jewish citizens during World War II. One of the most disturbing discoveries was that the government had assembled lists of its Jewish citizens. As a consequence Swedish Jews have begun to think about what would have happened if Nazi Germany had decided to invade neutral Sweden as it invaded Denmark and Norway. No Jews who had entered Sweden were deported during World War II, but the Swedish government did make serious efforts to keep Jewish refugees from entering their territory from continental Europe during the late 1930s if it seemed they were not going to leave. In Joachim Israel's memoirs, the results of this aggressive but sometimes quixotic policy are portrayed with grim fatalism as his family gathers at the train station in Karlsruhe in September 1938. The teenage Joachim has received a permit to work on a farm in Sweden and later crosses into Sweden without trouble, after being harassed on the German side because of the T in his German passport, placed there at the demand of the Swedish and Swiss governments. His threatened parents, grandparents, and siblings are convinced they will never get such work permits and will probably never see him again. As the family fragments and undergoes various fates in the course of the next few years, Joachim Israel becomes an adult and a leading intellectual in Sweden, where he remained for more than sixty years. Rose Lagercrantz's novel for young adults leads straight into the heart of adult terror with a similar situation: armed with a specious letter inviting him to come to Sweden on business, the young protagonist Orge lands at a Swedish port and confronts the Swedish border police and refugee office. The letter has been organized by his girlfriend Anna, who herself will never get the opportunity to try to cross that border.
The Jewish Presence in Sweden
Neither Joachim nor Orge, a figure based on Rose Lagercrantz's father, meets any Jews when he finally reaches his workplace, but eventually they do, and their families become part of the country's Jewish population of eighteen to twenty thousand, half of whom live in Stockholm. The estimate is vague as the integration of this religious minority into Swedish society has been going on for two hundred years. Substantial intermarriage with Christian Swedes has complicated any definition of what it means to be a Swedish Jew, unless one chooses to be registered as a formal member of the Jewish community. Prominent families such as the Bonniers, Lamms, Wästbergs, Philipsons, or Josephsons are often identified as somehow being Jewish, but this usually seems to be more of a clan identification than a religious one. Some of the children in such families have married Christians, have been baptized, and are officially members of the Lutheran church or, as this became an alternative more recently, have chosen to be registered as having no religion at all.
The first Jew of modern times to be allowed to settle in Sweden legally can be and often is identified. His name was Aaron Isaac, born in 1730 in Germany. Most of the Jewish emigrants who would follow him were likewise German born. In 1775 Aaron Isaac was the first Jew to receive the privileges of residence and work in Sweden, and he went on to become the leading figure in the establishment of the miniscule Jewish community in Stockholm, remaining prominent until his death in 1818. He shows up in this anthology in two texts. First, in Per Wästberg's contribution, he appears as a historical figure reporting on David Hirsch, the original settler in Sweden from the maternal side of Wästberg's family. Hirsch arrived in Sweden from Mecklenburg, Germany, in 1792. In his memoirs about the first decade of the Jewish congregation in Stockholm, Aaron Isaac has nothing good to say about Wästberg's ancestor, whom he clearly feels does not have enough interest in Jewish traditions. Then Isaac appears in Susanne Levin's family saga about Jewish life in Uppsala, Suggan i domen (The sow in the cathedral), as a legendary heroic figure beginning the struggle for the establishment of Jewish rights. In one of the scenes excerpted Isaac fulfills the daily Jewish rituals on a summer morning on the outskirts of Stockholm in 1774 and then goes off to begin the process that will eventually lead to the granting of the right to live in Sweden. The rest of the novel focuses on the struggle to build a 'normal' existence on this foundation in a city with an anti-Semitic sculpture hidden in the depths of its dominating cathedral.
Perhaps it is worth recalling that at the time when Aaron Isaac was becoming the first legal Jewish resident of Sweden, there had already been a significant Jewish presence in Germany for more than eight hundred years. In the seventeenth century, a Yiddish-speaking woman had written a striking literary memoir (The Life of Glückel of Hameln), and by the last quarter of the eighteenth century the relationship between Jews and Germans was a topic of major literary and historical interest.(11) Shortly after Isaac was allowed to become the first Jew to settle in Stockholm, Gottfried Lessing wrote the landmark Enlightenment drama Nathan der Weise, in which he argued that Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all justified in presuming that they were in possession of the true religion. Moses Mendelssohn was formulating his epoch-making message to his Yiddish-speaking Jewish congregation that they should make every effort to assimilate largely into German culture and adopt the language, and there were Jewish literary salons. Sweden had had none of this Jewish input into either its literature or its culture at the time when Aaron Isaac got his papers.
Nevertheless, within a century, the 1775 population of one Jew had grown into the only significant religious minority in Sweden. In January 1779 the Swedish Parliament approved the rights of Jews to settle, thus confirming what Aaron Isaac and a few others had already realized. Special regulations were enacted, designed to ensure 'that equal rights be given to every individual, according to a slogan of the time, but not to the Jews as a people.'(12) This development bears witness to an understanding that a small religious minority was gradually finding a home in a big Christian city, even though it was a home that was not quite the same as that of the great majority of fellow Swedes. At first Jewish religious meetings had to be held in private homes. But already in 1787, when a minyan of ten men could be assembled, a small but permanent place of worship was set up near the center of Stockholm. In 1797 a larger site was established in the Old City (Gamla Stan) of Stockholm, which by 1850 was too small for the Jewish population of 550. By 1870, when Jews were granted all basic civil rights, the congregation was substantial enough to build Stockholm's first large synagogue, in Wahrendorffsgatan. It was consecrated by the 960 Jewish residents of Stockholm in that year and still serves the Jewish community.
The story of these 'outsiders' in an overwhelmingly Swedish environment through the nineteenth century is the story of even greater pressure for assimilation into the majority language and culture than was the case in Germany, which remained the chief source of Jewish emigration to Sweden. By the turn of the twentieth century there were famous and successful Jewish figures (like the writer Oscar Levitin, architect Ernst Jacobsson, painter Ernst Josephson, businessmen Joseph Sachs, and the Bonnier publishing family), but there was little public demonstration of the practice of the Jewish religion and its traditions. Per Wästberg depicts the rise of his mother's family from poverty to wealth as requiring a subtle balance between a public display of solidarity with a Swedish Christian culture and a private loyalty to a Jewish background that the family does not wish to abandon totally. For example, they give their children Swedish first names—Karl, Oskar, Lars, Kerstin, Karin—but balance these with Jewish middle names—Aron, Ruben, Simon, Rebecka, Sara.(13)
Mapping Terra Incognita
The organizing principle for the present volume is a structure allowing readers to get a sense of this somewhat complicated and ambiguous history through the mirror of literature. Works presented do not lend themselves equally well to such a historical schema. The stories of Joakim Philipson, Nathan Shachar, and Anita Goldman take place in Jewish communities far away from Sweden. Marianne Ahrne tells the story of her Central European grandparents before her unknown father, a Holocaust survivor, lands in Sweden, where most of the novel takes place. But in general it should be possible to get a feel for the special situation of the Jewish minority in this cold northern country with a Christian state religion.
The collection begins sometime before the turn of the twentieth century in far-off Russia, where a Yiddish-speaking uncle recounts stories of his youth to a young nephew who will probably not end his days on the Russian steppes quoting Lermontov. Joakim Philipson's novel about a mysterious Yiddish manuscript found in a mattress in a Moscow hospital in 1981 is probably the work farthest removed from contemporary Sweden, but that seemed an excellent reason to choose it as the opening contribution. Most of the Jews of Sweden are only a generation or two removed from some other place where Sweden is not even on the radar screen of geographical or cultural knowledge, and many of the contributors would probably be able to tell tales of their Uncle Avroms. lust as it is understood that North American Jewish authors draw upon the rich Yiddish-speaking world of the East European Jews for creative inspiration; it should be no surprise that there are echoes of it in Swedish literature as well.
Peter Mosskin's trilogy—the beginning of the third book is excerpted—traces the fate of his father on a journey from pre-revolutionary Russia to postwar Stockholm; Marianne Ahrne does the same with regard to her father, whose roots were in the Hapsburg Empire. Georg Klein's extraordinary memoirs begin in the remote Hungarian-speaking tip of Czechoslovakia in a small city where Hungarian-speaking Jews look down on Yiddish-speaking Jews. The search for an often lost, perhaps dead, Yiddish-speaking father is a theme that runs through several of these works, abandoned children seeking meaning in the aftermath of the Holocaust that they have somehow survived. This search is part of Cordelia Edvardson's meditation on the role of her parents, the 'Catholic' German author Elisabeth Langgasser and her Aryan stepfather, as she was deported to Auschwitz. Georg Klein has written extensively and movingly about the meaning of the absent father, reflecting on his own situation from the time he was two. It is the motor of the novels by Mosskin and Ahrne; children search for the truth behind the false facade of fathers who have not survived the Holocaust undamaged. And it is grippingly evoked in the reaction of the young Göran Rosenberg to his father's failure to come to grips with life in Sweden, far from the place where the Holocaust had destroyed him. I thought there was another good reason to begin with Uncle Avrom. Philipson's novel is a complex work full of philosophical speculation and beginning with quotes by Nietzsche and T. S. Eliot, but it also has a quality for which Swedish literature is not particularly famous, namely its humor. Uncle Avrom's less than sensitive advice to his young nephew about women is hardly what one would expect from a pietistic elder of the Lutheran church. This kind of whimsical presentation of the mystifying conclusions old folks have reached during their journey through life acts as a refreshing commentary on the differences between the Lutheran and Jewish experience of the world.
In Roland Schütt's depiction of his childhood, there is something almost disturbingly comic about the exaggerated paternal protectiveness of Zipa's Russian immigrant father Isak. There is also something subversively and slyly comic about the semihidden sexual drives emanating from the workshop windows through which the exotic Zipa and the very Swedish (but politically suspect rather than politically correct) Fritiof observe each other. In his wanderings between the seductive laundry worker across the courtyard and her dominating father, a fanatical protector of his daughter, upholsterer Fritiof leaves the world of his straight-laced neighbors and enters a zone of exaggerated passion that he never escapes—nor does he really seem to want to get away. This is no way for a Jewish daughter and a Swedish upholsterer to act! But comedy triumphs over potential tragedy for both Avrom and Zipa, particularly in their sexual escapades, and in the end there is nothing overly despairing about their occasional defeats. Although this slapstick quality is less pronounced in the other stories, other erratic figures such as Peter Weiss's disintegrating Engineer Knut, Marianne Ahrne's dysfunctional Hapsburg grandparents, and Anita Goldman's libidinous Motti the Mover give this anthology a feeling that the Marx Brothers have sometimes been on the loose in Sweden.
There is something not very Nordic about these characters, not just because they enter Swedish literature from worlds as distant as Russia, Central Europe, and Brooklyn but because they function as anarchic disturbers of what is usually understood to be a highly structured, well-oiled, and stable society. From a different perspective, there are some serious problems here. Uncle Avrom is hardly passing on pearls of wisdom to his nephew. Zipa's father beats his wayward daughter so severely for meeting with the goy Fritiof that a Swedish doctor warns of having Izak deported if he does it again. Engineer Knut is an alcoholic who begins drinking over breakfast, abandons his family in such a drunken state that he has to be restrained from getting into a fight with a guard at the train station, and later hardly knows where he is. Engineer Knut is certainly not merely a comic slapstick drunk. He carries within him the seeds of personal destruction that Peter Weiss at the time must have feared could be found in himself. But his bizarre musings on his relationship to women, sex, Norwegian athletes, American bridge builders, and novel writing bring him into the territory of tragicomic dissolute characters from the best novels of Henry Miller, whom Weiss has identified as one of his favorite writers at the time.
Motti the Mover is pummeled by charges of racism, sexism, and other corrupt practices as he sits around directing traffic in his Brooklyn office. But he clears out the rabble when a serious phone call comes through from Israel, informing the ex-Israeli elite parachutist that his nephew has been killed in action on the home front. In a short and well-controlled framework, Anita Goldman, who has lived in Israel for many years, conjures up a powerful scenario in which the uneasy Motti embodies everything from betrayal of the Israeli cause to failure to carry out successfully the role of the Jewish patriarch. In the end, however, he is not overly worried about fidelity, incest, death, or telephone etiquette as he begins to consider his next move on the sexual front, given the unexpected possibilities that have suddenly appeared because of the tragedy. In the main part of Marianne Ahrne's novel, the unknown father of the tide, whom she is seeking and who is the offspring of the scheming couple in the excerpt, is a seriously disturbed survivor of the concentration camps. But the novel ends with the imagined story of an Austro-Hungarian mixed marriage, full of sound and fury but scarcely signifying anything more than the necessity of adapting and carrying on within absurd personal relationships. The historical and social framework in which these chaotic figures are placed often suggests the possibility that in a crazy world, such absurdities are not so important and that one should get on with life as best one can. With the exception of the Laplander Engineer Knut, who has also spent time in Prague and Budapest, these figures all seem to be wandering through a somewhat different landscape than are most 'mainstream' Swedish characters.
The Swedishness of Swedish Literature
Swedish writers (if we exclude such major figures of children's literature as Astrid Lindgren and Tove Jansson) are probably best known for working in a literary tradition and language renowned for its penetrating psychological studies of individuals struggling to cope with an increasingly semiurban provincial society. In its broadest sense that applies to authors as different as the last Swedish co-winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson (in 1972) and to many of the scripts and novels of Ingmar Bergman or of Sweden's most read contemporary author, crime novelist Henning Mankell. Another major theme—solitary wanderers in a sparsely populated, cold, and threatening environment—can be found in novels by Kerstin Ekman, P. O. Sundman, and Torgny Lindgren. An astute critic would likely think more readily of a comparison with Russian or Canadian literature long before considering similarities between the works of Swedish writers and those of the well-known Jewish writers from Central and Eastern Europe or urban North America.
Philipson, Schütt, Weiss, Ahrne, and Goldman create somewhat untrustworthy characters, including in a wildly unconventional sexual sense, who are not so much struggling with the given society as disrupting it by flaunting constrictive rules. When in a parenthetical aside Schütt has Fritiof help Zipa try on his gift to her of her first pair of panties, he also creates a cockeyed view of the usual moral order of his world. This suggestive incident leads to a confrontation with the old Jewish world of Isak, a juxtaposition more reminiscent of the Tevye stories of Shalom Aleichem than of any Stockholm novels of the period. It sets the stage for the further odd political adventures of Fritiof in the arena of Swedish politics, such as when he models as the body for the portrait of the king, who only has time to supply the head.
After Philipson's Russian appetizer, the main part of the anthology begins with two pieces by Per Wästberg, the story of his mother's family and the description of his grandfather's summer paradise. His straightforward, fascinating, and enlightening account of the financial and social rise of his mother's family from poverty and outsider status in Sweden to wealth and a kind of social acceptance in the course of the nineteenth century sets the stage for much of the rest of the book. At Per Wästberg's suggestion, his contribution continues with an evocative description of the idyllic summer life of his rich grandfather's family (including the young Per) on the islands of the Stockholm archipelago. This piece, taken from a collection of prose works about the summer paradise, never mentions the fact that his grandfather was Jewish, but somehow it implies, upon closer examination, that this was an understood part of the equation.
Roland Schütt's novel presents the other key aspect of Jewish life in Sweden—that of the immigrant Zipa and her offbeat Russian-Jewish family. But it goes on to explore the lives of a pair of adventurous brothers, the children of the Russian immigrant's successful courtship with the Swedish socialist Fritiof. Schütt's portrayal of the vicissitudes of life for the children of a mixed marriage in a working-class district gives a picture of the Jewish world of Stockholm in the 1920s that does not seem much different from that of New York or Montreal, except for being much smaller. Zipa, in effect, spares her children the fate of being treated as easily identifiable pariahs by learning the lessons on how to become Swedish taught to her by her neighbor Augusta Johansson, even if she is always something of a linguistic and physical parody of a Swedish housewife. In the very popular film made from this novel, Zipa never loses her 'otherness,' neither in language nor in outer appearance, but this exotic quality also never becomes such a major burden that it seriously influences the way she runs her life and brings up her children. This is a rather lighthearted presentation of the difficulties of his youth by the septuagenarian Roland Schütt, making his literary debut. Even the virulent anti-Semitism of his teacher does not fundamentally darken the child's view of the world. This contrasts rather dramatically with the black strands found in the literary presentations of postwar Swedish childhood in the novels of Susanne Levin, Marianne Ahrne, Peter Mosskin, and perhaps even by implication Peter Weiss in later sections of the anthology.
An episode near the end of Jacques Werup's novel about the life of a Sephardic Jew in between-the-wars Malmö illustrates this. Shimonoff had emigrated from Bulgaria after World War I and realizes, as World War II approaches and his Swedish friends disappear, that he has never felt fully at home in Sweden. Returning to Bulgaria in a hopeless attempt to recover his youth, the middle-aged Shimonoff witnesses one event that more than makes up for the fact that he can never again be at home in the place of his childhood. When Nazi soldiers begin to attack a Jewish peddler on the streets of Sofia, they are themselves assaulted by swarms of intervening Bulgarians from all walks of life. Shimonoff is sure that this public rescue of a Jew would not happen on the streets of Malmö. Werup's scene has political overtones that make it seem somewhat foreign to mainstream Swedish literature. While there are certainly important Swedish novels involving violence in the working-class/union-management struggles, it is hard to think of another that has as sharp an edge in describing the relationship between Swedes and Swedish Jews while the Nazis ruled in Germany. Surely Shimonoff would become one of the Swedish Jews who were not at all convinced, in retrospect, that Sweden would have risked war with Germany to protect the Jews had the Nazis invaded.
Lars Gustafsson's poem about memory is more difficult to classify in such a context. In 1939, when it begins, young Lars is pulling his sled across the ice, presumably somewhere near his birthplace of Västeras. He could have no idea that three decades later he would be waving back at himself, somewhere far away, and that that figure too would fade, move permanently to Texas, and convert to Judaism. From his base in Austin, Texas, Gustafsson remains today one of the leading commentators on all things political and cultural in Northern Europe and Germany, where he is among the most highly respected observers and authors from abroad. In a reversal of the usual insider-outsider pattern, it was suggested to me that Gustafsson did not belong in this anthology, being a convert to Judaism and not having made Jewish matters a central part of his writing. But I felt one of the poems from his Declaration of Love to a Sephardic Lady (1970) should be included, not only because of their relevant content and superb quality but also because they resonate with memory and experience about his own life and foreshadow the dramatic changes forthcoming with his conversion to Judaism in 1982. After all, as he has recently said, 'My son is the first Gustafsson in world history to have a bar mitzvah.'(14)
Peter Weiss had been residing in Sweden for almost twenty years when he wrote Situationen (The situation), living the rather Bohemian life of a Stockholm film director, artist, and writer and, according to biographical accounts, showing little or no interest in his Jewish background. His father was a Hungarian-born Jewish businessman who had converted to Catholicism before the war and had managed to avoid the consequences of such a background in Nazi Germany by moving to Sweden in the mid-1930s. In his previously published works, all of which were written in Swedish, Weiss had dealt with the war at a cool distance, most notably in his masterful 1948 account of Germany in ruins, De Besegrade (The Conquered).
But in Situationen, which was disdainfully rejected by his own publisher, Bonniers, one can hear the distant thunder of Auschwitz as the protagonist recalls how he was ostracized by a society that treated him like a Golem. The mythical robotlike figure formed out of clay by Rabbi Low to protect the Jews of Prague turned into a threat if not kept in slavish servitude. Engineer Knut identifies himself with the giant creation as he travels down the road into alcoholic oblivion, bemoaning his outsider status. The story of Engineer Knut, 'the wanderer on the wrong planet,' full of biographical facts too reminiscent of Weiss's own life to be a coincidence, paints a disturbing portrait of a figure much like Peter Weiss approaching middle age. Knut, the Laplander, is surely not Jewish, but his feeling of being punished for having the wrong form in the wrong place evokes figures like Kafka's Joseph K or Gregor Samsa, neither of whom is Jewish, although their creator was. The liberating (and comic) influence of Henry Miller is evident in this novel, yet it also has a kind of fearful edge that at times places it somewhere near Prague.
I believe the novel throws new light on everything Weiss wrote afterward in German, including such towering works of postwar literature as Die Ermittlung (The Investigation), Marat Sade, Abschied von den Eltern (Farewell to my Parents), and Die Asthetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance). Less than a decade after failing to find a publisher for Situationen, he would write (in German) one of the most powerful and convincing of all accounts of the Holocaust. The terrible fate awaiting anyone considered Jewish by the Nazis, as he would have been, is captured on stage. The dramatization of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Die Ermittlung would immediately be translated into Swedish and was given a classic production by Ingmar Bergman in Dramaten, Sweden's leading theater. The story of Engineer Knut throws a long shadow forward onto the German works that would soon make the little-known Swedish author, journalist, painter, and film director one of the most famous and influential writers in the world.
The Holocaust and the Unknown Country in the North
The next section of the anthology is focused on the monumental event of the twentieth century and in the history of Judaism—the Holocaust. Most of the European volumes in this series must be dominated by versions of this story, since with only a few exceptions (Britain, Switzerland, Sweden), the Jewish homeland became a trap from which it was difficult to escape.
As the archives of the war open up, it is becoming clear that even those countries least willing to collaborate with the Nazi genocide felt on occasion forced to make compromises. Finland protected all its Jewish citizens, even though it was an Axis partner, but deported a few Jewish refugees to virtually certain death. Bulgaria refused to deliver its Jewish citizens from its traditional territory but sacrificed the Jews of recently acquired Thrace. Both Denmark and Sweden turned back refugee Jews at their borders before and during the early part of the war.
As we now know, Sweden had also made some preparations for possible compromises with the Nazis regarding Jewish citizens, should it ever become occupied like Denmark and Norway. But this never happened, so no Jews—neither Swedish citizens nor refugees—were ever sent from Swedish territory to Auschwitz and Majdanek or to the other death camps. Quite the contrary. At the end of the war some inmates of these places and of the slave labor camps, where they had been moved in the face of the approaching Red Army, suddenly found themselves loaded onto trucks and buses operated by men who looked like their SS captors. However, instead of being herded to another death march, they arrived a couple of days later in refugee centers in a cold country of which most of them had never heard.
After a lengthy period of profitable flirtation with the rising Nazi power to the south—many would say far too long—the Swedish government reacted constructively to the horrendous news coming north from its own diplomats and businessmen in Central Europe.(15) Subsequently it played a significant and positive role in saving what was left of the Jewish population of Europe. Most prominently, Raoul Wallenberg and Per Anger in the Swedish mission in Budapest exemplified courage and determination against great and dangerous odds; many more lives could probably have been saved in desperate times had other diplomats done so.(16) Their stories and the theme of the extraordinary and varied roles played during World War II by the Unknown Country in the North, to use Georg Klein's description, are a crucial component of the anthology.
Klein describes the sarcastic reaction to his own idealism about Sweden by the young Stig Claesson, today one of Sweden's most popular artists and authors, whom he happens to meet on the ferry taking him to Sweden for the first time. But it is a sarcasm not shared by the new arrivals to what the Swedes tell him is 'a very cold country.' Like Klein, the other refugees have had enough of the warmth of the countries from which they came. Nor does one find any cynicism among the Hungarian Jews with Wallenberg passports or among their descendants. Despite the murky shadows that darken any discussion of Sweden's activities during the early part of World War II, it would be a distortion to underplay the positive role that this neutral country took on behalf of the threatened Jews of Europe in the second half of the war. Much of the literature describing these events was written by individuals who could scarcely believe their luck in being allowed to set foot on Swedish soil, even when they knew nothing about what awaited them there.
It is Joachim Israel's reaction before the war, and it is that of Rose Lagercrantz's protagonist Orge as the war increases in terror. The fates of those left behind darken the years for these refugees in Swedish territory, but in the end they pick up the pieces and carry on. I have also included a section of Tomas Böhm's novel about a group of Jewish musicians from Vienna who make it to the other safe port of European call, Britain. The author is a practicing psychoanalyst and jazz aficionado in Stockholm and creates for this novel a plot that brings together his main interests. Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, and Coleman Hawkins all show up as characters in the course of the adventurous escape of the jazz musicians from Nazi-controlled Vienna to London. Having made it to the safe island, the refugee musicians have to deal with the delicate psychological balance constructed between the euphoria of safety and of jazz and the depression that comes with knowing what was happening to those left behind in Austria. Although Böhm's novel does not take place in Sweden, this dichotomy makes it a familiar Swedish scenario. I have placed in the context of Holocaust rescue missions Kaj Schueler's original piece on the meaning of good and evil. Like Böhm's jazz musician, Schueler's grandparents were at the mercy of courageous individuals who risked their lives to smuggle Jews to safety, and Schueler struggles with questions about why they did it.
Extraordinary events saw Cordelia Edvardson, Zenia Larsson, and Hédi Fried transported by bus from concentration or slave labor camps to Swedish refugee camps at the end of the war. Only four pieces in the anthology have previously been published in English, those of Edvardson, Fried, Josephson, and Gustafsson, and the first two contain dramatic scenes of rescue. This selection leaves a somewhat distorted picture of the oeuvre of these authors, as it reduces a rich and varied source of material to the description of a shared experience: arriving in Sweden and struggling with a new identity there after having lived through hell. Zenia Larsson has written, among other things, a powerful trilogy based on her experiences during the war. Hédi Fried has written extensively about the traumas and cures for those spiritually damaged by the war and also about Sweden's sometimes duplicitous relationship to the Jews under the threat of a rising neo-Nazi movement. Cordelia Edvardson's book has been translated into many languages, and critics feel that it captures the brutal absurdity of Nazism like few others. It is particularly powerful in German translation—her mother tongue and the language in which her mother was a popular author between the wars. Edvardson moved on from Sweden to Jerusalem, where she has lived for many years, serving as a highly esteemed foreign correspondent (for the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet) and commentator on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. But while living an Israeli life, she maintains her Swedish married name and summer house and writes only in Swedish. In these cases I have sacrificed quantity for a focused and concise group of pieces on a similar topic.
This section includes a compilation from not yet translated writings by the remarkable Georg Klein, for many years the director of Sweden's premier medical institute. I have assembled from his varied work into a single autobiographical sequence. The result departs from other works in this section in that much of the most memorable writing describes episodes from long before and long after the war. In particular the description of his mother's burial and the final 'Third Visit with Peter Noll' may seem light-years removed from the humorous confrontation with Stig Claesson when Klein first approached Swedish territory. Their inclusion is designed to give a taste of the wide range of Klein's writings.
Sweeping It Under the Carpet
After the war was over, the victors punished the leaders of the nations that had attempted to wipe out the European Jews, along with those individuals in occupied territories who had collaborated. Germany, the heartland, received the most attention, as was only justified, but from Norway in the north to Italy and France in the south, the major conspirators who had joined Hitler's campaign were executed, and small-time collaborators were punished. The few neutral oases, particularly Sweden and Switzerland, did not have traitorous leaders; Sweden spared itself the intensive investigation that could have uncovered nasty corners in folkhem (the people's home), as the socialist Swedish government liked to call Sweden in those years—for instance, in the area of finances, Germany was Sweden's largest trading partner, both before and during the war, and great profits were certainly made by Swedish individuals and businesses as a result of the war. Sweden and Switzerland have only recently been forced to confront the more damning accusation that they also profited from stolen Jewish property—a part of their past they would have preferred to forget.(17) Not until 1997 did the existence of lists with detailed information about the twenty-seven thousand Jews living in Sweden in 1941 came to light, thanks to thorough spadework in Swedish archives by Arne Ruth, editor of Dagens Nyheter. Ruth's publications outlining the suspicious preparations made in Sweden in case of Nazi invasion left a much bleaker impression of Swedish-Jewish relations during the war than was found in Swedish history and school books.
As regards the Holocaust itself, Sweden surely had far less to be ashamed of than did most other European countries, as it had not been directly involved. The Swedish government could have defended itself by pointing out its positive role in rescue operations after 1942, but it preferred to let sleeping dogs lie and get on with life, which had been less disrupted at home than almost anywhere else. The relative disinterest of the Foreign Ministry in the fate of Raoul Wallenberg in Soviet hands remains a shameful episode. In Ingmar Bergman's 1949 film Törst (Thirst), a bickering Swedish couple takes a train trip from Switzerland to Sweden just after the end of the war. As they pass through the ruins of Germany they continue their personal battle and are amazed, when the train stops, to stare through the window and be confronted by starving children in a moonscape of ruined buildings. Somehow they had failed to notice the war, the focus being not on any attempt in Sweden to deny what had happened elsewhere during the war but on the effort to forget it as best one could. One of Sweden's finest actors, Michael Nyqvist, born fifteen years after the war, remembers the postwar years like this: 'I had a relative with Nazi sympathies and another who, as a nurse, helped survivors when they came to Sweden. When I asked, everyone looked the other way.'(18) One of the results of this attempted national amnesia was the rise of neo-Nazism several decades after the war ended, long enough for the stigma of being an identifiable Nazi to begin fading. Throughout the Scandinavian countries, and particularly in southern Sweden and Copenhagen, the tolerance of extreme right-wing individuals and gangs brought a challenge that the police seem to have difficulty meeting.
Primo Levi and Lars Norén—Anti-Theater and Nightmare
Michael Nyqvist spends the evening of his fortieth birthday in November 2000 in a remarkable way. He is standing on a block of wood just big enough for his feet in the middle of an empty stage in a theater on the cliffs of Södermalm, high above the harbor of Stockholm. He begins by stating his real name, his age, and his profession. He is wearing a dark Italian business suit and fine Italian shoes as he stands upon the wooden block, and for the next three hours, with only a short break, he declaims, almost without moving, most of the text of Primo Levi's Om detta är en människa (If This Is a Man, also known as Survival in Auschwitz).(19) He is not reciting it in Italian, the language of Primo Levi, but in Swedish, a language not spoken by anyone involved when the twenty-four-year-old Italian chemist was taken prisoner in his native city of Turin, put on a cattle car, and sent to Auschwitz.
Nyqvist has been given this assignment by Lars Norén, the director of Riksteatern and the foremost contemporary Swedish playwright, who creates theatrical figures reminiscent of Ibsen and Strindberg characters on their way into a modern welfare-state inferno. In collaboration with Nyqvist and Niklas Brunius, Norén himself translated and wrote this dramatic version of Levi's prose text. Many would argue that since the death of August Strindberg in 1912, no Swedish dramatist has created more gripping and disturbing versions of the human condition than Lars Norén. His plays are full of noisy and furious people who make everyday life into a kind of fictional nightmare and for some reason almost seem to revel in their degradation. However, in his presentation of Levi's true tale of a journey to hell, Norén eschews all the tricks of his theatrical trade and has his actor stand there naked in his business suit. At times, Nyqvist seems to stumble slightly while reciting the text. But it is impossible to tell whether such moments show the actor struggling with a difficult act of memorization or the actor portraying an author having difficulty containing himself with a tale that threatens to overcome his attempt to report it with complete unemotional objectivity.
For Norén it is quintessential anti-theater; nothing but virtually unemotional declaration is used to convey the tremendously dramatic power of Levi's tale of mass murder and almost incidental survival. The only props are rough curtains at the back of the stage and the little block of wood that defines Nyqvist's world for most of the next three hours. Members of the audience find it impossible to keep concentrating on the almost monotone declamation of this seemingly unending tale of unbelievable and indescribable brutality, which some human beings perpetrated on others not long ago. Yet, when their focus returns, the man in the Italian business suit is still standing on his block and the story is still being told. It is unstoppable. Nyqvist, it seems, will still be chanting this story long after the audience has descended to the bars and cafes of Götgatan to mull over what they have heard.
The Swedish press speculated at length that this was Norén's attempt to begin a process of reconciliation with the Swedish theatergoing public after the events of two years earlier. He had directed a group of violent criminals in a remedial prison drama workshop performance of his play, Sju tre (Seven three), the designation for a violent criminal in the Swedish penal system. In the course of spontaneous speeches and observations by the criminals/actors, the hard-nosed performers spontaneously spat out venomous racist and anti-Semitic comments, and the director did not stop them. This was such a convincing display of reality on a theater stage that one of the critics from a leading Stockholm paper jumped up during the performance to ask if he was really hearing what he seemed to be hearing; he then left. It was one thing to conclude that these characters were portraying an important aspect of contemporary Swedish life, but it was quite another to tolerate this. Later the criminals/actors were allowed to perform in a theater outside the prison, where after the performance three of them escaped, went on a rampage, attempted to rob a bank, and killed two policemen.
Observers felt that Sweden's greatest playwright since Strindberg had been extraordinarily naive in underestimating the reality of the brutal and almost uncontrolled racism and anti-Semitism of some Swedes, not all of whom were in jail. Following the still unsolved murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme on a street in the center of Stockholm on February 28, 1986, many Swedes felt their once peaceful folkhem had unpredictably become a place where calculated political violence and racism had gained a firm foothold. Scandinavian neo-Nazis roamed more freely than their colleagues did in Germany; openly expressed anti-Semitism of the kind spoken by the prisoners in their self-defining theatrical roles would not be tolerated in Germany.
Critics of Norén's prison performances felt sure of one thing: Norén's confusion of theater and reality, and his willingness to let truly violent individuals act out the kind of scenes his theater characters often pretended to confront, ultimately led to the murder of two policeman. It also contributed to an eerie atmosphere of unease, particularly for minorities, in a land still (somewhat falsely) sunning itself in a reputation for almost universal decency and peacefulness.
The detective stories of Henning Mankell dig into the underbelly of this deceiving calm and find the violent behavior of groups of individuals being tolerated by a society with a resigned police force held together only by the professional dedication of a relatively few key figures. In the extremely popular and exciting novels of Jan Guillou a similar scenario is played out in the world of the military and spy agencies.
In her third book of memoirs, the still untranslated Ett tredje liv (A third life), Hédi Fried analyzes how this process of sweeping the past under the carpet cleared the floor for the return of the Nazis.
Living history—In Sweden the silence about the Holocaust led to the/art that at the end of the war anti-Semites, Nazism, and racists lucre simply swept under the carpet, only to raise their ugly heads again later on. They showed up in the same geographical regions where they had flourished at the beginning of the war. The feeble defense put up by society gave them renewed strength and more and more young people were recruited by the so-called neo-Nazi groups, where revisionism and denial of the Holocaust were the main thing. The camaraderie of gangs and White-Power music spoke to youths who had no knowledge about the Nazis of the past. They willingly accepted anything the movement offered and believed the lies, since they had nothing with which to contradict the movement.(20)
Susanne Levin's family chronicle about Jewish life in Uppsala in the course of more than a century includes episodes taken from her contemporary experience as a high school teacher that illustrate Hédi Fried's thesis. The novel probably focuses most dramatically on the complexities of being Jewish in a city where a racist biological institute was located between the wars. But it may actually seem most provocative to an English-speaking audience in the sequences that take place in a contemporary Swedish high school, where passive and somewhat muted racist attitudes are not so much pronounced as tolerated. The administration is reluctant to show the film Schindler's List or to organize a day against racism. But such moral laziness also sows the seeds for the growth of open anti-Semitism and dangerous intolerance of all minority students—swastikas painted on walls are not erased.
Erland Josephson is, of course, best known as one of the greatest Swedish actors of our times. Having turned eighty, he has just reprised the cinematic version of the lives of Johan and Marianne (played once again by the Norwegian Liv Ullmann) in the eighty-five-year-old Bergman's latest film project, Saraband, a continuation of Scenes from a Marriage. Few realize that Josephson has also written half a dozen powerful novels, one of which deals with anti-Semitism and the disturbed and depressing life of a lonely Jewish man in postwar Stockholm. Overshadowed as an author by his own fame as an actor, Erland Josephson scarcely gets a mention in discussions of contemporary Swedish literature. But the English translation of A Story about Mr. Silberstein (1995), his 1957 novel excerpted in this volume, has recently been reprinted as a paperback in the United States.(21) Also included in this section are four of Tobias Berggren's mysterious and moving poems describing the confrontation of the veteran Swedish leftist writer and political commentator with the reality of the Holocaust on its home turf. Berggren's meditations on the murdered Yiddish poet Mosze Kulbek and his city, Vilnius, arose from his visit after the declaration of Lithuanian independence more than a decade ago. He was one of the first Westerners to go to the liberated city, once called the Jerusalem of the North.
The View from Israel and Beyond
Scandinavians often find the north constricting and claustrophobic in the long run, and artists and writers frequently spend a great deal of time on extended sabbaticals, particularly in their formative creative periods, settling down for a couple of years or longer in places without snow and winter darkness. In the nineteenth century, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hamsun changed the face of European literature from desks in Rome, Munich, Berlin, and Paris, and in the twentieth century Blixen, Laxness, and Gustafsson nourished their creative juices far from Northern Europe. The wanderings of contemporary Swedish writers bring a cosmopolitan feel to what might otherwise be a regional literature. Thus it seemed appropriate to end with contributions from three Swedish writers who have spent many years in Israel without losing touch with the only place where they can really keep in touch with the language in which they write. As already mentioned, the Svenska Dagbladet Jerusalem correspondent Cordelia Edvardson has been one of the foremost commentators on Israel for many years, but I have used an excerpt from her memoirs of the war rather than from her works about the Middle East. Nathan Shachar, formerly the Jerusalem correspondent of the other major Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter, has lived in the Hispanic world for lengthy periods. Shachar's presentation of a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden love between the offspring of rival Palestinian clans contains the qualities for which the literature of expatriate Scandinavians is well known. It is at the same time objective and cool but full of sympathy and knowledge of the reality and difficulty of existence in a world often subject to superficial journalistic clichés. Hamdu's story unfolds a long way from Sweden, as does most of Shachar's writing, but Sweden comes up when the protagonist, despairing of any future in his permanently tortured homeland, asks about the possibility of refugee status in Sweden. It is an old familiar story.
Göran Rosenberg spent many of his formative years in Israel and the United States and is today probably Sweden's most familiar figure in political and cultural commentary on both these lands. The opening chapter of his classic work on Israel, available in both French and German but not to date in English translation, is a moving and convincing depiction of the wounds the Holocaust left on those who survived and on their families. At the same time it is an evocative portrayal of what life was like in the Sweden of the fifties for a young Jewish semi-outsider, offering an interesting comparison to Roland Schütt's depiction of life in Stockholm thirty years before. Rosenberg's contribution concludes with a child's wide-eyed inaugural view of Israel shortly after its founding.
Anita Goldman's story of Motti the Mover moves us beyond Sweden and Israel, the two countries where she has spent most of her life—to Brooklyn. Motti's office is within walking distance of where I was brought up. But of course this story is the finale for another reason: it is an excellent piece of fiction about human foibles and fading dreams set among New York Jews and written in Swedish. Like much first-rate literature, it is regional in setting and universal in scope. We can leave this volume in good hands with Motti in Brooklyn contemplating the possibilities opened up by his trip to Israel.
The anthology is dedicated to the proposition that the original skepticism was misplaced. The twenty-two contributors prove that Sander Oilman had an excellent idea when he saw uncharted territory in Northern Europe on his literary map of the Jewish world and sent out an expedition to explore the gaps. My hope is that the expedition has been a success and that the following works add new perspective to an understanding of contemporary Swedish literature.
ISBN 0-8032-4286-7, © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved.
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