Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Interview with Elisabeth Åsbrink, author of the book “And in Wienerwald the trees are still standing”

And the trees in Wienerwald are still standing, Swedish writer and journalist Elizabeth Åsbrink’s third book, is a true story based on over 500 letters sent to Otto Ullman, an young Austrian boy who was sent to Sweden to escape Nazi persecution. The book was published in August 2011. See YouTube link for introduction.

How did the idea of this book come to you?

It so happened that I met a woman named Eva Ullmann. She was the wife of a friend of my husband. It turns out we had somewhat similar Jewish backgrounds. The Ullmanns were very ambivalent about their own past.  Eva told me that she had been thinking about some letters that her father Otto had left her when he passed away. 

She had kept these letters in an IKEA box and had been living with the knowledge that these letters existed, but she never read them. She neither read nor spoke German, and since no one had read these letters, she had no sense of what they were about. 

She knew they had been a source of great pain, and she did not want this pain to be passed on to the next generation, to her children. Yet, she wanted something to happen to the letters that could somehow solve the mystery of this pain. She felt that her father had carried all his life a sense of having been wronged by the Swedish government. She wanted somehow to explore this further. As it happened, she had read a book I wrote 3 years earlier about a famous Swedish playwright, Lars Norén, and his association with long-term criminals. It was a play with three lead characters, two of them were Nazis. One of the Nazi had brutally murdered two policemen. This was a story that no one had covered before. The play provoked a major controversy and prompted a general debate on the issue of Jewish identity. In the book, I had included some discussions that addressed the issue of Jewish identity.

After reading my book, Eva contacted me and told me:  “I have over 500 letters fromVienna. They are written in German. Would you like to take a look at them? Is there anything you can do?”

I was afraid of the content of the letters. At first I refused. It scared me because it would be a huge responsibility to accept. I did not know what I would find. One of my concerns was that what I found might taint their family history. The Ullmann family was very supportive and told me to make public whatever I found. The Shoah, (I don’t like the word Holocaust) is part of my history also. I was afraid of going into that pain. I was also very concerned that after all that had been written and said about the topic, I could not possibly add anything new. People were asking me: Why do we need another book about the Shoah?

Otto Ullman - Youth

It turned out that I actually did find something that had not been told before. During the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938, the so-called “Anschluss”, Otto Ullmann, Eva’s father who was a young boy at the time, lived with his father in central Vienna. His father was a sports journalist and an opera critic. He loved sports and loved being outdoors. The family ate pork, celebrated Christmas and was assimilated, urban and modern. 

After the Anschluss, they were doomed because of their Jewishness. And they, of course, suffered the fate of so many Austrian Jews.Otto’s parents had sent their son to Sweden and were planning on leaving Austria as soon as possible to join their son in Sweden. Very sadly they were arrested and sent to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt.

I chose as title of the book And The Trees in Wienerwald Are Still Standing because the Wienerwald, a beautiful wooden, recreational area around Vienna, was where the Ullmann family spent their Sunday picnics, played soccer and enjoyed each others’ company. The title of my book refers to the fact that the trees are still there but the people who sat in their shadow are gone, leaving a void empty space.

The book begins with Otto’s parents’ daily letters to their son, telling him of their detailed departure plans. Otto was 13 years old when he was sent to an orphanage in Sweden called Henhult. This had been organized by a Swedish Christian organization that worked in Austria. This was to be his home for a short while – it was meant to be a temporary solution until his parents managed to leave Austria (then part of Nazi Germany) to join him. They had realized early on that the situation in Vienna had become very dangerous, even critical for them.

The orphanage soon became overcrowded and could no longer accommodate that many children.  Therefore, some of the children in the orphanage had to move out. A devout Christian woman made her house available for some of these children and welcomed Otto along with 22 other children. The placement of Jewish orphans into residents’ homes was organized by the Swedish government. It was later discovered that the real objective of many of the Christian families who took in Jewish children was to convert them to Christianity.

When Otto was 14 years of agehe became a manual laborer, working at various farms in southern Sweden. He described some of these years as quite good. He was very fond of the people he worked with. He was not in a financial position to get a higher education. This was a great loss for him.

He was deeply traumatized when he heard the news of the murder of his parents. That trauma stayed with him for the rest of his life. Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA’s founder, entered into the picture of this story very early. (IKEA stands for I: Ingvar; K: Kampf; E: the town where he grew up; A: the village nearby).  When Otto was 18 years old, he went to Kamprad’s estate, applied for work there and was hired.

While researching secret police files, I found significant evidence that Ingvar Kamprad was a registered member of the Swedish Nazi party in 1943. His membership number was 4014. Kamprad was only 17 years old at the time. Although he was still a young man, it is evident that the Swedish Nazi Party SSS had their eyes on him, which is amazing. Maybe the fact that Ingvar’s grandmother had been a German immigrant played a role in his joining the party. 

He clearly admitted that he had been a member of the Swedish Nazi Party, a hardcore anti-Semitic and aggressive party. He also declared that he had already recruited members to the movement and that he had intended to devote all his time to work for the movement. When the issue of Kamprad’s fascist involvement became public in the 1990s he pleaded for forgiveness, saying it had been an error of youth. “I was only a boy!” It is true that he was only 17 but it was a quite a conscious decision. It is not an error of youth in my view.

Kamprad’s political involvement in the Nazi Party was one of the few pieces of information I had when I started writing this book. I knew that Otto and Ingvar had become friends as young men. I needed to know what that relationship meant. How was it possible that Ingvar became friends with the Jewish boy Otto while he at the same time was involved with the Nazi Youth movement? When Ingvar and Otto met, Otto’s parents had already died in Theresiendtadt. From the beginning I wanted this relationship to be the focus of the book.

What was the role of the Swedish Church?

The Swedish Church at the time had some strong humanist views. Priests offered assistance to the refugees and pleaded in their favor during their Sunday sermons. There were also priests who believed in the Nazism. It is therefore difficult to define where the Church stood at the time.

For instance, the Swedish Archbishop Erling Eidem was a great lover of German culture and of the German language. He was also a Pietist, a movement within Lutheranism, which believed that faith should be separated from the rest of the world. He had no interest in taking part in politics. As early as in 1942, he was probably one of the first to learn of what happened in the death camps in Germany. He received detailed information and yet never passed it on. He simply never took a stand.

Some priests within the Swedish Church were missionaries to the Jewish people. They had a very particular point of view. The mission was based on their belief that Jews had made a terrible mistake by not recognizing Jesus as Messiah and that everything that had happened to them was actually God’s judgment. They believed that as true Christians they had to show Jews the way to Christianity. Very surprisingly it was later revealed that the Archbishop was very close to this movement. He too may have felt that these children refugees had to be “saved.”

How do you see Sweden’s role during WWII?

Sweden and Germany were very close ideologically. It was a symbiotic relationship. Those of the upper classes who studied at universities would also be studying the German language, poetry, music, wrote in German and were in tune with German ideas. This was true for the upper classes. These were also the people who believed in Hitler, and were most afraid of Soviet power. They believed that only Germany could stop the communists. Sweden had always been afraid of Russia and then of Soviets. This explains in part the solidarity that existed between Sweden and the Nazi regime.

We also have a long tradition of not liking foreigners, and that included gypsies and also Jews, particularly Jew from the East. German Jews were easily accepted but Jews from the East had difficulty entering the country. This was the case ever since the 19th century.

When I studied the Foreign Ministry’s archives concerning Austria and the Anschluss period, it became apparent that the Foreign Ministry was afraid of a Jewish invasion or a Jewish “import”. The authorities feared that German intellectuals, physicians and students would come and take over their jobs. It was a combination of economic worries and a certain fear of foreigners. Sweden, comparatively was actually very restrictive in its immigration policies, more so than other neighboring countries.

In November of 1942, the Nazis invaded Norway and started the deportation of the Norwegian Jews. This was a complete shock to Sweden. Somehow the Norwegian Jews one could identify with much easier than with the German or Polish Jews. The Norwegian Jews were ‘almost’ Norwegian. This is evident when we read the press clips and the debate going on at that time. I believe that 524 Norwegian Jews were deported and most of them were murdered in 1942. This was alarming according Swedish newspapers. This was a wake-up call for Sweden.

For instance, when the public was asked in a survey published by one of our largest newspaper on New Years Eve as to what was the most significant event of 1942 the unanimous answer was: The deportation of the Norwegian Jews.  Someone says for instance: “I saw the Jewish deportation with my own eyes; I never want to see something similar. I am no friend of Jews, but these things should not happen.”

A year after Danish Jews had been deported from Denmark, Sweden, knowing what was happening opened its borders. Because of these past events, the Swedish people were better prepared to receive Jewish refugees. Some historians say that when Hitler began to lose power in 1943 (he had won every major battles until then) people in Sweden came to think that maybe he wouldn’t win the war after all.

Were you always aware of your Jewish roots?

I think I must always have been. I grew up with a mother who said hush-hush to me, don’t tell anyone, and don’t let anyone know that you are of Jewish heritage. My father is Jewish Hungarian, born in Budapest. When he was 5 years old, someone had shouted ‘bloody Jew’ at him. He went to his mother and asked: “What is a Jew?” Shortly after, the Hungarian Nazis took power and my grandfather was sent to labor camp and was murdered with several other relatives. His family had been assimilated, just like Otto and his parents. 

They shared a similar background. They were condemned to their Jewishness and therefore condemned to death. My father has never said that I should hide my Jewish heritage, but he has said that he would be happy with a non-Jewish son-in-law because that makes the Jewish blood disappear from our lineage. I grew up with this sort of shame and denial. This book has been a sort of coming out for me.

How long did it take you to write this book?

I worked 6 days, sometimes 7 days a week for one year. I was never available to do simple things like taking a walk. My husband objected to my obsessive behavior or relentless efforts in getting the book competed.

Knowing what you knew about Kamprad, was it difficult for you to interview him?

The meeting wasn’t difficult. We met at IKEAs headquarters in Sweden. When I asked him about Otto, he immediately replied: “Of course I want to talk about Otto!” He really loved Otto. However, I don’t think he was prepared for my question about his Nazi background. He did his best to answer my other questions, but when it came to that subject, he suddenly did not remember much. 

It was after I kept pushing him about his Nazi past that he said he still maintained the view that the Fascist leader Per Engdahl was a great human being. In view of the available information about him, this is quite a shocking statement. Engdahl was first of all a fascist leader during the war leading a party which was small, but active. It was anti-Bolshevik, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic. These three ideas were very strong within his party. Engdahl’s biggest achievement came after the war. Immediately after the war, he helped Nazi prisoners who had been captured to escape to South America to avoid being held accountable.

Engdahl and Kamprad were at this point close friends. I don’t know what Kamprad knew about Engdahl. No one can give me the answer to that question.  Kamprad was also close to other people in Engdal‘s movement. Kamprad wrote Engdal a letter in which he wrote that he was proud to be a part of the movement. 

When Kamprad , in 2010, said that Engdahl he was a great human being, one has to remember that Engdahl at that time was at his greatest politically, working for the European fascist and Nazi revival. I can’t claim that Kemprad knew, about but he definitely did not distance himself from him.

What happened to Otto after the war? 

According to his children, Otto got tired of living in the countryside and decided in 1949 to move toIsrael. He decided years later to return to Sweden, where he eventually reunited with Kamprad. He settled in Stockholm and proceeded to make a living. He married a girl who he met at the Kamprad’s estate and they had 3 children. He owned and managed a restaurant. He was never a failure, nor a huge success.

When I first portrayed Otto, I let his children read the text. “You have made Otto too nice, too humble, too kind” was their response. “Otto was an angry man.” Their conclusion was that he had been traumatized and that this trauma had made him such an angry man. He was not an easy person to live with, nor was he a happy person.

More information about And the trees in Wienerwald are still standing and Elizabeth Åsbrink, click here.

Images used with permission from Elizabeth Åsbrink.