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Image de la superbe chaise de l'artiste SAB

lundi 13 juillet 2015


Can I hear anyone say "Swedish" in a puzzled  way?

Strangely enough, it is a cultural and historical angle in relation with WW2 that I wish to explore, as I write this post on Sweden, and more specifically on Göteborg.

First, we all have to remember that approximately 20,000 German and Austrian Jews were saved by the Swede Raul Wallenberg, who was appointed as a diplomat in Budapest in 1944. In order to reach his aim, he had "protective passes" printed that would allow these Jews to be considered Swedish citizens about to be repatriated. You may want to read all the details of this operation here

The memory of this man, who was later awarded the title of "Righteous among the Nations" is celebrated in many parts of the world, and also in Göteborg, on the west coast of Sweden, where a very beautiful monument to his name can be seen in a public park. 

Flowers are regularly placed next to this monument 

This city presents other moving aspects where memory is concerned. While it may seem a natural thing to find a memory statue within a synagogue, it is more surprising to notice the way in which this city honors Jewish history elsewhere, considering that this community is today such a small one there.

Let us however start with the visit of the synagogue itself, which was organized for us thanks to our Swedish friends' contacts. 

The temple is separated from the street by a very ordinary office building. A discreet plaque by the door, mentions that it is the seat of the israelite cultural center. Once in and beyond the security office, you find yourself in a small yard that faces the entrance door to the synagogue itself. 

The building, completed in 1885, is quite imposing when viewed from the outside, but when inside, it feels like a cathedral! As our friendly guide Dan Fibert explains, this is due to the deep desire of the Swedish community to blend into the nation that was welcoming them. The synagogue was thus built in the fashion of the neighboring churches. Hence also the presence of an organ, the position of the bimah, and a décor that owes a lot to French and Viking influences, as one can notice when watching closely the ceiling, adorned with God Thor's hammer!

This large hall can accommodate 300 people.

In the small yard that separates the synagogue from the cultural center stands a rather unusual monument. 
We all know that Sweden, having remained neutral  during WW2, was not placed under Nazi rule. As a result, there were no deportations from this country, which, on the other hand, welcomed almost all of the Jews who fled from Denmark (8000) and about 900 Norwegian Jews, in 1943. 
Later on, in 1945, the Swedish Red Cross, actively supported by Count Folke Bernadotte, negotiated for 15 000 Holocaust survivors, mostly Norwegian and Danish, to be welcomed in Sweden.  Folke Bernadotte was therefore the one that made it possible for this final rescue,  now known under the name of "white buses". 

Those buses were painted white,
so as not to be confused with military convoys.  
(source : wikipedia)

This reminder allows one to better understand the meaning of the monument that has been placed next to the Göteborg synagogue: each name that is inscribed above a horizontal line is that of a survivor who was welcomed by Sweden. Below it are the names of the members of his/her family who were assassinated, and the mention of the camps where these murders occurred. Reading the number of victims is a torture in itself... We each place a stone by the monument.   

This stone book tell a very sad tale...

Dan Fibert is a kind and knowledgeable guide. He tells us of an active and dynamic community that is, however, like in many other places, more involved in cultural activities than in purely religious matters. He evokes for us the difficulty of being overtly Jewish in Sweden, the growing antisemitism... 
Why does this all ring a bell? 

After taking our leave, we find ourselves next to another monument. One that also evokes the Holocaust, but this time it is located in a public area, and look... There is not a word to be added. 

...maybe this plaque on a bench tells us more... 

We should also remember the cultural background of the city, whose Museum of Arts contains a collection of artists that I urge you to discover if, like me, you were little familiar with them. 

For instance, Ernst Josephson

Portrait of Jeanette Rubenson (1883)

Swedish summer, 1886, watercolour. 

 and Carl Larsson :

Self-portrait, 1895. 

Which brings us to a very weird coincidence indeed. 

What is the common point between these three Scandinavian artists? Let me tell you: All three were able to create freely thanks to a generous (and perceptive) art-lover, Pontus Fürstenberg, whose Jewish family had come from Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. 

Pontus' parents were wholesalers, dealing in schmates (otherwise known as textile). They had done fairly well for themselves. But it is Pontus' belated (and sincere) marriage to a rich heiress, Göthilda Magnus, which allowed him to pursue his love for art, and to actively support artists who, thanks to him, were able to fulfill themselves and create freely. Pontus saw to their material needs, paid their debts, supported their art courses and trips to Paris... A true patron of the arts, indeed!  

He later bequeathed his town house to the city of Göteborg, and his family also gave the Museum of Fine Arts part of his magnificent collection. 

There remains, elsewhere, hanging on the wall of one of his descendants, another painting by Carl Larsson. I have had the amazing opportunity to admire it. In it, one can see, surrounded by other artists and Göthilda Fürstenberg, another famous patron of the arts: Charles Ephrussi. Incidentally, the same Charles Ephrussi inspired Marcel Proust's Swann, and his exceptional fate is told in a book that I engage you to discover:  The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. Incidentally (again?) this book was my read at the precise moment of this artistic encounter!

It is available here.

In this book, you'll read the spiraling (a bit like this Swedish promenade) testimony of an artist regarding a less known aspect of the history of the Rothschild family & C°.  

And here comes the end of this nordic stroll...

Swedish hospitality, friendliness, cleanliness (in public places, what a treat to a French citizen!), the subtleties of Sweden's natural palette, and last but not least, the salmon and the delicious herring to be found all over the place, all this can only incite me to invite you to forget about the Med, forsake Florida, the Caribbean, and even Devon, in order to follow the traces of the Vikings' kings and enjoy every minute of the Swedish sea shores.  

Please don't  tell me that this is
some fishy business, because I'll tell
the stinkers among you 
that the tiny island
of Marstrand
– which is part of the Göteborg archipelago –,
formerly a free port, 
was where the first Swedish synagogue 
was opened. 
The growing Jewish community
subsequently obtained the right
to settle in Göteborg (two or three years later) 
thus contributing to the city's prosperity. 


Three herrings adorn 
Marstrand's coat of arms...

NB. Sweden counts today about 18,000 Jews, scattered in Malmö, Göteborg and Stockholm. The end for good this time.


1 commentaire:

  1. The mysterious disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg was a terrible tragedy and especially so for one who helped save many others. But, as you have rightly indicated in this article, Catherine, Sweden helped many Jewish people escaping, or rescued from, the Holocaust.

    This is an important and interesting story, Catherine. Thank you.