A turnaround that came – but too late

“If we had  accepted Jewish refugees more liberally at an earlier stage than the autumn of 1941, many lives could have been saved. It is highly likely that they are now dead.”

That was how the social-democratic politician Erik Brandt reasoned during a debate in the Swedish Parliament on May 22, 1943. Even if knowledge of the persecution and mass murder of European Jews had been availabl for some time, it wasn’t until 1943 that Swedish refugee policy started to shift.

Historians, myself included, usually divide Sweden’s refugee policy during the 1930’s and 1940’s into two phases. The first encompasses the period 1933–1943 and is characterized by a stern, restrictive policy towards Jewish refugees. German citizens could travel into the country and stay for three months without additional permits. But as even German Jews started seeking a safe haven in Sweden, an increasingly bold, xenophobic public opinion came to demand higher legal obstacles. The new immigration law of January 1, 1938, made it harder for Jewish refugees to enter Sweden. It also restricted the options of the Jews from mostly Germany and Austria that had already settled in Sweden. Among these were Erich Holewa, Hans Eduard Szybilski and Curt Moses – who have now all been honoured with stumbling stones in Stockholm.

A low-water mark during this restrictive phase took place in the early autumn of 1938 when Sweden put forth a request that German Jews should be given distinct passports. This lead to the Nazi government stamping a red “J” in the passports of Jews. In October of the same year, Swedish border police were given authority to turn away people with J-stamps in their passports.

However, after the so-called Kristallnacht in November 1938, an exception was made for 500 Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria, who among others were granted transit visas to Sweden.

When war broke out in September 1939, the situation turned dramatically worse for Jews seeking a safe haven. The borders were practically closed shut. Between 1939 and 1943, extremely few Jewish refugees managed to cross the border to Sweden.

So the Swedish turnaround didn’t come until 1943. It culminated in the rescue of the Danish Jews, close to 8,000 people, in October of the same year.

There are different theories about why the refugee policy turned more generous around this time. One explanation is linked to the fact that the tide of the war was starting to turn against Hitler’s armies. Another says that the hunt for Jews affected citizens in neighbouring countries. For instance, the deportation of Norwegian Jews in November 1942 led to huge protests in Sweden. In addition, the Allies, led by the US, put pressure on Sweden to end its business connections with Nazi Germany, and urged the government to take action to help Jews throughout Europe.

So in the autumn of 1944, Sweden sent Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest. The diplomat Per Anger was already there. Both made enormous efforts to save Hungarian Jews. That same autumn, the Swedish government agreed to a mainly Norwegian proposal to save Scandinavians in German prison camps, with the help of the Red Cross.

In the spring of 1945, around 15,000 people were saved from German prison camps in this way, most of them Norwegian and Danish resistance fighters. Among them were also a thousand or so Jewish prisoners. Many were in such bad condition that they didn’t survive the summer. In Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Karlstad and on the island of Gotland, there are tombstones for these people whose lives couldn’t be saved. Help came, but for most of them it came too late.

Ingrid Lomfors, historian and former Director of the Living History Forum