All Diaspora Jews are not treated equal. Each culture, with its traditions and unique customs, deals differently with the Jews it comes to deal with. And Jews often treat each other differently as we know in Philly where the Northeast Russian Jews are not proving easy to assimilate within local Jewish institutions. This awareness struck me poignantly when I visited the Judiska Museet in Stockholm last Sunday.
Saturday night at the great fireworks in front of City Hall inaugurating Stockholm’s year as the Cultural Capital of Europe, I fell into conversation with an old man who was a dead ringer for Groucho Marx, except for no mustache and no cigar—he had the beret! He introduced himself as Aron Neuman, father of David who was organizing the Arkipelag art exhibitions, and the founder and president of the Jewish Museum, on Hålsingegatan 2 (Tel. 08-31-01-43), a few metres from the St-Eriksplan stop on the Green Line metro.
I had made a brief visit there in 1995 on my way to the Auschwitz 50th anniversary commemoration, acting as the European Jewry correspondent of the Jewish Exponent, but not yet with the support of Mr. Neuman. They opened their archives, and now I have a solid impression of how Jews now fared over the years in the “most liberal” Scandinavian country. Then “Svenska Dagbladet” had run an editorial on how shamefully Swedes had neglected the public memory of Rauel Wallenberg. Now there was a maquette in the museum for a projected public memorial. Now, nearly no one could direct me to the museum, just a stone’s throw from a major subway stop. Then nobody had known, and I had to telephone for guidance.
Amazingly, the first contact between Jews and Swedes took place between 700 and 900 when Vikings began trading with the Khazans living between the Black and Caspian Seas. Even more amazingly, a large part of the Khazans professed Judaism. Then for five centuries there is no Jewish presence in Sweden. (Possibly a few of the many Jews ejected from their homelands between 1200 and 1400 may have ended up in Sweden, but their presence is undocumented.)
Things began to change in 1645 when Queen Christina consulted the Jewish physician Benedictus de Castro (Baruch Nehemias), the first Jew known to have set foot on Swedish land. The pace picks up. Four adults and eight children are baptized into Christianity in 1681 in the German church in Stockholm in the presence of the King and Queen. Converts to the Lutheran faith are granted special privileges. But in 1685 a small number of Jews who settled in Stockholm are ordered to clear out within a fortnight. Up until then there had been no legal prohibition against Jews settling in Sweden.
During the Swedish Period of Liberty (1718-1772) successive decrees are issued, all harassing the Jews. The same general hostility towards Jews existed throughout Europe. But in 1774 Aaron Isaac becomes the first Jew allowed to practice his religion in Sweden. In 1775 a Jewish congregation is formed in Stockholm. The town of Marstrand became a free port where people are allowed unrestricted freedom of trade and religion, and a Jewish congregation exists there until 1794.
In 1782 the so-called Jew regulation is proclaimed. It restricted settlement rights and the right to engage in manufacture and trade. Between 1780 and 1815 Jewish congregations are founded in Gothenburg, Norrkøpping, and Karlskrona. In 1815 the Jewish question is debated in Parliament where Jews are accused of having caused the economic crisis of the time. A majority pushed through strict regulations which effectively ended immigration. Jews number about 800.
By 1838 the Enlightenment is leavening even Sweden and a decree “concerning the rights and duties of Mosaic believers in the country” abolishes the “Jew Regulation” and liberates them from many oppressive regulations. In 1870 Parliament passes a resolution granting Jews full civil rights.
Between 1880 and 1910 there is a large influx of Eastern European Jews, mainly from Russia because of the pogroms of 1900-10. Still, the Jewish community is relatively miniscule—increasing only from about 3,000 in 1880 to 6.500 in 1930.
When the Nazis seize power in 1933 only a handful of Jews make their way to Sweden. In 1938 restrictive rules are introduced for permits to settle in Sweden. This in effect meant they would be rejected in Sweden if suspected of abandoning their own home country.
In 1942 about half Norwegian Jewry manages to flee to Sweden. In 1943 almost the whole of Danish Jewry flees to Sweden. From 1945-46 about 10,000 Jews are rescued from Nazi concentration camps to Sweden, most of them women, through the efforts of the Swedish Red Cross and UNRRA, the American aid organization. About a third of those rescued stay in Sweden. Between 1956 and 1972 about 3,500 flee from political turmoil in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Now about 18,000 Jews live in Sweden, mainly in the big cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmø.
Some 10,000 individuals visit the Jewish Museum each year, not including school and other cultural groups. Café Viola honors Aron’s wife, and serves great tarts and coffee. Its exhibits (early Jewry portraits, Auschwitz details, wedding ceremonies) are small but eloquent. It’s a great way to spend a Wednesday or Sunday, where there will be the most local Jews to schmooze with.