The Swedish Jews and the Holocaust

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Pontus Rudberg
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     298 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


NOTE: Christhard Hoffman's review for Reading Religion has been translated into Swedish and republished in the June 2018 newsletter of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism.

In the historiography of the Holocaust, the reactions of Jewish leaders and organizations to the persecution of their co-religionists has been an issue of controversy and a topic of critical research for a long time. Ever since the publication of Raul Hilberg’s monumental work The Destruction of the European Jewsin 1961, where he criticized the lack of Jewish resistance as a contributing factor to the destruction process, the agonizing questions of whether events could have developed differently and more Jews could have been saved, have not passed away.   

In his well-researched book, the Swedish historian Pontus Rudberg addresses these questions by studying the activities and rescue-efforts of Swedish Jews, in particular of their largest and most important organization, the Jewish Community of Stockholm. In Sweden, the Jewish establishment was also met with charges of passivity and failure after the war. According to this critical narrative, the liberal Jewish leadership was reluctant to help a larger number of Jewish refugees to Sweden because they feared that Jewish immigration (especially of poor Jews from Eastern Europe) might lead to an increase of antisemitism and thereby endanger the position of (assimilated) Jewry in Swedish society. These allegations, most pointedly presented by the Swedish-American historian Steven S. Koblik in 1988, did not remain unchallenged. In a study commissioned by the Jewish Community of Stockholm and published in 2004, the political scientist Svante Hansson repudiated Koblik’s claim that the Jewish community was more restrictive than the Swedish government to admitting Jewish refugees. He nevertheless concluded that the policy of Jewish leaders in helping Jewish refugees to Sweden was overly cautious and appeared to those who sought help sometimes as outright discouraging. Hansson attributed this “cautious approach” to the ideological self-understanding of assimilated Swedish-Jewish leaders, shaped by religious and political liberalism. 

The achievements of Rudberg’s study become clearly visible against the backdrop of this state of historiographical debate. Critical towards explanations of human actions solely deduced from ideological convictions or attitudes, Rudberg develops an analytical framework that allows for a detailed reconstruction of the room for maneuver the Swedish Jewish leaders had at a particular time. Concretely, he examines the efforts of Swedish Jews to aid their co-religionists in Europe in the context of five determining factors: the organization and leadership of Swedish Jewry; the (Swedish) legislative and political framework; the availability of information about the Nazi terror against Jews in Europe; international relief system and networks; and the financial resources of the Jewish community in Sweden. With his systematic approach based on a thorough investigation of the available sources, Rudberg succeeds in giving a comprehensive, detailed, and convincing account of the Swedish-Jewish rescue work in the period 1933 to 1945. Contrary to previous research, he does not find the Swedish Jewish efforts hampered by internal ideological divisions. Liberals, Zionists, and orthodox Jews worked closely together in the different relief organizations. Neither was the rescue work hindered by an ambivalence among Swedish Jewish leaders about accepting Jewish refugees. It was not a “lack of effort or will on the part of Swedish Jews” (259) when the extent of aid was limited. The limitations were largely attributable to the very rigid refugee policy of the Swedish government that did not recognize persecuted Jews as “political refugees.” Under these circumstances, help for Jews was largely limited to a “transmigration scheme: that is, lobbying for a quota for temporary residence visas that would allow Jewish refugees to get out of Central Europe and stay in Sweden for some time before they could travel on to third countries, in particular to Palestine or the United States. While Swedish government policies changed during the war, when the country accepted all Norwegian and Danish Jews who managed to escape deportation, Rudberg shows that the new state subsidies for aiding Jewish refugees in Sweden not only helped the Jewish relief organizations whose resources were limited but also meant “co-optation and control” of Jewish refugee work by the state authorities. In helping persecuted Jews in Europe, Swedish Jewish leaders did not only deal with their own government. They were closely cooperating with other Jewish organizations on the transnational and international level. The extent to which the policies and priorities of international (German-Jewish, Zionist, and American-Jewish) relief organizations shaped the Swedish-Jewish rescue work down to the smallest detail has been previously unknown and is one of the most interesting findings in this volume. In its systematic methodology, its sober analysis of the sources, and its nuanced presentation, Rudberg’s book stands out as an exemplary contribution to the historical study of Jewish rescue efforts during the Holocaust.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christhard Hoffmann is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Bergen.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pontus Rudberg is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hugo Valentin Centre at Uppsala University in Sweden.


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