Scandinavian Morality During WWII

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Passage to Sweden Film Poster

Passage to Sweden

Released January 27, 2021 (USA)

58 minutes

Directed by Suzannah Warlick

Bubble Soup Productions

Documentary, English


Why do countries behave so differently toward their religious and ethnic minorities? Are nations’ education systems so divergent that their citizens develop distinct moral codes? How much does leadership matter? Why do some ordinary people risk their lives to save others? 

In her recently released documentary, Passage to Sweden, director, producer and writer Suzannah Warlick examines these vital questions through the prism of the little-known story of Scandinavian Jews’ (and those in Budapest who were rescued by Swedish national Raoul Wallenberg) widely differing experiences during World War II. Warlick shot 130 hours of material from which she has skillfully woven a treasure trove of archival film footage, photographs and interviews with people who lived in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Hungary through the war years, thereby enabling us to acknowledge the truth that, as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum constantly reminds us, “What You Do Matters.”                    

Chana Sharfstein, daughter of the then chief rabbi of the Orthodox community in Stockholm, describes at the start of this documentary how, after the war started, life “went on as normal,” while most European Jews were living “in the midst of hell.”  Sweden was a neutral country, avoiding attack and occupation because of its rich natural resources, particularly iron ore, which the Germans needed for their war effort. Warlick’s film explores the differing histories of Jews’ treatment in the three Scandinavian countries during World War II. By rescuing and giving sanctuary to Jews, Sweden and Denmark acted as “righteous nations.” In contrast, Norway did not. 

Denmark and Norway were both attacked on April 9, 1940, and the contrasting ways in which their respective leaders (and ordinary civilians) behaved offers a rich morality lesson that could open discussions in schools and colleges.  

When 100,000 German troops entered Denmark, the country’s 20,000-strong army was no match. Within 24 hours, Denmark was overrun. Jews had been citizens of Denmark for several hundred years and had played a significant role in Danish culture and politics. Was this what helped safeguard them from antisemitism?  

According to Passage to Sweden, the answer lies to a great extent in Denmark’s leadership. King Christian X played a major role in setting the tone of civilian behavior—riding his horse through the streets of Copenhagen calming his people’s fears by his mere presence, as well as reassuring the Jewish population that he would protect them. 

When, in September 1943, the Germans ordered that the country’s Jews should be deported, the Danes rose to the challenge to defend their Jewish compatriots. Mass deportations were scheduled to begin on the eve of Rosh Hashana, yet when the Germans arrived to arrest people they found their homes empty—they had taken refuge with their Christian neighbors. Almost 8,000 Jews (97 percent of the Jewish population of Denmark) were smuggled out of the country by Danish fishermen who, despite the danger of German patrol ships and the risk of imprisonment if caught, ferried them across the Øresund Strait to neutral Sweden. As Chana Sharfstein eloquently states, this could not have happened without the help “of ordinary Danish people, people who don’t consider themselves big heroes, but ordinary everyday people who just became totally involved in rescuing Jews.”  

In almost every country across Europe, Jewish properties had been ransacked; at the end of the war, their former owners were unable to reclaim them. But when Danish Jews returned, they found their homes and synagogues intact. In the documentary, Ib Nathan Bamberger recounts, “there was no vandalism, there was no robbery, there was no stealing, there was no looting. And when we arrived in the harbor of Copenhagen in 1945 and we walked home and my father put the key in the door, there was the table still standing [which] my mother had set a year and a half before [when] we had left. I don’t know where there is another country like that.”

Compare and contrast that with the experience of neighboring Jews in Norway.  Not long after the invasion, King Haakon VII and the legitimate government of Norway fled to London, and Vidkun Quisling, a notorious Nazi sympathizer and collaborator, was appointed head of state. Following German orders, the civilian authorities instituted increasingly oppressive policies against the small Jewish population of 2,200. Shop windows displayed signs similar to those in Germany: “The Jewish parasite brought us April 9” and “Palestine calling, Jews are not tolerated in Norway.” There are harrowing first-hand accounts of perilous journeys in attempts to reach the border and escape, and how people were betrayed by fellow countrymen cooperating with the Nazis.  

Norwegian police arrested Jews all over the country, and when the Germans decided at the end of November 1942 to start deportations, 100 taxis were deployed around Oslo to pick up one family after another and deliver all 771 of them to the SS Donau moored in the harbor. From there they went to Stettin in Poland, and onwards directly to Auschwitz. At the end of the war, when the refugees and a handful of survivors from the camps returned to their homes, to Norway’s eternal shame everything had been taken from them—their homes, their life insurance, their bank accounts. They were left with nothing. 

The sanctuary Sweden offered to Jewish refugees saved thousands of lives. And there is of course the shining example of Swedish hero Raoul Wallenberg, who through unflinching personal bravery helped rescue some 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Warlick revisits his story, interviewing his sister Nina Lagergren, hearing from those who knew him in Budapest, and from people who were the beneficiaries of his Schutz-Pass (Protective Passport). She also hears from William Korey, a human rights and Soviet expert, who explains that Wallenberg was in fact “paid by the U.S., his expenses were covered by the U.S.,” and his rescue mission was a “U.S. operation.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says in the documentary that Wallenberg “emerged as a great role model for humanitarian behavior across the globe.”

During a panel discussion at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center, Warlick explained that her film’s message is that “anybody can be a good citizen, anybody can step up during a time of need and we shouldn’t let any of our differences make a difference in what we do.”

Check your local JCC film festival schedule, educational venues, foundations, museums, synagogues, human rights organizations and Holocaust studies programs for viewing dates and times.   

Due to the requirements of filmmakers and distributors, the virtual viewing of some movies is limited to certain geographical areas. Restrictions vary but it is worth checking each title on the internet. Most virtual films are only available for a few days.

DVDS of the film will be available soon.

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One thought on “Scandinavian Morality During WWII

  1. The in many cases more amazing story is what happened to the 400 plus Danish Jews who didn’t make it out. They were shipped to Theresienstadt — where the Danish government sent them food and continued to oversee their welfare. Months before the War drew to a close they were almost all shipped back to Denmark, minus several who had died of natural causes. This was a Theresiestadt where more than 90% of those who passed through died, mostly simply shipped out to be killed elsewhere.

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