Exposing the Skeletons in Sweden’s World War II Closet

In 1942, an SS officer told a Swedish diplomat about the Nazi death camps. Now, a new documentary revives the story. "En Svensk Tiger – The Swedish Silence" tells the amazing story of SS officer Kurt Gerstein and Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter, their meeting on a night train from Warsaw to Berlin in and the meaning and consequences that night carries to this day. It's a tragic and complicated story but a very human one too. A powerful reminder of all the hate, cruelty and indifference we are capable of but also of the fact that choice between good and evil is always possible, even in the heart of darkness itself.

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium-exposing-the-skeletons-in-sweden-s-world-war-ii-closet-1.7211906 

On a summer’s night in 1942, on a train traveling from Poland to Germany, Swedish diplomat Göran Fredrik von Otter noticed a very troubled passenger. “I saw how he was looking at me,” he said in a 1968 interview, “as if he wanted to tell me something.” Since Sweden was neutral during World War II, it still had an embassy in Berlin, and von Otter was working there.

On this particular evening he was on his way back to Berlin after a day of meetings in German-occupied Warsaw. The passenger he met on the crowded train introduced himself as Kurt Gerstein, lit a cigarette and said: “I saw something terrible yesterday.” He then told his interlocutor that he was an SS officer, returning from a visit to two places that were almost totally unknown at the time: Treblinka and Belzec.

That summer, only a handful of office-holders in Germany knew what was actually going on in the death camps in Poland. The Nazi officer told the Swedish diplomat what he had seen, providing him with one of the earliest testimonies, both credible and detailed, to emerge from the extermination camps. From time to time the German officer broke down in tears, and in the end he urged von Otter to tell the Swedish government what he had told him and to see to it that the world put a stop to the crimes he had witnessed. The two parted ways when the train reached Berlin.

The annihilation of Jews did not cease, however, and the information revealed in that nighttime encounter, which were supposed to reach millions, were revealed to only a few in real time. Even after the war, Gerstein’s name did not become well known, even though it surfaced in a number of movies, plays and biographies. But now this story has surfaced again, in the form of a new documentary called “The Swedish Silence,” directed by Carl Svensson.

The wrong man

“I first learned about the story from Gitta Sereny’s book about Albert Speer,” Svensson says in a conversation in a Stockholm café in mid-April, referring to the Austrian-British author’s 1995 biography of the notorious Nazi leader. “I began to research it and naturally the meeting on the night train became the starting point of the film.”

The main protagonists of the story, Gerstein and von Otter, are no longer alive – the former allegedly committed suicide in 1945; the latter passed away in 1988 – but in the process of making the documentary, Svensson did track down some of their relatives. Indeed, the men’s daughters, Birgitta von Otter and Adelheid von Platen, respectively, star in the new film, which does not focus on the historical episode per se but rather on how it affected a much wider group of people over three generations.

“This became a new perspective,” Svensson tells me. “Von Otter is looking for the truth her father didn’t want to talk about, while von Platen talks a lot about being part of ‘an SS family’ after the war. We have to continue talking about the Holocaust but we need new perspectives so that it doesn’t become a cliché.

“In this film,” he adds, “the main characters are the next generation: They didn’t witness the events themselves, they are ‘witnesses of the witnesses,’ and the incident that led to the connection between them – the meeting on the train – is still very present in their lives. It’s an open wound.”

“Father didn’t really want to talk about it,” says Birgitta von Otter, who is in her 80s today and found out about the incident over the years, through letters, newspaper interviews and fragments of conversations with her parents. “My mother said that my father was pale after his encounter with Gerstein, and he proceeded directly to write a report about it. When he presented his report to his superiors at the embassy [in Berlin] he was asked not to write about it, but to tell the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm next time he went there.”

There is still a lack of clarity regarding the identity of the person who gave von Otter these instructions and the timing of his next trip to Stockholm, but it’s clear that when he arrived there a few months later, he reported Gerstein’s testimony to the head of the ministry’s political department, Staffan Söderblom.

“It’s not clear what Söderblom did with the information,” says von Otter. “At the foreign ministry they said that they only heard about Gerstein’s story when they read about it in the papers much later.”

For their part, the Swedes claimed later that they did not decide to take any action since the situation was known by the time they received it. To this day, no official document has been found to indicate that people-in-the-know in the Swedish government were planning to disseminate the information provided by Gerstein.

“I don’t want to judge von Otter,” says Carl Svensson, “but I think he was the wrong person at the wrong place and the wrong time. In many ways he’s a symbol of Sweden’s World War II policy. We were among the first to know about the Holocaust but we didn’t do anything about it. Being neutral is a commitment. We should have done more, we should have been a safe haven for refugees, not just avoid being attacked. Von Otter was in a way a typical Swede, a bureaucrat, someone that does as he’s told, respects authority and avoids conflicts.”

The documentary also presents the complex historical context in which von Otter was operating. Along with humanitarian operations such as those spearheaded by businessman and diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and efforts to help save the Jews of Denmark and Norway, Sweden cultivated ties with the Third Reich – selling iron to Germany’s military industries, which paid for it with money stolen from European Jews. Many claim that in this way Sweden contributed to the prolongation of the war.

“We are taught that Sweden was not part of World War II, but that’s not entirely true,” says Svensson. “We were also part of Europe’s history in the 1940s and we must face that.”

“The Swedish Silence” is a Holocaust movie but it’s not about Jews: Its main focal point is not the victims, and not even the murderers, but rather the onlookers and bystanders – those who had a choice about how to react.

Kurt Gerstein was an SS officer and part of the German extermination machine, but at the same time he opposed the Nazis and served as a one-man resistance movement within the SS, who tried to disseminate news about their crimes to the world. He was a devout Christian and was active in religious organizations as well as being a Nazi Party member.

In the mid-1930s, perhaps due to the murder of a relative by the Nazis, Gerstein became an active opponent of the regime, distributing anti-regime materials and participating in protests. He got into trouble with the authorities and was arrested by the Gestapo, losing his job as a mining engineer. A few months before the war broke out, however, he returned to the party, and in 1941 he became an officer in the Waffen SS Hygiene Institute. Among his responsibilities was supplying Zyklon B to Auschwitz. The highly poisonous pesticide was initially used for disinfection but in 1942 the Nazis began using it to gas people to death, and Gerstein was in charge of delivering it in large quantities.

In August of that year he was asked to go to Poland to advise senior Nazi officials Odilo Globocnik and Christian Wirth, who were responsible for building and operating camps for the extermination of Jews in that country. At those camps, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, the Nazis were then using carbon monoxide to murder Jews and Gerstein was tasked with two jobs: helping to expedite the process of killing people, and disinfecting the enormous piles of clothes that they left behind. After Globocnik warned Gerstein and his associates, at a meeting in Lublin, that everything they were going to see was top secret, and that divulging anything would lead to a death sentence – they left for their first stop: Belzec.

Gerstein was horrified by what he saw there. He watched a transport of thousands of Jews from Lwow arriving at the camp’s gates just after 7 A.M. one day. Hundreds were already dead. When they got off the train they were told to undress, the women’s hair was shorn, and they were all made to run naked along a fenced-in path, being whipped along the way. At the end of the path was the building holding the gas chambers. Gerstein noticed the geraniums in the yard and the picture of a Star of David on the ceiling of the building.

After an SS officer assured everyone that no harm would befall them, they were crowded into the chambers, the doors were locked, and a diesel engine started pumping in the poisonous gas. In the report he submitted to the Allies after the war, Gerstein describes how the engine failed that day, and the whole process was halted for three hours, with shouting and cries audible from the outside. After the engine started working again, the killing process took half an hour. Gerstein watched the bodies being taken out and buried.

“Even in their death you could identify the families,” he described in the report. “The bodies of children, women and men were taken out, still holding hands.”

After that fateful visit to Belzec, Gerstein toured Treblinka and then returned to Warsaw. On August 20 he got on the night train to Berlin, where he met von Otter and told him everything he’d seen. He didn’t stop after meeting the Swede by chance: He continued to disseminate the information at every opportunity: to leaders of the Catholic Church, to Swiss diplomats and to the Dutch government in exile.

His efforts had no effect, apparently, and Gerstein ended up serving in the SS until the end of the war. According to different testimonies, he suffered pangs of conscience and tried to diminish his own role in abetting Nazi crimes by destroying shipments of Zyklon B on several occasions. At the end of the war he surrendered to the French, and volunteered to write about the crimes perpetrated by Nazis and to testify at their trials.

At that time, after the war in 1945, Göran von Otter had been transferred to the Swedish embassy in Helsinki. He knew nothing had been done by his government with the information he had received from Gerstein, and asked a colleague in London to pass on the information to the Allies. If Swedish diplomacy could not save the victims, he may have thought, perhaps the information would help Gerstein avoid being executed as a war criminal. Here too, the diplomat’s actions were too hesitant and too late. The letter was sent, but the day it arrived in London, Gerstein was found hanging in his cell. He left behind a wife and three children, who learned of his death only three years later.

Families’ encounter

Birgitta von Otter (whose sister, Anne Sofie, is a world-famous opera singer) says that her father was in contact with Gerstein’s widow after the war. “He visited her in the 1980s, wanting to look her in the eyes. He must have felt guilty, thinking he could have done more.” In Svensson’s documentary, three generations are present at the encounter between the families.

“It was interesting to see how Adelheid lived in the shadow of her father,” says von Otter. “She can’t remember him but she talks about him and has kept photos and several of his possessions. Ultimately, she’s a child who lost her father and suffered greatly because of what happened to him. The family lived in poverty, was condemned as Nazis, and fought for years to clear his name.”

She adds that the recent visit to Germany helped her understand the importance of the role the war still plays there even today – as compared to Sweden, where it is much less present.

“There is a certain naivete in Sweden about the role it played during the war,” notes director Svensson, adding that Swedish TV turned down requests to air the film a couple of times. “Now we’ve shortened the film and we’re talking with SVT (Sweden’s public broadcaster), trying to have it aired anyway. But many Swedes just don’t want to talk about it.”

Thus, despite the fact that many of his countrymen wish to avoid the whole subject, Svensson’s film, in a way, is putting Sweden back in European history.

“Moral decisions are taken by individuals, not by collectives,” says Arne Ruth, a senior Swedish journalist and editor, who knew Göran von Otter personally and supports Svensson’s effort. “It’s not about collective guilt. Swedish TV may think it has dealt enough with the Holocaust and that it doesn’t need to deal with this rather strange story, but it’s an important story because it shows how a life of an individual changed because of inaction, and how even the next generation of the family was affected by this passivity. It’s a human perspective and therefore always relevant.”

Indeed, the story involving von Otter and Gerstein is important although it did not change the course of events over 70 years ago. The information brought by Gerstein about the annihilation of Jews did not stop it, and it is difficult to estimate how many people could have been saved had the official Swedish response been more resolute. However, the report he wrote at the end of the war was used in trials against Nazi war criminals, including at Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. His testimony has also been used in combating Holocaust denial.

More importantly, perhaps, Gerstein’s legacy is a troubling reminder of human apathy and a powerful argument against averting one’s gaze, and against claims that it was impossible to oppose the Nazi war machine. Gerstein showed that choosing between good and evil is possible even under unbearable conditions, and that actions against evil can be carried out almost anywhere – even from within the very innards of the monster itself.

Auschwitz wasn't on another planet

יום השואה הבינ"ל, גניבת שלט הכניסה של אושוויץ וראיון עם פרופ' יהודה באואר

Published in The Local – Sweden's news in English, January 2010 http://www.thelocal.se/24616/20100127/

When writing about Auschwitz, it's important to start with the obvious. The theft of the camp's notorious entrance sign was an appalling act and those who are responsible for it must be punished. In a broader context, on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 65 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is important to point out that the original camp site, along with the museum and archive which were built on it, are in need of serious renovation. If the site's educational projects, research activities and ceremonial events, are to continue, there is need of a large investment, of international support and of course, a better security system.

So much for stating the obvious.

There is however another way of looking at the theft of the sign which naturally raised many angry reactions. Interestingly enough, statements made after the event were of the kind usually made when religious sites are desecrated. It's easy to forget that Auschwitz is not a holy site. It is not a vandalized grave or a burnt down synagogue, in fact it's as far from a holy site as one can imagine. Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) may well be the largest Jewish graveyard in the world and the site where thousands of Poles, Roma, Russians and many others were murdered, but the entrance sign of the main camp, Auschwitz 1, which simply states "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work liberates) is perhaps one of most profound symbols of evil and one of the most symbolic representations of Nazism. So much so that it is almost tempting to cry out to the thieves and to all the Anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis who support them: "If you want it so badly, just go ahead and take it!"

 There is a reason why that sign is so symbolic. Auschwitz wasn't on another planet, as Jewish writer and Auschwitz survivor, Yehiel Dinur, once put it. It was made from the stuff of our very own planet. It took all the evils of this world and brought them to a new level. Though it developed new and monstrous techniques, it didn't invent anything new. It was the most accurate representation of the world view of the Nazi movement which, while being politically revolutionary, was based on old and conservative values. Like Nazism itself, Auschwitz was hierarchical, racist, and murderous all of which are typical aspects of the twentieth century. It was a world where human beings had no value, where every part of their body and belongings was used to make profit before they were annihilated. It was a world of cruelty and ruthlessness, but not less interesting, it was a world of lies. And this is where the "Work Liberates" slogan has its deeper meaning.

The lies in Auschwitz weren’t limited to the lies told to the victims who were told, for example, that they are entering the showers when they were standing at the doors of gas chambers. They were deeper, almost philosophical. Auschwitz had every aspect of human life. There was music, medicine and even a judicial system. There were work places, sex life, trade and industry. But these were all distorted. Any trace of humanity was sucked out of them. Music, for example, was transformed from an expression of beauty and human emotions to a soundtrack of slave marches and executions. In the so called "Joy Division", sex was transformed from a source of pleasure and expression of intimacy to violent and repeated rape. In the torture chambers of Block no. 11, the judicial system served might instead of right and in Dr. Mengale's Block medicine did not save lives, but practiced diabolical experiments to glorify a mythical ‘master race.’

And then there's work. Work can define us; it can give us pleasure, release our creative abilities or at least provide for us. Work can liberate. But in Auschwitz work was the exploitation of people struck by disease and hunger by corporations, some of which, sadly enough, still exist today. All this makes the stolen slogan not only cynical but also a pure symbol of everything wrong in this world. As such, perhaps we can do without it.

Many, myself included, were shocked by the theft of the sign. But was the response proportional? Is the symbol really so important? I have visited Auschwitz many times and have seen how the sign has turned into a tourist attraction and how groups of laughing teenagers from all over the world gather beneath it to have their picture taken. Visiting Auschwitz is important and Symbols are important too but they are not everything. It's important to remember that although the war ended in 1945 genocide, racism and oppression didn't. Perhaps it would be more effective if some of the attention given to the stolen sign were diverted to the atrocities in Darfur for example, or to the many cases of minority oppression and discrimination worldwide.

The Israeli historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who is one of the world's greatest authorities on the Holocaust, says: "There are many places in the world today where mass murder and even genocide are possible. Everyone knows about Sudan but there are other places like Burma (Myanmar) and East Congo. The situation in other regions like Iran, with its complex ethnical problems, The Balkans, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Iraq and some places in South America like Guatemala could also deteriorate into mass murder". Bauer, who is visiting Stockholm this week, serves as an senior adviser to many institutes including the Swedish Government, the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research and the International Forum on Genocide Prevention. "The Holocaust was an unprecedented event because of its totality, universality and the pure ideological motives behind it", says Bauer, "But it was not unique, since it was an act of human beings on other human beings, it can happen again".

Though Bauer's work with the UN and other international organizations to prevent future crimes, may be more important to future generations than the preservation of old Nazi concentration camps, it can be claimed that the stolen sign, like the camp itself, is important as a witness of what happened and can be used in the battle against those who deny the Holocaust. There is truth in this. But there will come a day when not much will remain of the original camp. What then?

Even today parts of it are falling apart despite all preservation efforts. Like it or not, physical artifacts, just like the testimonies of living survivors, important as they are, will have a smaller role in remembering and understanding the Holocaust in the future. It is, after all, an event from the past century, and sadly its' survivors are becoming fewer and fewer. Camps like Treblinka and Sobibor were totally destroyed and many documents and artifacts are already lost. Future discussion about the Holocaust will have to be based on books, museums and films, and if we want it to have a future at all, public debate, educational dialogue and historical research will have to take the place of visiting the sites themselves.

From a Swedish perspective, these observations are particularly important. The apparent involvement of a Swedish Neo-Nazi in the sign theft last month reminds us that there is a need to continue the efforts to fight racism, Anti-Semitism and undemocratic trends in Swedish society. Sweden's ambivalent role in WW2 makes this even more crucial. As a vital exporter of iron ore to the German war machine, and as an industrial and sometimes political and ideological Nazi allay, Sweden has a moral and political obligation to deal with its past even if it is also responsible for saving many lives through its diplomatical efforts and generosity to refugees.

"Anti-Semitism in Europe is getting worse", says Prof. Bauer and explains that it exists in the extreme Right-Wing as well as in the left and in parts of the second generation of Muslim immigrants who rebel against their communities by targeting Israel and the Jews. He points out Sweden's efforts in fighting these trends, "Sweden dedicated time and money and has created The Living History Forum, a government agency commissioned to promote democracy and human rights, with the Holocaust as its point of reference". There is of course still work to be done and Bauer claims that studying the core issues of the Holocaust and especially the dilemmas of its victims are crucial to this process.

As for the stolen sign, I don't really know what the thieves who climbed on Auschwitz's gate and removed the sign on that cold December night had in mind. Truth be told, I don't really care. I was shocked when it was taken and I'm glad it is now back. But that is stating the obvious again.

Beyond the obvious is another thought. In one of his books, Yehiel Dinur describes a vision of an Auschwitz prisoner. He is sitting in a truck full of prisoners on the way to the crematorium and he's looking at an SS officer. He realizes, to his horror, that under other circumstances the roles could have been reversed and he could have been the killer. The worst thing about Auschwitz, he realizes, is that it is man-maid, not the work of the devil and it lies within the potential of human behavior. He describes the truck passing under the German words "Arbeit Mach Frei" and in his mind the German words are transformed into Hebrew ones: "In the image of God created he him". The symbol of Nazism becomes the cradle of Humanism. Now that would be a sign no one could steal.

וגרסה עברית:

כשעוסקים באושוויץ חשוב לפתוח במובן מאליו. גניבת השלט משער המחנה לפני יותר מחודש היא מעשה נפשע והאחראים לו חייבים להיענש. זאת ועוד, יום השנה ה 65 לשחרור המחנה ויום השואה הבינלאומי, שיצוין השבוע ברחבי העולם, הוא הזדמנות נוספת להזכיר את מצבו הקשה של האתר בו נרצחו מעל למיליון וחצי בני-אדם ולקוות כי השמירה עליו תשופר, שהכסף הנדרש לשיפוצו יגויס בקרוב ושמאמץ ניכר יושקע בשימור המחנה ובהמשך הפעילות החינוכית, התיעודית והטקסית המתקיימת בו.

עד כאן המובן מאליו.

גניבת השלט "העבודה משחררת" עורר מטבע הדברים גל תגובות בישראל ובעולם. רוב התגובות הזכירו דברים שנשמעים כאשר מטרות יהודיות מותקפות בחו"ל. אך גניבת שלט הכניסה של אושוויץ איננה דומה לריסוס גרפיטי על בית-כנסת, להשחתת ספר תורה או לחילול קבר יהודי. מחנה אושוויץ איננו מקום קדוש, הוא מקום מקולל. שדות בירקנאו הם אמנם בית-הקברות הגדול ביותר של העם היהודי, אך דווקא השלט בעל הכתובת "ארבט מאכט פריי", הוא הדבר הרחוק ביותר מהיהדות או מהאנושיות שניתן לעלות על הדעת. הוא אולי הייצוג הנאמן ביותר של הנאציזם ושל הרוע עצמו. הוא ארור ומאוס עד כדי כך שמפתה לומר לגנביו כמו גם לכל האנטישמים, הניאו-נאצים והפשיסטים למיניהם שחוגגים את האירוע: "אם אתם כל כך רוצים את השלט הזה, בבקשה – קחו אותו!".

אושוויץ לא הייתה, כפי שאמר ק.צטניק, פלנטה אחרת. להיפך, אושוויץ הייתה בנויה מהחומרים של הפלנטה הזאת. היא לקחה את כל הרעות החולות של העולם המודרני והביאה אותן לקצה. היא פיתחה אמנם טכניקות חדשות, מפלצתיות, אך היא לא המציאה שום רעיון חדש. היא הייתה התגלמותו הנאמנה של האידיאולוגיה הנאצית, שהייתה מהפכנית אולי מבחינה פוליטית, אך התבססה על עקרונות שמרניים ומוכרים, החל מהפרקטיקה הניהולית ועד השימוש בפסיכולוגיה של התליינים והקורבנות. במחנה אושוויץ, כמו בנאציזם עצמו, היה כל מה שהיה רע במודרנה. הייתה בו ההיררכיה, הגזענות והרצחנות שאפיינו את המאה העשרים (ושלא חלפו עדיין מן העולם). נבנה בו עולם בו בני-אדם היו פחות מסך כל חלקיהם, חפצים חסרי ערך שכל חלק מגופם ורכושם נוצל למטרות כלכליות. היו באושוויץ אכזריות, חוסר חמלה ודיכוי אך  מעניין לא פחות, אושוויץ הייתה מבוססת על שקר. וכאן בדיוק תפקידה של הסיסמא הידועה לשמצה: "העבודה משחררת".

ההונאה באושוויץ לא התבטאה רק בשקרים שסופרו לקורבנות שנכנסו לתאי-הגזים מתוך אמונה שהם מקלחות. השקר של אושוויץ היה עמוק יותר. כמעט פילוסופי. באושוויץ היו הרי כל ביטויי העולם האנושי, היו בה מוסיקה, רפואה ומערכת משפט, היו בה מקומות עבודה, חיי מין, מסחר ותעשייה. אך מחולליה של אושוויץ לקחו כל מה שהיה לו פוטנציאל אנושי והפכו אותו על פיו. המוסיקה באושוויץ, למשל, הפכה מביטוי של יופי ורגשות אנושיים לפס-קול של מצעדי עבדים והוצאות להורג. בבית-הבובות המין הפך ממקור של עונג ואינטימיות לאונס סדרתי ואלים. במרתפי העינויים של בלוק 11, המשפט לא עשה צדק אלא הנציח את שרירות לבו ואכזריותו של השליט. בבלוק 10 של הדר' מנגלה הרפואה הפכה ממצילת חיים לגיהינום של המתת ילדים וקטיעת איברים.

ויש כמובן את העבודה. העבודה מעצבת את מי שאנחנו, היא יכולה להיות מקום של יצירה ומקור של פרנסה, היא יכולה להיות משחררת. אבל לא באושוויץ. באושוויץ העבודה הפכה לעבדות, לניצול של בני-אדם מוכי קור, מחלות ורעב ע"י תאגידים כלכליים שחלקם, למרבה הציניות, קיימים עדיין היום. כל אלו מבוטאים היטב בשלט "העבודה משחררת". זוהי יותר מציניות, זהו הביטוי הטהור ביותר של השקר והרוע של הנאציזם.

רבים הזדעזעו, ובצדק, מגניבת הסמל החשוב הזה. אך האם הפרופורציות הופרו? האם הסמל הזה באמת כל כך חשוב? אני ביקרתי באושוויץ פעמים רבות. ראיתי כיצד השלט הזה הופך לאתר תיירות וכיצד קבוצות מצחקקות של בני נוער מכל העולם מתקבצים תחתיו כדי להצטלם. אין ספק, הביקורים באושוויץ הם חשובים וגם סמלים הם חשובים אך הם לא מראית הכל. המלחמה אמנם הסתיימה ב 1945 אך מעשים של רצח-עם, גזענות ואפליה הם לא נחלת ההיסטוריה. ייתכן שלא היה מזיק אם מעט מתשומת הלב שלו זכה השלט הנאצי באושוויץ היה מופנה לנעשה בדרפור, לדיכוי מיעוטים או לצמיחתן של תנועות פשיסטיות ברחבי העולם.

פרופ' יהודה באואר, אחת האוטוריטות החשובות בעולם בנושא השואה, אומר: "יש מקומות רבים בעולם כיום שהרג המוני ורצח-עם אפשריים בהם. כולם יודעים על סודאן, אך יש מקומות נוספים כמו בורמה (מיאנמר) וקונגו המזרחית. המצב במקומות כמו איראן, על המורכבות האתנית שלה, הבלקנים, זימבבווה, קניה ועיראק ומקומות מסוימים בדרום-אמריקה כמו גווטאמאלה, יכול גם הוא להידרדר לרצח המוני". באואר, המבקר בימים אלו בסטוקהולם, משמש כיועץ בכיר לפורומים בינלאומיים שונים הנלחמים בתופעות של הרג המוני ורצח-עם. "השואה הייתה אירוע אי-תקדימי במובן הזה שהיא הייתה טוטאלית, אוניברסאלית, שיטתית ומונעת ע"י מניעים אידיאולוגיים טהורים", הוא אומר, "אבל היא איננה ייחודית. מכיוון שהיא בוצעה ע"י בני-אדם היא יכולה לקרות שוב".

למרות שעבודתו של באואר ושל אחרים חשובה אולי לאנושות יותר משימור מחנות-הריכוז הישנים, יש הטוענים שהשלט הגנוב, כמו שאר שרידי המחנה, חשוב כדי להילחם בהכחשת השואה. יש אמת בטענה זאת אך יבוא היום שבו לא יוותר הרבה מהמחנה המקורי ומשרידיו. כבר היום חלקים ממנו מתפוררים ויש שרידים שיתכלו למרות כל מאמצי השימור. השרידים הפיזיים כמו גם העדים החיים, חשובים ככל שיהיו, לא נותנים היום מענה להכחשת השואה וגם לא להבנתה. אחרי הכל, מדובר באירועים מאמצע המאה הקודמת ובקרוב לא יוותרו להם עדים חיים. מחנות חשובים כמו טרבלינקה וסוביבור נהרסו לחלוטין ע"י הגרמניים וחומר תיעודי רב נהרס ונעלם. אם חשוב לנו שהשואה ולקחיה לא יישכחו ניאלץ להתרגל ללמוד אותם דרך ספרים, סרטים ומוזיאונים ובעיקר דרך מחקר היסטורי, דיון ציבורי ושיח חינוכי.

מנקודת ראות שוודית אבחנות אלו חשובות במיוחד. מעורבותו לכאורה של ניאו-נאצי שוודי בגניבת השלט בחודש שעבר היא תזכורת לחשיבותו של המאבק בגזענות, באנטישמיות ובמגמות אנטי-דמוקרטיות בחברה השוודית. זכר התפקיד האמביוולנטי של שוודיה במלה"ע השנייה רק מחזקת צורך זה. כיצאנית ברזל חיוני למכונת המלחמה הגרמנית וכשותפה עסקית, ולעיתים גם פוליטית ואידיאולוגית של גרמניה הנאצית, לשוודיה יש אחריות פוליטית ומוסרית להתמודד עם עברה, אפילו אם היא הצילה אלפי בני-אדם בתקופת המלחמה כתוצאה ממאמציה הדיפלומטיים ונדיבותה כלפי פליטים. זוהי מחויבות היסטורית שנוגעת גם למגמות מדאיגות בהווה.

"מצבם של היהודים באירופה גרוע יותר היום משהוא היה בעבר", אומר פרופסור יהודה באואר ומסביר כי יש היום באירופה אנטישמיות מסורתית, דומה לזו הטרום-נאצית וגם אנטישמיות חדשה יותר. האנטישמיות לדבריו מגיעה משלושה מקומות מרכזיים: הימין הקיצוני, השמאל והדור השני והשלישי של מהגרים מוסלמים שמפנים את המרד שלהם בחברות המערביות הקולטות נגד ישראל והיהודים. שוודיה, מציין באואר, מקדישה מאמצים, זמן וכסף רב להילחם במגמות אלו אך יש עוד עבודה רבה. השימוש בגרעין הקשה של השואה, ובעיקר בדילמות של קורבנותיה, היא הדרך הטובה ביותר להמשיך את הדיון החשוב הזה.

אינני יודע מה בדיוק עבר בראשם של החוליגנים העלובים שטיפסו על השער של אושוויץ, הבריגו החוצה את שלט הכניסה וברחו איתו. למען האמת, זה גם לא אכפת לי במיוחד. המובן מאליו אומר שהשלט חשוב להנצחת הקורבנות ולפעילות החינוכית של המוזיאון וטוב שהוא הוחזר. אבל מעבר למובן מאליו יש מחשבה נוספת.

הסופר ק.צטניק בספרו "הצופן" מתאר חיזיון של אסיר, שלד בין שלדים עירומים, היושב במשאית בדרך לקרמטוריום ומביט אל קצין SS. האסיר מבין שהזוועה האמיתית של אושוויץ היא בכך שהיוצרות יכולות היו להתהפך ושהוא עצמו, בנסיבות אחרות, יכול היה להיות קצין SS. אושוויץ הרי איננה יצירת השטן, הוא מבין, אלא יצירת בני-אדם, שכולם שווים וכולם נבראו בצלם. "המשאית עוברת את שער אושוויץ שמעליו האותיות הגרמניות: ARBEIT MACHT FREI", כותב ק.צטניק את חזיון האסיר, "והן מתחלפות באותיות העבריות: "בצלם אלוהים ברא אותו". כך הופך סמל הנאציזם לערש ההומניזם. את השלט הזה אין איש יכול לגנוב.