Not far from the memorial square in the Yad Vashem compound in Jerusalem, a white vehicle is parked - part bus, part ambulance. It is one of 36 such vehicles that were used during the final weeks of World War II for the transfer of thousands of Nazi concentration camp prisoners from Germany to Sweden.
The official Web site of Yad Vashem states the convoy of vehicles rescued some 27,000 prisoners from Germany, including several thousand Jews, mostly women. The historian Yehuda Bauer says some 21,000 persons were rescued this way, and among them were 6,500 Jews.
The diplomatic scandal that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stirred over the article in the Swedish daily Aftonbladet is wrong since the government of a state that respects the freedom of the press is not responsible for what newspapers publish. That there was a demand for the Swedish government to "condemn" the article in question suggests Lieberman must still be thinking in Soviet terms.
The comparison between Sweden's refusal to condemn the article and its alleged silence during the Holocaust will not further Israel's foreign policy any more than the racist ideology of Yisrael Beiteinu.
From a historic point of view, too, the minister's claims are misplaced. Sweden's King Gustav V demanded of the Hungarian ruler at the time, Admiral Miklos Horthy, that the Jews in Hungary not be expelled. What is much more important is that Sweden saved the lives of some 20,000 Jews.
Like other countries, Sweden failed to aid persecuted Jews in the 1930s, mostly in Germany and Austria, and only a few were allowed to settle in its territory. So it is possible to say the Swedes are partly responsible for the death of every Jewish refugee who was not allowed entry into Sweden and was later murdered by the Nazis. This is an accusation that can be directed at any country that turns away refugees who are fleeing death, including Israel.
During the war Sweden was neutral. Many Swedes made a living, and a few became wealthy, as a result of trade with Nazi Germany; they also provided items that contributed to the efforts of the Nazi war machine. It may well be the Swedes would have been able to look themselves in the mirror of history with greater pride had they decided at the time to join the war against the Nazis. Either way, Swedish neutrality enabled the various rescue organizations, including Jewish groups, to base themselves in Stockholm and work from there in support of the persecuted. The main rescue efforts were carried out with the acknowledgment of the Swedish government, and some even as a result of its initiatives.
In October 1943, Sweden permitted nearly 8,000 Jews to enter the country, and thus saved their lives. In the summer of 1944, the Swedish embassy in Budapest issued documents to some 4,500 Hungarian Jews. These documents served to save thousands of other Jews. The Swedish banker Raul Wallenberg, who later disappeared in a Soviet prison, is best known for this operation.
The White Bus Operation, during the last weeks of the war, was made possible in part as a result of the negotiations between the SS Commander Heinrich Himmler and the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, who was later murdered in Jerusalem because of the peace plan he had proposed.
Sweden is one of the few countries that has passed special legislation against anti-Semitism. In January 2000, it also hosted an important international conference that gave a major boost to the global struggle against Holocaust denial.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now