wexler - Emil Salman - August 26 2011
Daniela Wexler today. Photo by Emil Salman
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AP
Silvia and her father Photo by AP
AP
Efim Wechsler and his daughter Ilse. Photo by AP

Walter Sommerlath was born in Germany in January 1901. As a child he dreamed of being a military man, but by the time he grew up his country had collapsed in the wake of World War I and Sommerlath decided to seek his fortune abroad. When he was 20 years old, he moved to Brazil, as did many of his fellow countrymen, and went to work in a German-run steel factory, apparently in Sao Paulo. At 25 he married a local girl named Alice Soares de Toledo.

At that time, Germans constituted the largest community of immigrants in Brazil; starting in the first half of the 19th century, about a quarter of a million emigrated there. Sommerlath became well integrated in the expatriate community, and sent his son to a German school. In December 1934 he joined the Nazi Party, and three years later returned to his homeland and settled with his family in one of the high-class neighborhoods of Berlin. He already had two sons at the time; later another son was born and in 1943 his daughter Silvia was born. Thereafter, Walter Sommerlath's story was endowed with historical importance: Silvia grew up and, among other things, worked as a hostess at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And one day she met Swedish Crown Prince Carl Gustaf, who assumed the throne in 1973, and three years later they were married.

The life story of the queen's father, a German who became a wealthy industrialist in Nazi Germany, naturally aroused many questions. One of the reporters for the Swedish newspaper Expressen asked Sommerlath some years later whether he had been a member of the Nazi Party and Sommerlath replied in the negative. Time passed and eventually it turned out that Sommerlath had lied; naturally, the question arose as to whether he might be hiding something else about his life. He grew old and passed away in 1990, at the age of 89, but people still wondered whether Queen Silvia knew anything about her father's past and was concealing the secret from her people.

Before the queen's birth

About a year ago, Swedish television's leading investigative program claimed that Sommerlath had made his fortune at a metal factory in Berlin that belonged to a Jew named Efim Wechsler. According to the report, the plant came into Sommerlath's hands in accordance with the Aryanization regulations regarding Jewish property - in other words, after selling at what was usually an absurdly low price, or even after simply giving it away, in return for a permit to emigrate from Germany. In other words, the queen's father, a member of the Nazi Party, had stolen the property of a Jew.

A palace spokesman said, rightfully, that this story had taken place before the queen was born, and that she had no inkling about the history of her father's business. Didn't she ever ask him? The queen said she had not. This is possible: Many people in Germany didn't ask their parents what they did during the Nazi era; in general, too many people don't ask their parents about their lives, and by the time they think of doing so - it's too late.

The Swedish media became interested in the television report and soon afterward the Expressen's correspondent in Israel, Arne Lapidus, began his own investigation, which led him to artist Daniela Wexler, a former Magistrate's Court judge and registrar of the Jerusalem District Court. About a year earlier, Wexler had published a chapter of the history of her family on TheMarker Cafe website. Her ancestors include some of the first settlers in Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv. Under the heading "The Queen of Sweden and I" Wexler wrote, among other things:

"Mother left me seven cartons of letters and documents containing her entire life ... Among all the papers I found a picture postcard of the king of Sweden and his wife. An ordinary postcard. What was it doing there? So, this is what my mother told me: Her father, my grandfather, Yona Wechsler, had a brother in Berlin named Efim Wechsler. In light of the threatening atmosphere in Germany, beginning in 1933, Efim decided that the time had come to leave. He saw an ad in the newspaper by a German living in Brazil, the owner of a coffee plantation. The man wanted to return to Germany and was looking for a businessman who wanted to change places with him. They made contact, and Efim, his wife and daughter moved to Brazil and the German returned to Germany."

That, according to this story, is how the life of Efim Wechsler was saved. In Brazil he was very successful.

Daniela Wexler's father was Emanuel Resin, who was the founder of the Delek oil company, and one of the architects of Israel's oil industry. One day he traveled with his wife to an international conference in Stockholm, where he met the king and queen. Upon their return, Daniela was told that in their conversation with Queen Silvia they discovered that the queen's father was the German who had exchanged property with Efim Wechsler.

Strange, not impossible

It's a strange story, but not impossible. It turns out that after the war Wechsler did not demand reparations for his factory in Berlin. It is possible that this fact encouraged the Swedish royal family to assume that there was no danger in investigating the story, and so a highly detailed report was born, which now appears on the royal website in Swedish, English, German and Portuguese. It is a fascinating document; it reflects a great deal of work and exonerates the queen's father, but also teaches once again that official historians are not the best researchers in cases of this kind.

The document was drawn up by Dr. Erik Norberg, a respected 69-year-old archivist and historian. He was the director of the Swedish Military Archives. He carried out various projects for UNESCO, was the president of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences and secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities. He has written several books and holds an honorary title: Lord in Waiting.

Loyal to his king and queen, Norberg studied the roots of the Wechsler story and went into great detail, including in his final report legal fine points, complicated calculations to determine the present value (in dollars and euros ) of the prices quoted in 1930s Brazilian reals, and many more statistics, going back as far as 1820 - and everything with footnotes and a bibliography, 34 pages in all. That often happens in official reports: For all the words and numbers, it's hard to see the Nazi.

Trained to do careful research, Norberg admits that he cannot explain why Sommerlath joined the Nazi Party, but allows himself to guess: 3,000, and perhaps even 5,000 of the Germans in Brazil joined the party, and as many as 15,000 participated in social events it sponsored. Furthermore, Sommerlath, it should be recalled, was married to a non-German woman, a Brazilian citizen; maybe he felt a need to stress his German identity. Maybe.

There is of course another possibility, which the royal archivist did not mention: Perhaps Sommerlath joined the Nazi Party because he really was a Nazi. But Norberg's report tends toward the opposite direction: Sommerlath is practically portrayed as a righteous gentile.

At the same time Norberg includes a very interesting, but not really relevant, anecdote. There was once a Catholic politician in Germany by the name of Johannes Schauff, who opposed the Nazis and was even connected to anti-Nazi resistance groups. Schauff started a rescue project for Germans who could not remain in their country, including Jews. They purchased property in the state of Parana, south of Sao Paulo, and in that way could receive immigration visas for Brazil. In order to bypass the restrictions on taking foreign currency out of Nazi Germany, the purchasers deposited their payments in the account of a British company in Berlin. The arrangement, which is reminiscent of the transfer agreement between the Zionist Movement and the authorities in Nazi Germany, saved the lives of thousands of people; Norberg notes that there is no way of knowing how many of them were Jews. Many settled in an attractive city called Rolandia, which also served as a refuge for fleeing Nazi criminals after World War II.

Inclusion of Schauff's story is apparently meant to allude to the fact that Walter Sommerlath could have taken advantage of the process of enabling opponents of the Nazi regime, including Jews, to find refuge in Brazil. But in fact there was no connection between Schauff and Sommerlath. There is no proof that Sommerlath planned to help anyone; he wanted to get rid of his coffee plantation and return to Germany. In order to overcome the Nazi currency regulations, he suggested a barter deal - apparently in the advertisement he published. The most important part of Norberg's report cites documentation of that deal, whereby Sommerlath received Wechsler's factory in Berlin, and Wechsler received the coffee plantation in Brazil. Apparently the arrangement was above board, legal and completed in Sao Paulo in the presence of attorneys from both sides.

Up to this point everything is clear: The queen's father did not expropriate a Jew's property. It still remains to be seen why the plant that Sommerlath acquired from Wechsler worked primarily in the service of the Nazi war machine. The answer is that it wasn't the only one, and toward the end of the war the factory was totally destroyed. At the same time, Norberg makes a point of mentioning in his report, twice, how hard it was for Sommerlath to manage during the war, since Brazil joined the countries that declared war on Germany and his wife, Alice Soares de Toledo, was a Brazilian citizen. How nice the story would be if it were to be discovered, perhaps in another investigation, that the mother of the Queen of Sweden was actually a scion of a family of Jewish Marranos.

Former Judge Daniela Wexler reacted with satisfaction to the Norberg report: "Sommerlath is innocent. In any case, the queen is not to blame," she said. "She can now return to her royal preoccupations and I'll continue to tell the story of my family."

The main points of this story were published here a year ago, but one of the details was inaccurate. As opposed to what I wrote, apparently it was not Queen Silvia who told Daniela Wexler's mother about the barter agreement between Sommerlath and Wechsler, but Daniela Wexler's mother who told the queen about it. The mistake was caught by the sharp eye of Dr. Erik Norberg, who mentioned it in his report, to my detriment. Any royal reprimand will be humbly accepted.