Exposing the Skeletons in Sweden’s World War II Closet

In 1942, an SS officer told a Swedish diplomat about the Nazi death camps. A new documentary has revived the story

File Photo: Swedish diplomat Göran Fredrik von Otter
Birgitta von Otter

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.

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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.

File Photo: SS officer Kurt Gerstein
LkwA Bielefeld

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.

Swedish diplomat's daughter, Birgitta von Otter
Charlotta Tengroth/Filmkreatöre

“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.”

Director of the documentary 'The Swedish Silence,' Carl Svensson.
Tomaz Blanck

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.