Risking Nazi retaliation, neutral Sweden provided sanctuary for Jews escaping from Denmark, Norway, and other European countries. And, in 1944, it was the Swedish government that sent Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest to save countless Hungarian Jews.
Sweden in Wartime
Sweden retained its status as a neutral country during World War II, but maintaining neutrality was no easy task. The Western Allies on the one hand, particularly Great Britain, sought Swedish support in the fight against Nazi Germany. Although unwilling to risk German occupation, Sweden wanted to preserve its close cultural and economic ties to Berlin. In the late 1930s and after the outbreak of the war, Sweden did not regard itself as a potential harbor for fleeing Jews, and even passed critical restrictions on immigration, as did many other countries at the time.
However, from 1942 onward, as news of Jewish persecution spread, Swedish diplomats engaged in intensive negotiations with German authorities to save Scandinavian Jews from deportation. Due to Germany’s strong interest in good relations with Sweden, these appeals were successful. The first major move to accept Jewish refugees occurred when Norwegian Jews faced deportation in November 1942. The outcry among the Swedish public pushed the government to take action, providing refuge for half of Norway’s Jews — those who managed to escape across the Norwegian-Swedish border. In October 1943, the Jews of occupied Denmark faced the same fate as their Norwegian neighbors. Famed scientist Niels Bohr pleaded with Sweden to take in the Danish Jews. Sweden agreed, and more than 7,000 Danish Jews found refuge on its shores for the remainder of the war. The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, working under the auspices of the United States War Refugee Board, saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews through the Swedish embassy in Budapest. There he issued “protective passes” which rescued their holders from deportation by suggesting an official relation to the Swedish embassy. The case of Sweden in attempting to act on behalf of the Jews shows how difficult it can be to combine national interests, which in this case clearly favored neutrality, and moral action. Today, Sweden’s 16,000 Jews represent the largest Jewish community in Scandinavia.
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