Telling the story of Sweden’s Jews

11 November 2021

Portrait of Carl Henrik Carlsson holding a book.

Carl Henrik Carlsson’s book has been nominated for this year’s August Prize in the category of Swedish non-fiction.

"There are many ways of being Swedish, and being Jewish is one of them." These words set the seal on Carl Henrik Carlsson’s history of the Jews in Sweden (Judarnas historia i Sverige). Carlsson is a researcher at Uppsala University, and his book has been nominated for this year’s August Prize in the category of Swedish non-fiction.

As a researcher and teacher specialising in the history of the Jews in Sweden, Carl Henrik Carlsson grasped the need for a new overview. In 1924, the story of Jews in Sweden had been chronicled by the historian Hugo Valentin in a standard work, which was published 40 years later in an abridged version.

 “He also writes about his own day, and his account holds up quite well. But a great deal has happened in the world, and in research, since then. Several aspects weren’t addressed. I thought someone should write an up-to-date overview, and guessed that meant me,” Carlsson says with a laugh.

Key research environment

Although the project was his own initiative, he benefited greatly from his research environment at the Hugo Valentin Centre, part of Uppsala University’s Department of History.

“I’d never have been able to do this without being in this environment.”

Having joined the Centre a few years after his PhD on Eastern European Jews who migrated to Sweden in the 19th century, Carlsson became the coordinator of a research network focusing on the history of the Jews. For many years, he has also been teaching courses in the subject at both Uppsala University and Paideia Folk High School in Stockholm.

Alongside his research and teaching, he began writing. The work culminated in a rough manuscript of 600–700 pages that he then cut down to 400.

Relationship with the state

One theme in the book is Jews’ relationship with the majority society – government, Church and opinion leaders. Not until the 1770s were Jews allowed to live in Sweden without having to convert to Christianity.

“King Gustav III was influenced by Enlightenment ideas and economists who believed the Jews were good at business and capable of boosting the Swedish economy. In 1782, Judereglementet (the ‘Jew Rules’ statute) was introduced. It was a compromise between the King's and officialdom’s positive view on the one hand and anti-Jewish forces, such as burghers and priests, on the other,” Carlsson relates.

Eventually, Jews were allowed to live in Sweden on the same terms as everyone else. In the past few decades they have gained national-minority status, and in 2000 Yiddish became a national minority language.

Heterogeneous group with varying attitudes

Trends of the Jewish population are another theme in the book.

“It’s easy to see the Jews as an organic whole when it comes to their relationship with the state, for instance. But they’re a heterogeneous group with class and other differences, and divergent religious leanings, that have sometimes led to conflicts. For Jews, it’s been a balancing act to both adapt and, simultaneously, preserve their uniqueness.”

The book describes periods of large-scale immigration, such as in the decades around 1900 with the influx of Eastern European Jewish migrants into Sweden, and the years up to and after 1969 when Jewish refugees from Poland arrived.

In the 1930s, Sweden’s immigration policy was highly restrictive towards Jews. But in and after autumn 1942, several rescue operations were carried out. Some 12,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors came in Sweden in 1945, although many later left the country.

Emergence of Jewish elite

Carl Henrik Carlsson thinks Jewish integration has been broadly successful. A key year was 1870, when being a Lutheran ceased to be a requirement for a central government position. It became possible for Jews to be employed at universities and become Riksdag members. During this period, industrialism picked up and a Jewish elite emerged in Sweden.

“A few were hugely successful in trade and industry, while many became prominent in cultural life and as patrons for not only hospitals and charities, but also cultural and educational institutions. But such people were only a small fraction of the highly heterogeneous Jewish population.”

Anti-Semitism has been a recurrent theme of Jewish history.

“It affects Jews’ lives – they have to relate to it. People may sometimes get the idea that what happened in the Second World War was an evil aberration; but it’s always existed, expressed in varying ways and degrees of intensity,” Carlsson says.

Anti-Semitism was religious in origin, and many Jews converted to Christianity so that they could be accepted as Swedes. Later, more ethnic or purely racist anti-Semitism gained sway.

Interest in Jewish culture growing

The book also covers the past 30 years, if more briefly. Contemporary anti-Semitism comes up  but so, too, does the fact that interest in Jewish culture has been increasing in Sweden.

“Anti-Semitism has become stronger. It takes on various expressions, and comes partly from other groups. At the same time, public awareness has grown. And there’s immense vitality in Jewish life. They’ve become more open, revealed themselves and invited outsiders in.”

One example is Stockholm’s Jewish Museum, which reopened on 6 June (Sweden's National Day) 2019, in new premises: the old synagogue in Gamla Stan. Inside, the building had remained largely unchanged since the synagogue’s closure in 1870.

“At the opening, the motto was: ‘There are many ways of being Swedish, and being a Jew is one of them.’ And with those words, I end the book.”