This was a book I had no intention of writing. On the contrary, the story of Otto Ullmann, a Jewish refugee child who was sent to Sweden to escape Nazi persecution, came to me as an offer and I turned it down. Eva Ullman—the daughter of Otto—asked to speak with me. She brought with her a trauma tied tight with string and asked for my help to unknot it. This is what she told me:
Her father was born and raised in a middle-class family in Vienna, a cherished and strong-willed child who loved music and soccer. When Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, he was twelve years old. Like all Austrian Jews, the Ullmann family was heavily affected from one day to the next, and the persecution had just begun. Otto’s parents decided to save their only child first, and managed to get him to Sweden in early spring 1939. The plan was to join him later, but until that became possible, they would write him a letter a day. Otto spent a year in an orphanage in the south of Sweden. Then, at the age of fourteen, he had to support himself and became a farmhand. Meanwhile, the letters from Otto’s parents in Vienna continued to come, until the day they came no more.
In early 1944 Otto Ullmann applied for a job at the Kamprad estate in Småland and became best friends with the landowner’s son, Ingvar. Later, when Ingvar Kamprad decided to create the furniture company IKEA, Otto was his right-hand man and sidekick for a decade.
Would I like to write something about this, Otto’s daughter now wondered? Then, ironically, she handed over an IKEA storage box that for years had been at the back of one of her closets, never opened but never forgotten. There they were, more than five hundred letters from Otto’s parents, with Hitler’s profile on the stamps.
When Otto Ullmann died, Eva had reluctantly taken care of the letters but never read them. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she grew up learning that there were some areas not to be tread on, some words better left unsaid, and some questions never to be asked. And she understood that at the very epicenter of silence were her father and his survival. So the letters were placed in the IKEA box, lid on, until she got the idea of offering them to me.
I said thank you, but no thank you. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. Impossible. I’m sorry. The letters were of course written in German, a language of which I had little knowledge, but that wasn’t the main reason. I simply couldn’t stand the idea of writing about the Holocaust. The unbreakable silence within the Ullmann family was all too recognizable, it existed also within my family. And so we said goodbye.
But then, night after night, before going to sleep, I found myself imagining the letters going from Vienna to the south of Sweden, one a day from parent to child. The image just wouldn’t leave me alone.
The result is this book, a story about a boy and his parents. And within the story is another, about one of the world’s most famous men, the founder of IKEA, who not only was a member of the Swedish hard-core Nazi party but at the same time loved his best friend, the Jewish refugee Otto Ullmann. All in all, it turned out to be an account of Sweden before the country became a “good” one.
Ingvar Kamprad let me interview him (the result is in the book). But when I found the files from 1943 in the Swedish Secret Police Archive, stating he was member 4014 in Swedish Socialist Unity (Svensk Socialistisk Samling, or SSS), the Swedish Nazi party at the time, he declined any further contact.
And the letters? They are still in that IKEA box, waiting for transfer to an archive where they will be made available to researchers. I’m not sure I could fulfill Eva Ullman’s wishes, that through words the trauma might be unknotted. But the process of research and writing managed to dissolve some of the silence and the lack of knowledge. It also defined the connection between Eva and myself—and so many others: the experience of carrying the weight of a family’s pain.
A child stood outside a building in a large city. It is a time gone by. The river splitting the city was like a wound; seven bridges kept it stitched together, binding the hills to the plains, greenery to exhaust fumes. Budapest. The boy was playing on a small square just outside his front door. His father was at work, his mother was at home in their apartment a few floors up. He had no siblings, and his friends must have been elsewhere. He was five years old, and perhaps he liked his solitude.
A passerby paused to look at him, an adult who then yelled at him in such a way that he immediately stopped playing. That word, he’d never heard it before, but the expletives, the tone, the malice were unmistakable. As was the gaze: directed right at him.
In another country, in another city with another river, with other bridges linking it together, was another child: a girl. In London.
She was already in school, involved in group games and scheming with her friends, and her greatest wish was to go to the boys’ school’s annual dance. So when she received a printed invitation in the mail, it made her very happy indeed—perhaps she boasted about it to her friends—right up until the moment she realized that the card was handwritten; the invitation was a fake, a forgery. Someone (the girl suspected a spurned friend behind this trap) had wanted to see her go to the dance all dressed up and full of anticipation, only to be ignominiously exposed at the door and denied entry. The girl cried tears of anger and lamented to her mother.
The mother too became angry and spoke to the girl’s father; they should go straight to the headmaster, the deceiver should be punished and the daughter issued an apology. But the father would not be swayed and replied instead with a “Shush!” and “Let it be.” Then he used a word that the girl would despise from that moment on and would never want to acknowledge. He added, “No, that’s not what a [word] does. We don’t solve problems by creating new ones; we don’t cause trouble. What doesn’t bend breaks.”
To this day, the girl remembers the feeling of betrayal, even though by now she is eighty years old. Not to be given redress, to stand without defense, to be identified with that word; this all caused her to crack right through.
Coincidentally it was the same word (with the addition of “stinking”) that the boy playing by himself had heard the stranger say. And because the boy was only five years old, he hadn’t understood, and he went home, up the stairs to his mother, and asked, “‘Stinking Jew’: what does that mean?”
His mother said nothing about having had him baptized. She simply said there are two types of people: good and evil. And so the world became slightly more intelligible to a child. Coincidentally the boy from Budapest and the girl from London met as adults, recognized each other’s chasms, and fell in love.
Coincidentally they would go on to have a child together and pass on an inheritance of alienation—it was, after all, abundant. They allowed her to partake of that word as well, but only as an affliction. She would hear “Shush!” She would hear: “The fewer the people who know, the better.” And later: “It’s for the best that your children’s father isn’t Jewish; it’ll leave the blood more quickly.”
This is a history, mine.
Mutti. Dad. It’s as though you never existed.
And yet I am born.
We don’t know each other, but she has read my book. During our first meeting, we barely spoke. The next time, we kept each other company over a bite to eat and then went to a concert. There, in a place alien to us both, in a soundscape of distorted guitars and bass, she began to speak. It wasn’t easy to hear what she was saying. But she moved closer. She was carrying something and trying to build a bridge of words so that her load could reach me. If you asked her where she was from, she’d say “Småland,” in southern Sweden. And yet she gives me five hundred letters from Vienna.
At first I don’t know if I want them.
And then I can’t think about anything else.
They’re being stored in a large lidded box, made of stiff white cardboard and marked IKEA. One might imagine this fact is part of destiny’s irony, or, if you’re one to psychologize, is an expression of her subconscious. Perhaps the product of tenderness or black humor.
Otto sorted the letters. Since then they haven’t really been touched, much less read. But she, Otto’s daughter, still knows what they contain. One loop of twine and a regular farmer’s knot separate the piles, one year from the next.
Are the letters old? Is seventy years a long time? Or is it a period shorter than a human life and of equally disputed value?
Well. In the white box they’ve lain, densely written, in chronological order, an epicenter of sorrow.