A Scandinavian expatriate who witnessed the destruction of Europe from the relative safety of Stockholm returns to the city of her youth in a new book exploring the country’s history during World War II and in its aftermath.
In It Was Evening, It Was Morning, recently released by Devorah Publishing, Chana Sharfstein describes the vivid memories of meeting Holocaust survivors. From their home in the Swedish capital, Sharfstein’s father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Zuber ministered to and cared for the throngs of Jewish refugees who entered the country following the close of World War II and found refuge in its many Displaced Persons camps.
The book tells the story of Sharfstein’s search to find those whose self-sacrifice saved many, as well as her own impressions on the rebirth of Judaism in Scandinavia, fueled in large part by Chabad-Lubavitch centers sprouting up throughout the region.
Sharfstein’s earliest memories include those of her father studying scholarly Jewish texts and of the many Jewish books in their home.
“My father possessed an extensive collection of Judaica,” she writes. He “treasured them, because that was the most important thing in his life: to study Torah. In the margins and on the sides of the pages he would write his comments.”
She highlights her father’s commitment to Judaism, noting that when he was a student in the forbidden network of clandestine Lubavitch schools behind the Iron Curtain, he saved stumps of used candle wax. He would fuse the scraps together and make his own candles so that he could continue to study Talmud when it was dark outside.
Zuber later received rabbinic ordination from the famed Rabbi Yosef Rosen, known as the Genius of Rogatchov. A small part of Zuber’s writings were posthumously published by the Israeli printing house Mosad Harav Kook.
As adherents of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Zuber and his wife Zlata sought to enliven Jewish life wherever they found themselves. For a time, Zuber served as an emissary of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, in Sachkhere, Georgia.
“They left their family and friends [and] familiar surroundings [for] a place of different languages and different customs,” writes Sharfstein.
Afterwards, they moved to Stockholm via Latvia, and Zuber became the rabbi of a local synagogue. The family remained in the country for 18 years.
Sharfstein writes that for the most part, she did not experience anti-Semitsm, except once when an elderly Swedish woman shattered her childhood with a simple remark: “You poor, poor child.”
When Sharfstein asked the woman why she said that, she mumbled to the girl: “You should not be living here. You should not be in a foreign country, in a foreign place. You should be in Palestine. That’s where you belong.”
Speaking during an interview, Sharfstein leaves open the possibility that the woman was not motivated by any type of animus, but was merely reflecting the fact that at that time, the little girl could not move to Israel, even if she wanted to.
On the whole, Sharfstein characterizes Scandinavians as a “wholesome, peaceful people [who] never exhibited xenophobia or distrust. They did not regard minorities as inferior; [they were] open and accepting.”
On the Sidelines
The war never reached Sweden, but the news of the Nazis rise and atrocities did. Together with his son Mendel, Zuber did what he could to assist his fellow Jews throughout Europe, and those who made it out and were stuck in Asia.
“The father-son team, with great difficulty, located so-called honorary consuls from South American countries and enlisted their help in providing visas for fellow Jews in Nazi-occupied countries,” writes Sharfstein.
While such visas often failed to save people from the Holocaust, some did make it to safety because of the documents.
With the rise of hostilities between American and Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, families and organizations in America funneled funds destined for Jews in Asia through Zuber.
At the end of the war and the opening of Sweden’s floodgates to displaced Jewish refugees, the Zuber family was similarly on the forefront of assisting the survivors. Sharfstein’s mother, whom she describes as “a kind and compassionate woman,” attended to survivors’ emotional needs “with great warmth and tenderness. With kind, comforting words, she mothered the unfortunate souls [and] focused on bringing some joy into their lives with the familiar dishes from home.”
Sharfstein relates that her first visit to a DP camp was with her brother.
“It was an overwhelming experience. The women were bald because the Germans had shaved their heads in order to dehumanize them,” she details. The survivors were shocked to find a young, healthy Jewish girl helping them. “When I came in, they all stared at me.
“I overheard them saying to each other, ‘That’s strange. She looks like a Jewish child,’ ” adds Sharfstein. “And so I responded in Yiddish: ‘Yes, I am a Jewish girl.’ Then there was an outburst of hysterical screaming and crying. People could not believe that there were any Jewish children alive.”
After relating the details of her brothers’ marriages to refugees from the camps, she describes several daring rescues and saviors from during the war, including Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Budapest who saved thousands of Jews and was later captured by the Soviets in 1945, dying in a prison cell. Sharfstein interviewed Wallenberg’s sister, Nina Lagergren, for the book, and likewise bases some of her vignettes on the recollection of those involved or their kin.
Sharfstein, admittedly, could have focused on the horrors of the Holocaust, but she chose instead to offer uplifting stories.
“The Holocaust marked perhaps the darkest period in human history,” acknowledges David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. “But within that history, and emerging from it, are uplifting stories of courage, resilience and commitment to life. Chana Sharfstein provides us with inspiring examples of these, and throughout – true to form – she is a skilled and stimulating teacher.”
Sharfstein concludes the book with the Jewish revival currently taking place in Stockholm, using a vivid scene from a family trip as a backdrop: She attended a Chanukah menorah lighting coordinated by Chabad-Lubavitch of Stockholm in the appropriately-named Raoul Wallenberg Plaza.
“I experience a strange feeling of unreality as I view this familiar scene from my childhood, today imbued with Jewish tradition,” she writes. “This is indeed miraculous, I thought. This huge ice menorah publicly displayed in Stockholm. When I was growing up here, I would never have envisioned such a sight. I never discussed the Jewish holidays with my classmates.
“It was difficult to be the only Jew,” she adds. “I felt immensely proud; a moment of victory, of celebration. For us, the Zuber family, this nostalgic evening marked the climax [of our visit].”
Published by Devorah Publishing, It Was Evening, It Was Morning can be purchased by clicking here.