An Interview with Annika Thor, author of the 2010 Sydney Taylor Honor Book ” A Faraway Island”

Annika Thor grew up in a Jewish family in Gothenburg, Sweden in the 1950s and 60s. She started work as a librarian, and then went on to work as a film and television critic, and finally dedicated herself to writing books, plays and screenplays for young people. She is one of Sweden’s best known authors for young people. Her books have been translated into many languages, and have won many prizes.

“A Faraway Island,” about Austrian refugee sisters, Stephie and Nellie, is the first in a series of four, and so far the only one to be translated into English. It has won awards in Europe, and has been made into a television series in Sweden. It received two United States honors this year; not only was it chosen as one of two Sydney Taylor Honor Books for Older Readers, but it won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for best book in translation.

It is my honor to talk with Annika Thor.

Hello Annika,

Since many young people may not know much about the role of Sweden during World War II, I have a some questions about that, as well as questions about your book, and Jewish life in Sweden during the war, and immediate post-war period, as well as now.

Sweden acted in many contradictory ways as a supposedly neutral country during the war. Nazi soldiers were allowed to travel through Sweden during the war years, and Sweden exported ore to the German government, which was presumably used for the building of tanks, airplanes, and weapons. On the other hand, Sweden rescued thousands of Jews through the work of Raoul Wallenberg and others, and saved almost all of the Jews of Denmark. Why do you think Sweden helped both the Nazis and the Jews during the war?

The principle that guided more or less all decisions taken by the Swedish government during the war was that of neutrality: of keeping out of the war at any cost. During the first years of the war, until the German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, this meant making concessions to various demands from the Germans, who were seen as the stronger party, such as permitting soldiers and materials (though in principle not weapons) to be transported through Sweden, and continuing exportation of iron ore and other goods (which, of course, was also in the interest of Swedish industry). After [the Battle of] Stalingrad [in which the Germans were soundly defeated], fear of the Germans became less dominant and the transportation of soldiers ceased in the summer of 1943. As it became increasingly clear that the Allies would eventually win the war, the Swedish government gradually changed its orientation.

However, this is not the full explanation for the efforts that were made in order to rescue Jews. As for the Danish Jews (and also those of the Norwegian Jews who were not already deported in the fall of 1942), the feeling of Nordic solidarity was an important factor, and when the “White Buses” started rolling towards the end of the war, the primary goal was to rescue Norwegian and Danish citizens – Jewish and non-Jewish – from the concentration camps; although in the end many other nationalities were also brought to Sweden on the buses. Finally, a few individuals played an important part. Without Raul Wallenberg himself, the Jewish businessman Gilel Storch, the Swedish count Lennart Bernadotte and many others, most of the rescue actions would probably not have taken place at all.

Can you explain what the “White Buses” were? What comes to my mind are the vans the Germans used to gas small groups of Jews before they began to use the gas chambers.

No, on the contrary! In the spring of 1945, the Swedish Red Cross, led by the Swedish count Lennart Bernadotte, drove buses (painted white with a red cross) to the concentration camps in Germany to bring prisoners back to Scandinavia. Permission to do this was negotiated with German authorities. Originally, the aim was to rescue Danish and Norwegian citizens only, but in the end at least 15,000 people (many of them women) of different nationalities were rescued. You can read more on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Buses.

I find it interesting that you say that Nordic solidarity led to the concern for the Jewish populations of those countries, which was very much in contrast to the attitudes of other European countries who were only too glad to see the Jews as other, and to strip them of the protections of citizenship.

Yes, I think there was a difference in the way that Norwegian and Danish Jews could be regarded as “Norwegians” and “Danes” and therefore worthy of more concern than for example German or Polish Jews. Still, there was a lot of xenophobia and racism in Sweden as well, and some newspapers described the Danish Jews in a way that drew strongly on antisemitic stereotypes (for instance describing them as expensively dressed, in fur coats and with expensive jewelry …) A very interesting doctoral thesis which was published a few years ago (“A brother, guest, and parasite”) deals with the interplay between antisemitism and “the Nordic idea” during and immediately after the war (unfortunately, it is written in Swedish with only a brief English summary). On the whole, there is has been a strong interest in this period among younger historians for the past fifteen years or so!

Of the many stories you could have written about the Swedish rescue of Jews during the war, what inspired you to write this particular story?

Quite a few of the Jews who were rescued from the concentration camps have written down their own memories, in the form of autobiographies or fictional stories. I feel that these stories should be told by the people who experienced them, because they are beyond the imagination of us who did not. In contrast, very little had been written by or about the children who came with the Kindertransport before the war until I started to work on this theme (a doctoral theses on the subject was published in the same year as my first book, 1996), and I felt that the experiences that they went through are in a sense more universal and more suitable to interpret for someone with a different background.

Also, in the early 1990’s, there was an increase in the number of children and teenagers coming alone as refugees from countries like Iran and Somalia, and I felt that writing about the child refugees of WWII could also have some bearing on the current situation. Finally, the theme gave me the chance of contrasting Central European Jewish culture with Swedish ways of life, something which I myself experienced a generation later.

What was it like for you to grow up as a Jew in the immediate post-war years?

I was born in 1950, so by the time I became aware that I was Jewish and started to have some sense of what that meant, it was already the early 1960’s and fifteen years had passed since the war. Unlike many in my generation, I was not the child of survivors – my paternal grandparents had come to Sweden from Belarus at the turn of the century, and my mother came to Sweden in 1933, at the age of six, with her parents and younger brother. But the experience of the Holocaust was still very present in the minds of my parents, their friends and our relatives, so there was a kind of fear that was transmitted to me and other children. At one point in the early 60’s there was a brief outbreak of anti-Semitism in the form of graffiti on the doors of the synagogue and so on, and I remember being frightened that worse things would follow.

I was never explicitly told [about the Holocaust], but I knew anyway (and I did read a children’s book by a Dutch author called “Star Children” which made such a strong impression on me that I never allowed my own children to read it …) But I remember nightmares about Nazis coming to get me.

Also, in those days Sweden was not yet an immigrant country. I was the only one (or at least that is how it felt) in my class with brown eyes and black hair, and I felt different, which is a feeling that children usually do not like. I wanted to be like everybody else, and I hated it when strangers would ask me: “Where do you come from?” (I used to answer with the part of the city of Gothenburg where I grew up). But I think that this feeling of being different, of being an outsider, is very useful for someone who is to become a writer!

What is it like for Jewish children to grow up in Sweden today?

I am not really the right person to answer that question. My two daughters are now 33 and 28 years old, and their father is not Jewish, so they have not had the kind of Jewish upbringing that I myself had. But one negative thing that they did not have to experience is the feeling of being different that I just described. Today, there are many children and young people with brown eyes and dark hair in Sweden: some of them are Jewish, some are Kurdish or Turkish or Palestinian, or from Bosnia, Iran or Iraq – and my daughters have friends from most of these places. It is for this multicultural society that I write!

Were you surprised that your books about Stephie and Nellie are so popular in Sweden, and now in the rest of the world?

I was not so surprised that they became popular in Sweden – though neither I, nor my publisher could have foreseen the extent of their popularity, with still new editions being published after almost fifteen years and an even more popular TV-series which has now been broadcast for the third time. The books tell a story that has not been told before and that was not at all well known in Sweden when they were first published. At the same time, they depict events and emotions that are easy to identify with, even if you were born in Sweden and lived here all your life. And for many immigrant children in Sweden, they have become a way of processing their own situation “at a distance”, which is sometimes easier than through a story that is closer to their own lives.

What really surprised me was that the books also became so popular abroad, not only in Germany (which is, after all, not so surprising), or in the Nordic and other European countries, but also in countries like Japan and South Korea, where there is no Jewish population at all. This spring, I am going first to Japan, then to Russia, in connection with the appearance of the fourth and final book in the series, and I am really looking forward to discussing the books with readers in those countries.

The scene where Stephie and Nellie are taken to the revival meeting is very disturbing. Was it common for host families to take their Jewish children to Church, and did they often try to convert them?

According to Ingrid Lomfors, the Swedish historian who wrote her thesis on the children of the Kindertransport, only a minority of the children could be taken in by Jewish families (there were not that many Jews in Sweden at the time). Most came to ordinary Swedish families, which meant that it was very difficult for them to maintain Jewish traditions (but of course, quite a few of the children, like Stephie and Nellie, came from more or less secular Jewish homes). The majority of the Swedish families were probably only conventionally Christian, and did not try to convert the children, though they probably took them to church on Christmas and other special occasions. However, a minority of the host families belonged to different evangelistic movements, and for them saving the children from the Nazis and “saving” them by converting them were more or less the same thing. The chapter about the revival meeting is based on a true story.

Actually, this scene is so shocking that I don’t think I would have dared to include it had it not been based on facts! I have had several interesting discussions with people belonging to evangelistic movements about conversions of the children; of course, nowadays even they agree that this was wrong.

I understand that you are the author of a great number of books besides the books about Stephie and Nellie. Do you often write about Jewish themes for children?

No, I do not consider myself a “Jewish writer” in that sense, though I believe that growing up in a Jewish family has affected my choice of themes and my manner of treating them profoundly. My father, a secular Jew who still identified strongly with the Jewish people, taught me that the essence of Judaism was to always support the weak against the strong. This is at the heart of my writing, along with moral questions and choices, and the feeling of being an outsider, but the books about Stephie and Nellie are the only ones so far where I have treated these themes in a Jewish context.

Annika, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!



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