Lessons from a cemetery

“It is very sad that Sweden is described as an anti-Semitic country"

Cemetary 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Cemetary 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
In recent years, Sweden has made headlines over several outrageous anti-Israel incidents, such as a newspaper article last year by journalist Donald Boström accusing IDF soldiers of stealing and selling the organs of dead Palestinians. This has led to Sweden being portrayed as a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Yet there are Swedes striving to forge a reputation of tolerance.
One such figure is Christer Mattson, a teacher and historian who has been working to combat anti-Semitism for over 30 years. Mattson believes the key to respect between individuals is to learn the other side’s historical narrative. He used this strategy in 2007 when he brought two neo-Nazis to a unique Jewish cemetery in Sweden.
Standing at the gravesites of 14 Jewish women, Mattson gave the neo- Nazis a rough outline of their story.
Their curiosity piqued, the pair agreed to engage in a research project under Mattson’s supervision in order to fill in more details. The project, dubbed “Social Unrest,” led them on a journey to Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland, and all the way to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel.
The ‘researchers’ discovered that at the end of the Second World War, several thousand Jewish camp survivors were taken to Sweden in order to receive treatment after their traumatic experiences. Karlstad became the provisional home for over 300 Jewish women rescued from the notorious death camp at Bergen- Belsen. Many needed emergency care for tuberculosis and typhus. Most of the women survived, but 14 succumbed to their illnesses and were buried at the Jewish cemetery in Karlstad.
Tracing their story changed the ideologies of the two young Swedes, helping them see things from another perspective. The project also restored the memory of the 14 Jewish women, as in 2008 Mattson’s team submitted all the documentation required by Yad Vashem in order to officially register them as Holocaust victims.
Mattson’s teaching methods have earned international acclaim, leading to numerous speaking engagements abroad, including in Israel. It was in Jerusalem that he came into contact with an Israeli and a Palestinian academic, and launched another project.
Prof. Eyal Naveh is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, while Sami Adwan is a Professor of Education at the University of Bethlehem. Together they have produced a textbook aimed at helping young Israelis and Palestinians better understand each other’s history.
The textbook contains the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of each side.
Naveh and Adwan accepted Mattson’s proposal that they jointly use the book in an exchange project whereby Israeli and Palestinian students would meet on neutral ground in Sweden to discuss the text, share their experiences, and seek to strike up friendships. The Israeli students were chosen from schools in the western Negev, which has been battered by rocket attacks from Gaza over the past decade. The Palestinian students, however, had to withdraw from the project after coming under pressure from Palestinian Authority officials.
Mattson did manage to arrange a conference centered around the unique history book earlier this year in the Swedish city of Kungälv. It was attended by Israeli ambassador Benny Dagan, who said such projects can help restore Sweden’s reputation for many Jews.
“It is very sad that Sweden is described as an anti-Semitic country,” said Mattson. He noted that a recent survey of the views of young adults toward Jews, Muslims and Gypsies shows that there is still anti-Semitism in the society . “It is not a new form, but rather expressed in a different way. I wouldn’t say Sweden is any more anti- Semitic than its European neighbors.”
Mattson began his battle against anti- Semitism while studying to be an engineer. “My school had several students spouting neo-Nazi ideology, but the teachers were indifferent to their behavior. This made me think twice, and I changed my field into Letters, believing that I had more opportunities to change society as a teacher.”
Today, Mattson visits Israel three or four times a year to speak at seminars and conferences.
“Every time I come, I visit the Kotel,” he explained. “I’m not a Jew, but there is no place in the world where I find more peace for my soul than at the Western Wall.”