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The IKEA founder, a Nazi past and his young Jewish friend

History

And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain

Elisabeth Åsbrink

Other Press, hardback, 320 pages, €28.80

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Files: Elisabeth Åsbrink confronted IKEA boss Kamprad over his past

Files: Elisabeth Åsbrink confronted IKEA boss Kamprad over his past

And in the Vienna Woods by Elisabeth Åsbrink

And in the Vienna Woods by Elisabeth Åsbrink

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Files: Elisabeth Åsbrink confronted IKEA boss Kamprad over his past

This tragic family separation story begins with a train journey. It left Vienna in February 1939: the very last time Otto Ullmann saw his parents, Josef and Elise. The trip was to be a temporary measure to protect the young boy from Jewish persecution. It progressively worsened following the Anschluss in March 1938: when Austria was annexed into the German Reich -and 200,000 Viennese Jews became subjected to the anti-Semitism enshrined into the Nuremberg Laws.

Otto's emigration was facilitated by the Swedish Israel Mission. Ostensibly it was a refugee programme where casual labour was offered on Swedish farms in return for humanitarian safety.

But Elisabeth Åsbrink claims the Christian charity had an alternative motive: saving dammed Jewish souls by converting them to Christianity. The infamous Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann was stationed in Vienna during this time and gave the refugee programme a personal stamp of approval.

Stamps and symbols help join together the complex historical jigsaw puzzle this book eventually assembles. The first piece was shown to Åsbrink a decade ago - when Eva Ullman (Otto's daughter) presented an unopened IKEA box. Inside were 500 letters marked with the official profile stamp of Adolf Hitler. They were exchanged between Otto and his parents as war raged across Europe and the future looked uncertain. Many of these heartbreaking correspondences are reproduced here. Without any prior warning they ceased entirely. Because in autumn 1944, Josef and Elise found themselves on a train journey into the dark. It departed from Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. The destination was Auschwitz, Poland.

Otto didn't learn that his parents perished in the Nazi gas chambers until 1946. And so life continued as normal in Småland, Sweden. A job was found working on a farm. There Otto became friends with Ingvar Kamprad. In 1943, Kamprad founded IKEA. It eventually made him the eighth-richest person on the planet. But the company's early years were a little more subdued. Åsbrink likens it to a communal collective: close friends living and working in a single building as the solid foundations for a global furniture empire were laid.

Kamprad made sure never to talk politics with his Jewish friend at work or at home. When Kamprad died two years ago, references were made to past flirtations with Nazism. They first surfaced in the mid 1990s. But the obituaries mostly let him off lightly. Åsbrink digs a little deeper here - noting how Kamprad was a fervent supporter of Per Engdahl: who once proclaimed that "the most radical solution to the Jewish question is a deportation of Jews to a specially designated place". As late as 1962, Engdahl was identified by the West Germany government as being a key player in an international neo-Nazi network.

Engdahl and Kamprad remained close friends. And the fanatical far-right fascist even made a speech at Kamprad's wedding. In an interview in 2010, the Swedish billionaire told Åsbrink that Engdahl "was a great man." Those interviews discontinued immediately after Åsbrink confronted Kamprad with files she located from a 1943 Swedish secret police archive: it proved Kamprad was a card-carrying member of the Swedish Nazi party during the worst years of the Holocaust.

Devious denial is a common theme running through And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain: a book that shows how selective amnesia coincidentally seems to surface whenever uneasy feelings of personal guilt and national shame rear their ugly heads. And where gaping holes of history hide amidst dark shadows and uncomfortable silences.

Moral responsibility is always so much easier to confront when it falls on somebody else's shoulders. Nobody, after all, wants to admit that they're a Nazi. Especially not a squeaky clean national Swedish treasure.

Indo Review