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World Association of International Studies

Post Folke Bernadotte, and My Encounter with his Killer
Created by John Eipper on 06/02/21 12:04 PM

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Folke Bernadotte, and My Encounter with his Killer (Leo Goldberger, USA, 06/02/21 12:04 pm)

John E asked about the legacy of Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, who was assassinated by the Stern Gang in 1948.  The following is from some notes I assembled some time ago, in preparation for my memoirs:

It is no wonder that Count Bernadotte has held a special place in my memory since my stay in Sweden (1943-45) when he was the head of the the Swedish Boy Scout Organization of which I was a nominal member--albeit within the special Danish troop that was established and tied to the Danish Refugee School in Gothenburg I attended.  The creation of the troop, named Holger Danske after the ancient legendary Danish war leader who dwells in Elsinore's Kronborg's Castle, was said to be at Bernadotte's initiative and reflected the general acceptance and good-will of the Swedes towards the Danish refugees in their midst.  

Though I can't recall whether Bernadotte actually came to visit our troop, I still treasure his autographed photo I once received and have always had framed on my wall as a memento, along with pictures of camping at Brunnsjoe in Gränna with some two dozen other Danish refugees that included my patrol leader Herbert Pundik and the troop's assistant leader Isi Vogel (Foighel), who became  outstanding personalities on the Danish public scene in years after the war--and lasting friends. 

Of course, already back in 1945 I became aware of Bernadotte's humanitarian deeds in negotiating the transfer of the more than 400 Danish Jews from Theresienstadt in mid-April 1945 (and his rescue of numerous other Scandinavian prisoners from other concentration camp locations) --just as the war neared its end and a massive last-minute slaughter was anticipated to occur.   It was via his role as head of the Swedish Red Cross, in conjunction with the significant participation of the Danish Red Cross, that the so-called White Buses got organized and the treacherous trek through war-torn Nazi Europe led to the safe haven of neutral Sweden in mid-May. After their quarantine in a hospital in Eskilstuna, they, including our Chief Rabbi Dr. Max Friediger, who had been among the inmates in Theresienstadt, happily resumed normal life in liberated Denmark, along with the rest of us, shortly after the conclusion of the war on May 6, 1945. 

It was quite a shock to learn of Bernadotte's death at the hands of Israeli terrorists on September 17th, 1948.  How could it be that a man of his proven humanism towards Jews could have been slain?  Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and others in the Zionist leadership quickly disavowed and condemned the assassination, which they attributed to the extreme terrorists, the so-called Stern Gang, which considered Bernadotte to be a stooge for British and Arab interests, especially in the proposal he was about to make to the UN on the disposition of Jerusalem, which the Stern Gang wrongly assumed would be acceptable to the more moderate Ben-Gurion.  But while some arrests were made of the suspected perpetrators, they were never charged; the criminal investigation was deemed sloppy and ineffectual. Furthermore, it was only after the expiration of the statute of limitation in 1971 that the responsible team of assassins within the Stern gang became publicly known. 

Needless to say, the Swedes were enraged as they immediately believed the murder of Bernadotte had in fact been authorized by the Israeli government, with Ben-Gurion at the helm, and for a time Sweden tried to block the recognition of Israel by the UN--but by 1950, they eventually relented their stand and established official ties with the State of Israel.   It is my sense that in view of this background, and the frosty feelings that remained, it became incumbent on Israel to appoint a top-level diplomatic representation to serve as the first ambassador to Sweden.   Avraham Nissan (formerly Katznelson) was that man! He was a major player in the history of Zionism and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It fell to his lot to help heal the tarred relationship between Sweden and Israel as he took up his post as "Envoy and Minister Extraordinary" to Scandinavia, with Stockholm as his home base, serving effectively in this role until 1955, just months before his death.  

In viewing the success of Nissan's mission, it must be recalled that in earlier years, before the despicable assassination of Bernadotte, Sweden had consistently been a friend of the Zionist aspirations and its leadership.

It was sometime in the early 1990s I believe that I received a call from the then Consul General of Sweden in NY, Dag Sebastian Ahlander, whom I had previously met several times at various official functions, including formal lunches at the opulent 600 Park Ave Townhouse of the Swedish consulate and residence.  Ahlander mentioned his puzzlement over the fact that in planning the ceremony for the unveiling of a bust of Count Folke Bernadotte in the UN Hall of Mediators, to his surprise he had been rebuffed by several of the Jewish leaders in NY whose participation in the event he had sought.  His invitation was rejected on the ground that to their knowledge Bernadotte had been an anti-Semite and thus they did not wish to honor him by their presence at the unveiling.  

Knowing of my interest in the history of that period, Ahlander wanted to enlist my assistance in in determining whether there was any truth to assertion of Bernadotte's anti-Semitism.  (Apparently Ahlander's efforts to get this sort of information from the Foreign Office in Stockholm had left him a bit frustrated.). I assured the Consul General that I would do my best. 

It so happened that some years earlier, possibly in the early '80s, I had met an Israeli psychiatrist  (whose name I have long forgotten) at a cocktail party in NY who, after hearing about my war-time background, casually mentioned that he had actually taken part in the killing of Bernadotte...and that at the time he had no idea as to who he was, in terms of his prior history as the head of the Swedish Red Cross, etc. To him he was just known as the UN Mediator who must be killed for the sake of the creation of the State of Israel.  As a member of the Stern group, he was simply following orders!  

Well, you can well imagine how that sat with me. It was an unbelievable encounter. (I still shiver at the thought of having had this casual chat with a confessed participant in an assassination.) Of course there was nothing for me to do or say other than to point out what a gross injustice it had been to kill a man like Bernadotte. In response, the Israeli gentleman mentioned a book he had recently read (the name of which escaped him) in which Bernadotte is quoted as having made some anti-Semitic remarks in the context of his private talks with Himmler at the time of their negotiations.  Specifically, he was to have rejected Himmler's proposal that his Red Cross Buses evacuate more Jews and not just those from Scandinavia by saying: "We don't need  (or want) more Jews in Sweden"...or something to that effect. 

As I recall, it was several years later that by pure chance I was to locate the book that the Israeli gentleman must have read. The book was a Danish translation of an Israeli book, which I believe featured "Bernadotte" in the title, which is what had caught my interest.   And sure enough, there's a mention of the presumed exchange between Himmler and Bernadotte. However, as the book was written by an Israeli, whose qualifications as a historian or serious investigative reporter was at most very suspect, the book seemed simply to be a piece of public relations cover-up, an apologia for the heinous crime perpetrated against Bernadotte.  I simply dismissed this book from my mind-until Ahlander posed the question and I returned to my quest to unearth the truth.  And, lo and behold, I finally discovered that the anti-Semitic slander had originated with none other than the colorful, if not infamous, Felix Kersten--Himmler's less than reliable masseur who apparently had had a vendetta with Bernadotte. (See footnote below.) 

I quickly informed Ahlander of my discovery and was happily invited to take part in the unveiling ceremony at the UN. I do not remember exactly when it was that the ceremony the took place, possibly it was sometime in 1995, but I do recall that it was quite an occasion, in the presence of Sweden's royalty, Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his lovely Swedish wife (the nice of Raoul Wallenberg), Swedish TV, among others, followed by an exclusive reception across the street at the Swedish UN Ambassador's skyscraper lofty quarters.  It was in this context, being among the first to arrive, I actually had a chance to engage with King Gustav Adolf (as well briefly with the Queen and their Yale-student, Crown Princess daughter).  The king mentioned that though Bernadotte had been his godfather, he had not really had a chance to know him, as he was only nine years old when Bernadotte died.  He was eager to hear what I had to say about him.  I also spoke briefly with the King's adjutant, who told me not to be apologetic--as indeed I was--about the fact that Jews had killed Bernadotte.  As he said: "Those things happen in wars!" A phrase that has stuck in my mind. 

Finally, I had a warm encounter with Bernadotte's son, also named Count Folke Bernadotte of Wisborg. I asked him, what does a Count do?  To my surprise, he simply said, "Oh, I am just a retired Ear, Nose and Throat doctor, living in Uppsala"  (So much for my fantasy of a Count's life!)  In broaching the assassination of his father, he reassured me that his feelings were no longer raw and that he was especially gratified with the heartfelt letter he had received from Shimon Peres, the foreign minister of Israel, who on behalf of the Israel government, invited him to an official ceremony  (held in May 1995) belatedly apologizing for and condemning the assassination of his father. 

Footnote:  Felix Kersten and the White Buses Controversy

Following the war, some controversies arose regarding Bernadotte's leadership of the White Buses expedition, some personal and some as to the mission itself. One aspect involved a long-standing feud between Bernadotte and Himmler's personal masseur, Felix Kersten, who had played some role in facilitating Bernadotte's access to Himmler, but whom Bernadotte resisted crediting after the War. The resulting feud between Bernadotte and Kersten came to public attention through British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper.  In 1953, Trevor-Roper published an article based on an interview and documents originating with Kersten. The article stated that Bernadotte's role in the rescue operations was that of "transport officer, no more." Kersten was quoted as saying that, according to Himmler, Bernadotte was opposed to the rescue of Jews and understood "the necessity of our fight against World Jewry."

Shortly following the publication of his article Trevor-Roper began to retreat from these charges. At the time of his article, Kersten had just been nominated by the Dutch government for the Nobel Peace Prize for thwarting a Nazi plan to deport the entire Dutch population, based primarily on Kersten's own claims to this effect. A later Dutch investigation concluded that no such plan had existed, however, and that Kersten's documents were partly fabricated. Following these revelations and others, Trevor-Roper told journalist Barbara Amiel in 1995 that he was no longer certain about the allegations, and that Bernadotte may merely have been following his orders to rescue Danish and Norwegian prisoners.  A number of other historians have also questioned Kersten's account, concluding that the accusations were based on a forgery or a distortion devised by Kersten.

Some controversy regarding the White Buses trip has also arisen in Scandinavia, particularly regarding the priority given to Scandinavian prisoners.  Political scientist Sune Persson judged these doubts to be contradicted by the documentary evidence. He concluded, "The accusations against Count Bernadotte ... to the effect that he refused to save Jews from the concentration camps are obvious lies" and listed many prominent eyewitnesses who testified on Bernadotte's behalf, including the World Jewish Congress representative in Stockholm in 1945.

JE comments:  Leo, this is one WAIS post I'll remember!  (I try to remember 'em all, but there have been 44,000 of them.)  An absolutely fascinating account.  I am proud to learn that you played a role in Bernadotte's "rehabilitation" in history and enshrinement in the halls of the UN.

As for the controversial Felix Kersten, Wikipedia tells us that a film is in the works, with Woody Harrelson in the lead role.  Kersten, born in Tartu (Estonia) to a German family, worked miracles with both his hands and his PR skills--he credited himself with saving the Jews of Finland, together with the entire population of the Netherlands.

Did anyone in the Nazi "inner circle" come out of the war smelling rosier than Kersten?  Who can help us to better understand this enigma?

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