An NPR Best Book of the Year 2018
“One of the best books, certainly the best nonfiction book, that I've read recently.” —Nancy Pearl on NPR’s Morning Edition
“An extraordinary achievement.” —New York Times Book Review
An award-winning writer captures a year that defined the modern world, intertwining historical events around the globe with key moments from her personal history.
The year 1947 marks a turning point in the twentieth century. Peace with Germany becomes a tool to fortify the West against the threats of the Cold War. The CIA is created, Israel is about to be born, Simone de Beauvoir experiences the love of her life, an ill George Orwell is writing his last book, and Christian Dior creates the hyper-feminine New Look as women are forced out of jobs and back into the home.
In the midst of it all, a ten-year-old Hungarian-Jewish boy resides in a refugee camp for children of parents murdered by the Nazis. This year he has to make the decision of a lifetime, one that will determine his own fate and that of his daughter yet to be born, Elisabeth.
About the Author
Elisabeth Åsbrink is a nonfiction writer and journalist. She has worked for the Swedish National Television for fifteen years as a reporter and editor for news shows, cultural programs and investigative journalism. Her book And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain (Och i Wienerwald står träden kvar) received worldwide attention for revealing new information about IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad's ties to Nazism. It won several awards, including the August Prize for Best Swedish Non-Fiction Book of the Year (2011). Åsbrink made her debut as a playwright with Tracks (Räls), based on the authentic minutes from a meeting convened by Herman Göring in 1938, and has since written four plays.
Read an Excerpt
The time is not quite what it ought to be.
On January 1, 1947, The Times informs the people of Great Britain that they cannot rely on their clocks. To be quite certain that the time is what it purports to be, they are to tune in to the BBC, which will broadcast extra bulletins in order to keep track of it.
Electric clocks are affected by the frequent power cuts. Mechanical ones also need overhauling. Maybe it's the cold. Maybe things will improve.
The war has seen nearly 50,000 tons of bombs dropped on London by the Luftwaffe. More than 4.5 million buildings in Britain are damaged. Some towns have been all but wiped out, such as the Scottish port whose airraids even got a name of their own: the Clydebank Blitz.
All across Europe, there is damage. The Austrian city Wiener Neustadt once had 4,000 buildings; now only 18 are intact. A third of the houses in Budapest are uninhabitable. In France, 460,000 buildings are in ruins. In the Soviet Union, 1,700 small towns and villages have been demolished. In Germany, around 3.6 million apartments have been blitzed—a fifth of the country's homes. Half the homes in Berlin itself are derelict. In Germany as a whole, over 18 million people are homeless. A further 10 million in Ukraine have no roof over their heads. All of them have to cope with having only limited access to water and a sporadic electricity supply.
Human rights are nonexistent, and hardly anyone has heard of the crime of genocide. Those who survived have only just begun to count their dead. Many travel home, without finding it; others travel anywhere except back where they come from.
Europe's countryside has been razed and plundered, and tracts of land are flooded by sabotaged dams. Fields, woodland, farmsteads — lives, food, livelihoods — lie under ash, covered in sludge.
Greece lost a third of its forests during the German occupation. Over a thousand villages there have been burned to the ground. In Yugoslavia, over half the country's livestock have been slaughtered, and the plundering of grain, milk, and wool has left the economy in ruins. Not only did Hitler's and Stalin's armies wreak destruction as they advanced, but they were ordered to destroy everything in their path when they retreated. This scorched-earth tactic was intended to leave nothing behind for the enemy's troops. In the words of Heinrich Himmler: "Not one person, no cattle, no quintal of grain, no railway track must remain behind ... The enemy must find a country totally burned and destroyed."
Now, after the war, everyone is on the lookout for watches — stealing, hiding, mislaying, or losing them. The time remains indeterminate. When it's eight in the evening in Berlin, it's seven in Dresden, but nine in Bremen. Russian time prevails in the Russian zone, while the British impose summer time on their part of Germany. If someone asks what time the clock says, most will say it's gone. The clock, that is — or do they mean time itself?
Hamdeh Jom'a is a strong-willed girl, but somewhere there is a limit. And it is getting closer.
When the man with the magic box comes to the village, he calls the children together. The little ones are to ask their mothers for grain, the older ones are to pilfer food, but everyone has to come to see the magic box, which — so the man claims — eats sugar and shits sweets. They laugh and pay him in bulgur wheat, lentils, and oats. He tells his tales and shows his pictures, which turn into stories when he puts a stick into the cardboard box and stirs.
Hamdeh is sixteen and can't get enough of the moving pictures' magic. She filches bread from her mother to pay the man, takes handfuls of lentils from the stores. She thinks of her uncle, who owns a great many hens and five cockerels. During his afternoon nap, she sneaks in and steals some eggs — just so she can see the pictures moving again, hear about heroes and freedom fighters, feel the world expand. But as she leaves her uncle's tent with the eggs, he awakes, catches the girl, and strikes her. The eggs are smashed, and that night Hamdeh, her apron soiled, sleeps in a cave to avoid his anger. But that blows over.
Every evening, when he has told his stories to an end, the man with the magic box concludes with the same words: "This is the darkness, this is the night."
In the Oval Office at the White House, President Truman sits writing his diary. He wakes early on January 6 and fits in a few hours' work before strolling down to the station to meet his family. A good 35-minute walk, he notes, glad to have his wife and daughter back home. The great white jail is a hellish place to be alone. The floors creak and crack at night. It takes little imagination for him to picture old James Buchanan wandering back and forth, full of anxiety over a world beyond his control. In fact, the unquiet spirits of many presidents traipse up and down the stairs, complaining about what they should have done better and what they failed to achieve. Some of his late predecessors are absent, Truman writes in the blue diary. They simply don't have the time, being far too busy controlling heaven and governing hell. But the others, the poor, tormented presidents who were misrepresented in history, get no rest. The White House is a hellish place.
It is announced on January 7 that 500 women employed by London Transport have to vacate their posts. They're being sent home. In the months to come, all London's bus and tram conductresses will be dismissed — 10,000 of them altogether.
Movements at the border, trees like black lines in a white landscape; footsteps on frozen ground leave few traces. The world is full of fugitives eager to escape. Some borders are less tightly controlled than others, the roads narrow and winding, the locals occupied with their own affairs.
A border between Germany and Denmark; another between Denmark and Sweden; maritime boundaries; land borders; lines drawn on paper maps, but in reality marked by a stone, a fence, a thousand dry stalks of grass rustling in the passing wind.
Many are fleeing from their experiences, others from the consequences of their acts. Silence. Secrecy. Coded messages, and never more than one night in the same place. Men stream out of Germany into Denmark and continue their journey toward Sweden. Helping hands provide them with food and a bed for the night along the way.
Per Engdahl wants his passport back. Denied it, he finds himself confined to his own country, which he wants both to preserve and to expand until the borders give way. This is a contradictory vision which he will work tirelessly to realize. The Swedish Security Service classes him as a Nazi, and after a visit to Vidkun Quisling in wartime Norway, and a subsequent journey to Finland on which he met some of the Wehrmacht's top brass, his passport has been confiscated. Although Engdahl makes several attempts to recover it, this takes a while — so he has others come to him, to Malmo. He has loyal collaborators who travel and organize things on his behalf. Barely any documents remain, and only a few names are mentioned in the papers that survive him.
Only through detours, unraveling threads of facts, seeking out and piecing together the events of the months that form 1947, can information be found about a time when everything seemed possible, as it had already happened.
They come from all corners of Europe. Most have fought in SS divisions on the Eastern Front, and many Balts are at risk of extradition to the Soviet Union. All of them need help to evade the consequences of their wartime actions, and the man without a passport welcomes them.
Though Per Engdahl is the leader of Sweden's Fascists, he wants to keep the white flow of fugitives seeking his aid outside the movement, discreetly concealed and coded. Thus his own home — 2, Master Henriksgatan, Malmo — becomes the center of operations. The fugitives' reception takes on a literary character; the Fascist, who also writes poetry, uses book titles as code words for "refugee," "hiding place," and "movement" — all to keep the Swedish police unaware.
How many come? No one is sure. Who are they? No one knows. However, among the thousands of men on the run, one or two become more than just a name — maybe even a friend. One such is Professor Johann von Leers, the right-hand man and protege of Propaganda Minister Goebbels, and one of the most influential ideologues behind the Nazis' hate propaganda. An iron-willed, committed Jew-hater, belonging to the Nazi leadership. Von Leers was captured by US troops and interned in Darmstadt, but fled after 18 months. After that, he left only diffuse and contradictory traces. He managed to disappear altogether for several years, making a definite reappearance in 1950, in Buenos Aires. Some claim he went underground in northern Germany for several years; others say he lived incognito in Italy.
What we do know is that in late 1946 he travels to the old merchant city of Flensburg, not far from the Danish border. He is met there by a Danish SS volunteer, Vagner Kristensen, who guides him to Padborg in Denmark, a distance of just over six miles.
"We took the refugees along a path, across a marsh, and over the border."
The young Kristensen takes a liking to Johann von Leers — they will stay in touch — and escorts his new friend further across Denmark to Copenhagen, where others take over, arranging a boat over the Oresund strait.
"They were obliged to come to me when I couldn't travel," Engdahl would later reminisce with a certain pride, though he carefully avoided letting slip a single name.
Engdahl and his friends manage to find jobs for a thousand or so Nazi fugitives. Kockums shipbuilders and Addo, the calculator manufacturer, are happy to take them on, provided that Engdahl avoids mentioning it in his magazine, Vägen Framåt. All of them know the score: action is fine, but in obscurity, away from the light.
Per Engdahl: poet, journalist, Fascist leader. The Swedish police regard him as the real founder of Swedish Nazism.
"Even before the war he was known as the Swedish Nazi with the best connections in international Nazism. He was persona grata in Berlin and Rome ... By the end of 1945, Engdahl had already contacted the remaining Nazi and Fascist cells outside Sweden," writes the central police authority, the State Police, in a summary from the early 1950s.
Just a few days before 1946 gives way to 1947, five men gather on the Viale Regina Elena in Rome: a journalist, an archaeologist, an auditor, a trade-union leader, and a man claiming to be Benito Mussolini's illegitimate son. Together, they found the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a movement based on the same ideas and ideals as Mussolini's Fascist Party had. MSI rapidly attracts numerous supporters, and large amounts of money through private donations. Only a month or so later, local sections are set up all over Italy, and the movement can begin its work of attacking democracy and countering Communism. But not just in Italy. The movement's goals include a new Europe.
Falangists in Spain, Peronists in Argentina, British Fascists under Oswald Mosley, neo-Nazis meeting illegally in Wiesbaden under the leadership of Karl-Heinz Priester. And Per Engdahl in Sweden. They lurk under the surface, making their moves when the world is looking elsewhere. Even now, they are setting up among themselves a well-organized system of couriers to circumvent passport, visa, and currency restrictions. Soon the men will come closer together, even merge. The pent-up stillness of a pendulum about to strike back.
On January 19, elections are held in Poland. But over the course of the last few weeks, half-a-million people have been accused of collaboration with the Nazis and disenfranchised by way of punishment. Over 80,000 members and supporters of the anti-Communist party Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe [Polish People's Party] are arrested on the eve of the elections. Around a hundred of them are murdered by Poland's secret police. As a result, the Communists win a landslide victory. At the 1945 Yalta Conference, Stalin promised free elections in Poland — but for the multiparty system, today is the moment of death.
The son of an Egyptian clockmaker, Hasan al-Banna, wants to turn time towards Islam. Once he was an eager learner, willful and strong-minded like his mother, and more outgoing than his father. The time of the world was adjusted in his father's workshop, where silent dials waited for hands, tiny cogwheels lay gleaming in boxes, and the sound of a mended clock was reward enough for the effort of repairing it. The ticking, distinct and regular, showed that both the object and time itself had been restored from disorder to order, from chaos to control.
Outside Hasan's father's workshop lay Egypt with its wheat fields, the men crouching under the contemptuous gaze of the British: an unfree country. And the verses of the Qur'an were lined up as tightly as the ears of wheat in the fields.
The boy, too, learned his father's craft. Being in a room full of clocks turns an hour into friend and enemy alike. Taking a clock apart, scrutinizing its inner mechanisms, and then getting time to work again transforms time into a power that can be controlled.
An aircraft carrying Simone de Beauvoir takes off for New York. There are just ten passengers and 40 seats; boarding the plane, she already feels lost. It's as if she is leaving her life in Paris behind her. Something different, something new, is going to be revealed, and it will make her a different person. The plane is in the air. It is January 25. She writes: "I am nowhere. I am somewhere else. What is time?"
Now is a time without universal human rights. But has humankind missed something it didn't know existed? Have the world's religions, seeking to shield that which is human as though it were a fragment of the divine, provided adequate protection?
The world rises out of greasy human ashes. Here and now, in the United Nations' provisional secretariat in the aircraft factory at Lake Success, universal values are to be established: new thoughts, new premises for humankind, a new morality. A person's rights are not to depend on whether they are Christian or Buddhist, on whether they were born into a family with or without assets, or on their name, sex, position, country of birth, or skin color.
Entering world history, a 60-year-old woman leads the deliberations. She has just lost her driving license for careless driving. Somewhere beneath the stream of day-to-day political happenings and her sadness at the death of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, somewhere beneath the layer of thoughts about aging, motherhood, and the fact that people are unused to a female leader, run the words that will follow the working party from this first day to the last, the same regardless of whether one reads the Confucian philosopher Mencius or the twelfth chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Eleanor Roosevelt convenes her first meeting with the working party on January 27. There is a certain euphoria in the air. Never again, say the world's people to each other and themselves. Never again, say the members of the working party charged with creating human rights, who hardly grasp the magnitude of their task.
Never again. The words are repeated like the fringes on a prayer shawl, as if god existed.
A winter wind blows through the streets of Malmo. The temporary visitor Herr von Leers excels in hatred. Once Goebbels's chief ideologue, he had proved to be an asset when it came to spreading malice.
In his pamphlet The Jews are Looking at You, published in 1933, he named a number of people who he believed to be Jewish — eminent German politicians, scholars, and artists — published photographs of them, and incited his fellow party members to murder them. One of them was Albert Einstein, who had already left Germany by then. "Not yet hanged," von Leers noted. But a number of the others he named were abducted and murdered, as though his words had the force of an order.
Now he is visiting Malmo.
Who purchases his ticket, who meets him at the harbor, who takes him to Per Engdahl?
Excerpted from "1947 Where Now Begins"
Copyright © 2016 Elisabeth Ásbrink.
Excerpted by permission of Other Press LLC.
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