History is a music box. Someone winds the little handle and new songs come every time. History is this winding motion, for the history of power is the songs of the music box, melodies cut short. History is just the refrains but the impression that the melodies are complete. History is:
The waves through the town. The sun comes up, I sleep and I walk to work. Other people, sitting on the streets, have already started their work. I walk across a bridge. In a square, people are sitting on the ground to protest the threat to deport them to a country Sweden advises others not to travel to. Some unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan have set up a group called ‘Ung I Sverige’ (Young in Sweden) and are demanding an end to the forced deportations. On the evening of 8th August, members of the Nordic Resistance Movement mounted a terrorist attack on the protesters. One of whom was badly hurt. The same Nazi group made an aggressive attack on the Pride parade on 5th August, blocking the route for several violent minutes.
Pappa talks about neo-Nazis in Stockholm in the 1960s. Nobody could believe it. Pappa’s childhood friend ‘Isse’ Vilhelm was the son of the rabbi. Isse died of leukaemia later on. His father fled from Germany during the war. When the rabbi saw Nazis on the streets of Stockholm, people making Heil Hitler salutes, he had a seizure, a heart attack, and died. From shock, the shock of seeing Nazis marching openly again.
There’s a flickering thread, a flickering thread of flame running through Isse and his father. It is flickering above Mynttorget and beside us as we make our way together by the water at Slussen to Medborgarplatsen, the citizens’ square. People are looking, a woman shouts her derision, pointing her finger. I am taking part in this march out of solidarity with those whose right to live has been called into question.
This summer afternoon outside the parliament building, this pathetic attempt at justice. I can be part of this protest on my own terms: join in for a while and then go for dinner with my pappa. Knowing I can do that because my pappa was once a boy and fled across a flaming continent. Knowing he was allowed to stay. The Chilean folk singer Victor Jaras’s famous song ‘El derecho de vivir en paz’ was freely translated by Swedish singer-songwriter Cornelis Vreeswijk as ‘The right to your own life’.
Pappa and his family escaped before the war officially broke out and they were not therefore granted refugee status, nor – for the same reason – were they ever entitled to reparations for the property they lost in the war. They are considered to have left their apartment voluntarily and someone else moved into their home after them, drank from their cups, slept on their sheets, opened the windows onto the canal, breathed in deeply. The remaining family, who were murdered, on the other hand, have a right to wartime reparations. Pappa’s grandmother had to be murdered in the gas chambers before she had the right to refugee status. I meet a boy in the square at Medborgarplatsen. He is the only one of his family left alive.
Shanah tovah. May your year be sweet and full of apple slices dipped in honey. It’s morning service, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. We gather and stare at one another between the empty rows. The service has to be paused; there are not enough people present to form a minyan. The tenth person arrives and we resume the prayer. O you whose kin have lived here for generations, o you who fled the pogroms, o you who have walked across the border, o you who were carried here on stretchers. Out in the yard I read the names of the people who are mourned by survivors in the congregation. Someone has listed 65 maternal and paternal aunts, brothers and sisters, cousin’s children, a grandfather.
A few days later I read about Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has emerged from the parliamentary elections as Germany’s third largest party. People high up in AfD openly support the aggressively Islamophobic movement Pegida and take exception to the so-called ‘Cult of Guilt’ in Germany around the Second World War and the Holocaust. A party that talks about the danger from ‘mixed-race people’ in Europe, a party that urges Germany to feel proud of the acts carried out by German soldiers in both world wars. AfD’s leading representative Alexander Gauland was born in 1941 in the southern German town of Chemnitz. I wonder if he remembers his neighbours and the town’s labour camp for women.
The Nordic Resistance Movement has planned a demonstration in central Gothenburg on 30th September, which they claim is the largest since the Second World War. That day, the big annual Book and Library Fair is in full swing, and the racist weekly Nya Tider is one of the exhibitors there. That day is a day of fullness, saturated with examination.
It is decreed that fasting begin at sunset the previous day. From then on, no food or drink is to be consumed for twenty-four hours. Throughout the day, the synagogue is a place for prayer, for attempting reconciliation between man and God, and between men. Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement – the crowning glory of self-examination. The ten preceding days are devoted to praying for forgiveness for the wrongs – great and small – of which you have been guilty in the course of the year. Ten days to pluck the poisoned leaves and the book of life trembles. What evil have you inflicted on your fellow man? What ethical and moral commandments have you violated?
The planned Nazi demonstration coincides with the Jewish Day of Atonement. My hands are cupped around the names written on the tablets of stone. This year I am requesting a revocation of that atonement.
One time last year I found myself standing at Raoul Wallenberg Square. It was a Shabbat in October and the air was bright. The Nazis were on the square under the careful protection of the police. A stone’s throw away from the Synagogue where the victims of the Holocaust are carved in the stone walls. The names of the dead on walls denied the light of day. The music boxes winding wildly and the Nazis ended with the Swedish national anthem ‘Thou Ancient, Thou Free’. I thought I was going to throw up but I just ran round shouting at the police: ‘What shall we tell our fathers, what shall we tell our mothers? Our dead aunts and grandmothers? Nobody can ever take back the desecration of our bodies and burial grounds.’
And Nazis march completely undisturbed along the avenues and break our tears to pieces. And unaccompanied minors are still gathering on the square to demand their lives back. In Germany the memorials are replaced by press conferences. Not a metre more to those who love to violate history. Not a metre more to those who spit on the dead, spit on those demanding the right to their own life.
Rosh Hashanah. There is a seizing of the sweetness at the head of the year. The gates of Heaven are opened, the book of life trembles in the face of examination. Ten days to pluck the poisoned leaves. As it is written:
How many shall pass away
and how many shall be born,
Who shall live
and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days
and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water
and who by fire,
Who shall be exalted
and who shall be brought low
Shanah tovah. With a longing for sweet years, but first the struggle, the tears. Soon we shall see the apple blossom growing out of our hands.