A very thin memoir, which I picked up among the leftovers, at the religious book shop in Lund, one week after the hordes of sale shoppers, had raided the shop. They turned their noses up at this book, and I am sad to say, that I think I know why. I really, really should have taken my reading glasses out of my bag and looked the book up on google, or read a little bit here and there in it, before purchase. When it said on the back, that this 93-year-old man, had finally written his memoirs, I should have read this as a warning light.
When you are 93 years old, you might have a clear mind still, but what is important for you to record, might not be so interesting for the reader to take part in. Nor is your memory going to be totally reliable, sometimes 70-80 years after the events described. The years will have tainted the events. And that is the problem I have with this book.
Let me translate the back side of the book for you: ” For me personally, 1938, became a turning point in my life. During my 1000 days in the military, I learned how difficult it is to live like a Jew in Sweden. I was thrown from a protected environment, in to one of anti-Semitism, hatred and bitterness. But the propaganda of hate towards the Jews, also strengthened my Jewish identity. Aron Neuman was born in Lund 1919. In this book, he relates memories from his very long 93-year-old life, where the Jewish heritage and involvement in the Jewish community, has played a big part. Aron Neuman was educated at the Business school in Stockholm. During 30 years, he worked as an accountant and as a volunteer in several Jewish organisations. After retirement he studied art history and together with his wife Viola, he founded the Jewish Museum in Stockholm, 1987.”
To me, it sounded like an interesting book because 1. I live in the council of Lund 2. I thought he would bring to life, the Jewish community in Lund, that more or less, probably don’t exist anymore 3. I thought he would describe exactly how the Jews in Sweden felt in the 1930s and during the war, but also how they reacted to what they heard from Europe.
The book lacks all sorts of feelings. It is basically what I call a “shopping list”. I did this, I did this… I met this important person, I met this important person. I’m afraid I would classify the book as the worse kind of memoir, because afterwards you have not got to learn to know the person who wrote the book at all. You don’t know what Aron is about at all, except that the he moved in circles with celebrities. In many ways, Jewish celebrities, which I have never heard of. But even worse, I have learned nothing at all about what it is like to live in Sweden as a Jew, not now, not in the 1930s or during the war. Aron does not bring in any feelings in the book, but it is just a cold observation of his life.
Aron’s father, was called Selman Neijman, who was born in Pikkale. He says the village was situated on the border of Lithuania and Latvia. But when I googled it, to see where the village is and what it looks like, google came up with nothing. On the other hand, he did say that it was very small, but still, no records of it at all? Selman, which I guess, is Eastern European for Solomon (but I could be wrong), was thrown out of his home, when his mother re-married. There is no mentioning of how many children were thrown out and Aron does not know anything about his uncles and aunts. But his father came to Sweden, to Lund, like many other Jews at the time. No mentioning of the date of his arrival, why he chose Sweden or anything else of the sort. I suspect he moved in to Nöden, which was the slum back then, and a very posh place to live in, today. Gorgeous little streets and houses, but was hardly considered so, at the turn of the century 1900.
Reading the short paragraph about his father’s background, made my mind start wandering. My dad worked for a Nejman, in the town I grew up in. My dad had nothing good to say about the man, since my dad in his spare time, had worked on some sort of invention, and showing it to Nejman, was a big mistake. Nejman stole the idea as his own and my dad got nothing for it. It made my dad bitter and I do not think he ever tried to do anything like it again. I remember all the old drawings and measurements on papers my dad had at home. I was too young to know what the invention was, I just know that my dad was angry about the entire thing, and disappointed. He was forced to quit school early, because he came from a poor family, but he had the drive to learn new things, his entire life. Unfortunately, he was never able to do anything about his intelligent brain. He could not lift himself out of the working class. You stayed where you were born. Unless you were Jewish, I guess. My mum told me later on, that Nejman’s father started out as a peddler in metals, but the family ended up millionaires.
I started googling the family, to see if they are related to Aron Neuman, but I could not find out anything. Not about my dad’s employer nor about his sons. Amazing in this day and age. I went to school with the youngest son and my neighbour dated the older son, for years. I almost thought she was going to end up marrying him. I never knew they were Jewish, until my mum mentioned it one time, when I was a teenager, and my former classmate started to spread rumours about me. No, what he did was give the girl bullies in my high school, ammunition. Telling them things I did back when I was 6 years old, which to a teenager is very sensitive and not something one wants to be bullied for, 8 years after the fact. Like me wearing knitted pantaloons, under my snowsuit, as a 6-year-old, to prevent urinary tract infection. And those pantaloons being knitted in all the leftover yarns my mum could find, which made them look like Joseph’s multi-coloured coat in stripes of all colours and width! Why did Thomas have to do that to me? We had been friends back then, as 6 year-olds, but also in first and second grade, till I moved to the other part of town.
So, my research about Nejman, gave nothing. Perhaps Neijman was a very common name among Eastern European Jews? Aron’s father changed his name to Neuman, since it sounded more German and “less negative sounding”. This after he had married a Polish Jew from Raigrod. Eva Fridman and her family had left Poland because of pogroms. Why Selman left his country of origin, is unknown, but Aron thought it was to avoid the tsar’s military service, of 25-40 years. A thing the tsar created to get Jews to cut their strings with Judaism. To avoid getting stuck in the military, people chopped off fingers and Aron’s father lacked three fingers.
During his time in Lund, Selman tried all sorts of occupations, till he started a cap factory in Eslöv and a cinema. Funny, since my dad lived in Eslöv and worked there, when he met my mum at a dance. He actually met her at lots of dances, before he spoke to her. But the night when he first talked to her, he walked her home and then walked to Eslöv. Quite a walk! Anyway, it is fun when people in memoirs, mention places connected to yourself and your family, even if my family did not move in the same circles.
Like I said above, Nöden in Lund, was a place of poverty and 600 Jews lived there according to the book. Shocking Selman, since
they were orthodox, which he was not. The only thing Aron says about the group, is that it was very poor, religious and kept to itself. They mostly worked as peddlers, which you had to have a permit for, which hardly anyone of them had. Too expensive I’m sure. What they did not understand either, was that as they celebrated THEIR sabbath on Saturdays, the Swedish people celebrated its Sabbath on Sundays. The church was very strict on this in those days and Aron thinks this is one thing which created anti-Semitism. That the Jews dealt with money on Sundays, the Christian Sabbath day.
Things has changed a lot since I grew up. Nowadays, Swedish shops are open for business all days of the week, but when I grew up, Sunday was a really dead day, if you grew up in a non-religious family. No shops open and if you had forgotten to buy enough milk or something, then you had to go without till Monday. For us children it meant that there was no point in going anywhere, because the entire town was dead. You could not see a single person out, except now and then, someone walking their dogs. When I worked as an au-pair for the Lawrence family in London, a Jewish family owning a furniture shop, they actually kept their shop open on the Jewish Sabbath and kept it close on the Christian Sabbath. To be like everybody else no doubt. Easier to get people to work for them as well, I guess. And my day off was Sunday. I wonder if they still do that or if they have their shop open 7 days a week?
The 600 Jews in Lund, had large families and Aron’s mother gave birth to eleven children. Her firstborn, Isidor, wanted to become an officer, but as such he could not live like an orthodox Jew, so he gave up his dream. Most of his siblings actually went in to antiques or art. Except his brother Martin, who married a “Gentile” and became a doctor. At least his mother shunned him for this, but he did not seem to have regretted turning away from Judaism. He even asked to be cremated when he died. A thing Jews do not do!
1919, Aron was born and they moved to Stockholm. So, so much for learning more about Jewish Lund and what life was like for the orthodox there. Aron does not really say much about religion at all, except that his mother was deeply religious, so much so, that she did not really foster them, but let the siblings foster each other, while she prayed. To be honest, reading the book is like squeezing blood out of a stone. One is so desperate for any knowledge of value, any new learning and information. But there is SO little of it.
In the chapter about the between-the-war-years, there is precious little of worth. I found one thing interesting and that was the property market. How difficult it was for owners to let their flats, so they often had to let people rent three months for free. I do not know if this ever effected my grandparents, who did not move around like the Neuman family did. My grandparents lived in a flat among many, in a villa-looking house, outside Lund. They did not have indoor plumbing at all and my grandparents were always working while my mum and her sister basically had to raise themselves, during the days. A neighbour, they didn’t like at all, kept an eye on them. For the Neumans, who were Jewish, the moves had to do with religion, since the synagogue always have to be in walking distance, and also because of their money situation. When business was good, it was really good, and they could live in a fancy part of Stockholm and when business was bad, they had to move to more modest lodgings.
He does say that the radio was constantly on during the 1930s, so they could hear what was happening in Europe. On the other hand, what was reported? He doesn’t say. He does say that the children did military excercises in the courtyard and a classmate joined he nazi movement in Sweden. But when does not children play soldiers, especially at the threat of war? They did all over Britain, even during the Blitz! I would have liked to have found out more. He was after all a teenager at the time, so he must have paid attention! The only anti-Semitism he mentions, is the time when he went to a football match and someone screamed “Death to the bloody Jew”, when a Jewish player tackled another player. When he started Gymnasium he and other Jewish boys asked to not have to have a certain teacher, who was known to not like Jews. I am sure there was anti-Semitism in Sweden, like in all other countries at the time, but he does not really say anything about what it did to him and how he felt about it. Nor if his family discussed it between themselves and with others. He says that he did not like school because of the anti-Semitism in Europe and that he had a teacher who wanted to show off his knowledge about Judaism. But it really did not explain the situation to me or anyone else wanting to know what Sweden was like back then.
The political climate in Europe made Aron more and more aware of his Jewishness, so after Gymnasium, he spent most of his free time at Jewish clubs, when not studying at the business school. A Jewish restaurant opened with Kosher food and a third synagogue was founded during the 1930s. The entire interior decoration was smuggled out from Germany, from the Hamburg synagogue, being described to Gestapo, that it was old wood and furniture.
During the war, the climate was definitely pro-German. Of course, the newspapers did not dare to be anything but. It was that or be invaded, since everything was reported back to Germany. Only two newspapers dared to say what they thought and they were censored heavily. Since it was said in Europe, that Jews are cowards, greedy, stingy with money and lack patriotism, Aron signed up for the military a year early, in 1938. He started out in a machine gun company, till his poor eyesight became a problem. In the Army he met with anti-Semitism, like someone not wanting to sleep in the same room as a Jew and someone saying that the Germans had made Norway free of Jews and that they soon would be in Sweden doing the same thing. That is all Aron says about the Army! In the Navy, the commanding officer did not want alcohol served in the mess, if Aron was there, since he did not want to toast with a Jew. The only service totally free of anti-Semitism, was the Air Force, since it was brand new and not based on German principles, but looked to Great Britain instead.
The refugees arriving to Sweden, were mainly orthodox, according to Aron, which really surprised me. I would have thought it would have been easier for assimilated Jews, to get entrance visas. Aron told about the refugees his family took in, like a book shop owner from Denmark and a Norwegian relative. And a little girl who arrived on the white buses. In other words, when the war was basically over and the Germans letting women leave Ravensbrück. All in all, half a page. But he says nothing ABOUT them really, nor how the family dealt with what they told them and how they felt about it all. Instead he tells about the rivalry between the Jewish congregation and the volunteer organisation, of which Aron was president. The Jewish congregation had an entire program set up for receiving the refugees and did not like the amateurs. They were also very eager to do the politically correct thing and were petrified of too many Jews arriving so they would all get in to trouble.
Aron also got involved in the Jewish help organisation B’nai B’rith. I would have liked to have known more about it and not just that it helps Jews and fight anti-Semitism. Aron says that the Jewish leader of it, in Germany, was a man who saw no problems at all between the orthodox, conservative and liberals. That all three should be strengthened so they will survive, that it is only good with variety as long as there is also unity. Thing is, is there really? In a book I read about the ultra-orthodox in Israel, they count themselves as the only Jews in the world. That everyone else are gentiles and unrighteous. In their world, conservative, orthodox and liberal Jews are not Jews at all and they are absolutely not counted as righteous.
After the war, Aron spent most of his time, trying to help the fledgling Israel. Working as an accountant for organisations like the one planting trees in Israel, the one helping Polish Jews and many others. He doesn’t say anything about them and what they really did and why, only listed them. He never seriously thought about emigrating there though, even though he was bitter about how some people had treated him in the military, during the war, with snide remarks.
In 1987 he helped founding the Jewish museum in Stockholm, a museum I actually visited the year after that. I had no idea it was that new. And I am sure that it has grown a lot since then, with more items, but also with more high-tech, which seems to be the thing at most museums nowadays. Having studied museum science at the University, I do concur though. Noone is interested in watching ten combs, ten mugs… in glass stands anymore. It is plain boring. To make a museum worth visiting, there needs to be hands on experiences, films to watch, scenes showing how things were used etc. London in particular, is a master in this. That is why I avoid British Museum and love going to places like Imperial War Museum and others like it. British Museum is still stuck in the 1800s, except when they have a special exhibition.
In a way, that second to last chapter, was the most interesting, since it brought up books which have been published and exhibitions which have been shown at the museum. Exhibitions always mean books! And in other books, I might find the information which Aron’s book lacks. I have already created a modest wish list and am sending my husband to pick up two books in particular, when he goes to the capital for a conference. (On computers, not Judaism!) An exhibition I would have loved to have gone to, was the one called “Jesus the Jew”. THAT would have been SO interesting! And another one I would have loved to have attended, was the one about peddlers. Here Sweden met with a new kind of Jew, one who was orthodox, one who knew no Swedish, one who did not understand Swedish traditions and who desperately tried to eat kosher and teach their children to stay orthodox, by teaching them to read and write Hebrew. I doubt they succeeded particularly well, since we do not have any odd-looking Jews in Sweden anymore, with side curls and religious garments. The Ultra Orthodox as we call them today, are not present at all in Swedish society, like they are in other countries.
I would like to end this post with saying, that “Aron’s Bok” was not worth even the sale price I paid for it. It lacked everything I had anticipated and proved to me, that not everyone is a writer and not everyone should attempt to write their own memoirs but should leave it to a proper biographer, who can give people and dates, some meat on the bones.
At the same time, the book did something for me and that was strengthen the determination to continue my research. And also, to return to my own family and my genealogy. Even if it is more than frustrating at this point when the archives have less good opening times and ancestry.com/ancestry.se charges an arm and a leg, for you to look at “their” records, which should be open to the public for nothing, in my view. Those are public records and the micro films posted to the internet, were made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and given to Sweden for free. So why is there a fee to look at them?
The photo of Selman Neijman and his beautiful young bride, makes me sad. Because according to Aron, they were poor immigrants who lived in the slum of Nöden in Lund,yet they could afford beautiful clothes, a big wedding and more over, to be photographed. My grandfather’s parents, married that same year, and there are no photos of that poor couple. The church where they married in 1900, in Hardeberga, outside Lund, doesn’t even look like it did back then. It seems like all Jews writing their memoirs, have a lot of photos, and that is something I have always felt saddened by. The lack of everything in my family. Photos, diaries… I guess they were too busy trying to stay alive?
So, I should say thank you to Aron, for showing me once again, how important our family history is. I have started trying to find out the truth about my mother’s mother’s father’s father’s parentage. Ancestry.se will not let me get in to the records even though I have signed up for a trial subscription, and the days keep ticking by, when it is for free. In 1987, a priest, said some awful things about this man’s mother’s morals, so that family name was sure talked of still, 134 years after the fact! Will I ever find out what the priest wrote in the records 1853? The priest who kept the records at home, in 1987, sure did not want to read them off to me. I need to know the truth, to get a peace of mind. I do not want to have the serious big gaps in my family history, which Aron has. Till I can fill them, I will never write a book on my family!