Non­fic­tion

And in the Vien­na Woods the Trees Remain

Elis­a­beth Asbrink, Sask­ia Vogel (trans.)

  • Review
By – May 21, 2020

It sounds like the begin­ning of a movie. Sev­er­al years ago, a woman named Eva Ull­man con­tact­ed jour­nal­ist (and fel­low Swede) Elis­a­beth Asbrink, then pre­sent­ed her with a box labeled IKEA.” In it were hun­dreds of let­ters exchanged between Eva’s father Otto and Otto’s par­ents dat­ing from 1939 until the mid-1940s. While this sounds like any reporter’s fan­ta­sy, Asbrink was reluc­tant to read the let­ters, hav­ing grap­pled with her own family’s Holo­caust trau­ma. Curios­i­ty even­tu­al­ly won out and Asbrink used the let­ters as the basis for her extra­or­di­nary work of non­fic­tion And in the Vien­na Woods the Trees Remain.

Win­ner of Sweden’s August Prize, Asbrink’s book grap­ples with the all-too-rel­e­vant issues of fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion, xeno­pho­bia, and asy­lum, told through the sto­ry of Otto Ull­man, a Jew­ish Vien­nese boy. With war and anti­semitism rag­ing across East­ern Europe in 1939, Otto’s par­ents chose to send him away, along with one hun­dred oth­er Aus­tri­an chil­dren, to live in Swe­den. Like the chil­dren of the Kinder­trans­port, Otto was shipped off to a com­plete­ly for­eign place where he strug­gled to sur­vive. He dealt with extreme home­sick­ness and iso­la­tion, but was even­tu­al­ly able to find a mea­sure of com­fort in life as a farm­hand for a wealthy Swedish landown­er whose son, Ing­var, became a close friend to Otto. Despite this rela­tion­ship, Ing­var was a stead­fast and loy­al sup­port­er of the Nazi par­ty. He also went on to start a mod­est home fur­nish­ings com­pa­ny called IKEA.” This unusu­al pair­ing is a per­fect plat­form for Asbrink to explore the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al cli­mate in pre­war Swe­den, a coun­try not typ­i­cal­ly first in line when it comes to dis­cus­sions of World War II or the Holocaust.

Trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Sask­ia Vogel, the sto­ry is told in part through the let­ters them­selves from mem­bers of Otto’s fam­i­ly stuck in Vien­na and fran­tic for any news or reas­sur­ance from young Otto. This long­ing and des­per­a­tion is only height­ened by Asbrink’s deep research on the sys­temic anti­semitism in Swe­den at the time, as well as her gor­geous prose. Using unique­ly haunt­ing and beau­ti­ful lan­guage, Asbrink (and Vogel) con­vey the agony and hope­less­ness of one fam­i­ly ripped apart, as well as the over­pow­er­ing sense of doom blan­ket­ing Europe.

At this point in his­to­ry, sev­en­ty-five years after the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz, it’s chal­leng­ing to find a work that con­tributes some­thing new or unex­pect­ed to the canon of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. How­ev­er, And in the Vien­na Woods the Trees Remain does exact­ly that.

Amy Oringel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Busi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

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