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.