* war and social upheaval: World War II Europen Theater -- Sweden refugees

World War II: Sweden--Refugees

Finnish refugee children in Sweden
Figure 1.--Sweden took in some 0.2 million refugees diring World War II. The largest single group were the Finnish evacuee children. The children began arriving during the Winter War (November 1941). This Swedish mother has taken in a little Finnish boy during the Continuation War (April 1942). The writingis difficult to read, but the boy is Ilmari Terlckeli. His foster mother is Margit Forsberg.

The story of World War II refugees in Sweden is that of Europens seeking refuge in Sweden, not Swedes dislocated by the War. Sweden with the rise of NAZIism in Germany was not receptive to refugees that began flowing out of the country, especially Jews. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in Sweden and most Jewish refugees were rejected. Jewish woman nuclear scientist Lise Meitne was a rare exception. Once Hitler and Stalin launched the War (September 1939), Swedish attitudes began to change, especially after the Soviets invaded Finland (November 1939) and the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway (April 1940). At first there was some reluctance to accept foreigners like the Poles, but as the war shifted to Scandanvia, attitutes changed. The Finish evacuee children were welcomed with open arms. And the Norwegian and Danish reugees were aided. A major concern was not offending the Germans beause there was concern that the Germans might invade Sweden as well. But Hitler's focus was on the East and Sweden was safe for the time as long as they supplied the all important iron ore needed by the German war industries. Thus the refugees were not only accepted but were even welcomed despite the deteriorating economy as a result of the War. The Swedes even had hange of hear about Jews. Many refugees were helped to get to Britain or the merica aoard Swedush-flag vessels. Those refugees who styed in Sweden were not intened in camps, but allowed to work in factories, farms, and logging to replace the Swedish workers who were drafted for military service. Sweden remained neutral throughout the War, but built up a substantial miitary establishment. While the largest numbrs of war refugees in Sweden were from the neigboring countries (Finland, Norway, and Denmark, there were others from many different countries that arrived over the the 5 years of war. In the final year of the War, substantial numbers of refugees arrived from the Baltic Republics (especially Estonia). The Balts were fleeing the Soviets. Other refugees arrived from Germany, and the German concentration camps as the Reich collapsed.

Finnish Children

The larget number of the Finnish child evacuees by far were taken in by neigboring Sweden. There is no precise accounting, but the estimate we see most commonly is about 70,000 children. The evacuations began when the Soviets invaded neutral Finaland launching the Winter War (November 1939). The political situation changed when the Germans invaded and occupied Denmark and Norway (April 1940). This did not end the evacuations because Finland was neutral toward Germany and eventually became a co-beligerant when Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941). The Finns called it the Continuation War. Relatively few evacuees were placed in German-occupied Denmark and Norway. Most of the evacuees were taken in by the Sweeds. This was an undertaking by both Swedish Government agencies and private charitable organizations. The largest number of evacuations occurred during the Continuation War rather than the Winter War. The children were placed in homes and referred to as guests rather than foster parents--although this is what they became. Some of the children were placed in institutions. This was especially the case of children that were ill or in poor physical condition. They were placed in hospitals, orphanages, and santoria. This was the case near the end of the War as conditions deteriorated in Finland and food became increasingly scarce. Special medical transports were organized. Some 10,000 to 15,000 evacuee children fell into this category. Conditions in the orphanages were very cramped. We see photographs of the children doubled up in beds with children at both the head and foot of the beds. The evacuations from Finland to Sweden were one of the largest evacuations of children in the 20th century, only exceeded by the British, German, and Japanese evacuations. It of course primarily occurred during the War, but Finnish children moved between the two countries for 20 years (1939-59). It took some time to get the children back to Finland. In fact a substantial number of children bonded with their Swedish parents and stayed in Sweden. And a substantial number of Finnish parents decided not to take the children back. Some of the children moved back and forth.


Sweden has a long border with Norway and deep connections with the Norwegin people. Norway until 1905 was part of Sweden. After the Germn invasion of Norway (April 1940), Sweden was a refuge for anti-NAZI Norwegians. A Norwegian general lead the whole 1st division into Sweden. ,Most people in NAZI-occupied Europe had no way of escaping. The Norwegins did. It was not easy to reach Sweden and the Germans began patroling the border, but given the rempteness nd length of the border, even with the Large German garrison in Norway, they were unable to seal the border. Some 50,000 Norwegian refugees reached Sweden during the war. Norwegian authorities in the embasy handled a range of refugee issues aided by the Refugee Office. The Norwegins set up the Refugee Office days after the German invion to meete the economic and social needs of the refugees (April 28 1940). As part of the Legation, it was formally under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but administrative under the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. A reception center was established for refugees in �reryd in Sm�land (194). The following year the center was moved to Kjes�ter in S�dermanland. The camp was administere by Swedish authorities until the autumn of 1944, when it became part of the Norwegian exile administration in Sweden. The camps was not to ouse the Norwegians, but to help them find accomodations in Sweden where some had family ir frinds or to move on to Allied nations, The Germans allowed Swedish shipping as the country was neutral to sail into internatiinal waters.


Unlike Norway, Denmark did not have a land border with Sweden. The maritime border was extensive and in some cases the distance bewtween Danish and Swedish teritory was only a few kilometrs or less. The Danish Straits are the three channels connecting the Baltic Sea to the North Sea through the Kattegat and Skagerrak. They transect Denmark and Sweden is just a few kilometers to the north. They should not be confused with the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The many island and confindd waters were heavily patrolled by the Germans after they invaded Demmark and Norway (April 1940), but imposible to seal off. The gap was small, but abarrir to refugees unless they had local assistance, especially of fushermen. From the first days of the occupation, Danes began seeking refuge in Sweden. The first were Danish soldiers, although mant returned after the Danish Government surrendered and the Germans did not intern the Danish Army. Another refugee was a former Minister of Trade and an outspoken anti-NAZI, John Christmas M�ller. He became the chairman of the Danish council in London and made radio broacasts to Denmark for those listening on illegal radios. The number of refugees was at first limited, but as the German occupation regime became more harsh and resistance increased (1943), the number of refugees increased. Eventially about 17,000 Danes sought refuge in Sweden, including 7,000 Jews. The Danes managed to save almost their entire Jewish population. Among the other refugees were Danish sailors, boatmen, policemen, resistance fighters, and Boy Scouts. The Scouts were privided education at Gr�nna

Interment Camps

The Swedish Governent after the outbreak of World War II decided to open internment camps (February 1940). Thee were 14 camps eventually opned. They were relativly small camps. They only held some 3,000 inmates during the years of operation (1940-48). Those interned were a varied group of suspected criminals, German refugees, left-wing activists, and anti-Nazis. One of the purposes at first was to ensure that there was no vocal criticism of Hitler and the NAZis. The Swedes did not want to give Hitler an motive for invasion. Those interned were arrested nd held without trial or even informed of the accusations. They were almost all foreigners. They appear to have been reasonably well treated and not closely confined. we have not ben able to find much information avout these camps. And we are not sure about just which German refugees were held there.


Most of the refugees in Sweden were from the countries bordering Sweden. This included the Finnish evacue children and adults and children frim Norway and Denmark. During 5 years of war, however, smaller numbers of refugees from many other countries reached Sweden, including people from France, Poland, and the Baltic Republics (especially Estonia). The large numbers from Estonia reflect the Finnish connection and the difficulty in reachng Germany. Many of the Balts arrived in the last year of the War, fleeing the Red Army as it drove out the Germans. The Balts headed for both Germany and Sweden, often in overcrowded boats that ee barely sea-worthy, Except for Jews, the Soviets had proven more brutal thn the Germans. The Balts, however, were unaware that the Germans had targeted them for destruction as part of Generalpln Ost. The White Busses delivered concentration camp inmates from many countries in the last month of the War. In addition to these major groups, there ere small number of refufees from all over Europe. Also at the end of the War, Germans began seeking refuge in Sweden, many were from the eastern or what would become the Soviet occupation zone.


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Created: 9:52 AM 5/7/2016
Last updated: 9:52 AM 5/7/2016