A decade ago, Swedish investigative journalist and author Elisabeth Åsbrink was given an IKEA box containing more than 500 German-language letters a man named Otto Ullmann had received from his parents, aunts and uncle before they were killed by the Nazis.
The fact that the box was from IKEA was not coincidental. Hidden among the missives was the astounding revelation that Ullmann’s life as an Austrian Jewish refugee in Sweden during World War II intersected with that of the late Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA and one of the wealthiest men in the world.
For the last years of the war, Ullmann lived with and worked for the Kamprad family in Småland, and became close friends with son Ingvar, who was of roughly the same age. Ingvar even ended up hiring Ullmann as one of IKEA’s first employees after he launched the company in 1943 at age 17.
This unusual story is complicated by the fact that while the Jewish Ullmann was living with the Kamprads, Ingvar was involved with Swedish Nazi and fascist groups. In the 1990s, the IKEA founder admitted to these political associations and apologized, dismissing his wartime activities as mere youthful folly.
“The full story of this anomalous relationship will never be known. It’s hard to understand how Otto did not know the full truth about Kamprad. It’s a mystery,” Åsbrink, 55, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from her home in Stockholm.
The connections between Kamprad and Ullmann are part of the fuller wartime picture of Otto Ullmann and his family that is painted by Åsbrink in “And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Family Torn Apart by War.” The book was originally published to great acclaim in Swedish in 2011, and came out in English translation earlier this year.
“Otto’s children claim that he had no inkling of Kamprad’s allegiances at the time of their youthful friendship. They remember him being very angry and upset when the news about this broke in the 1990s. He refused to forgive Kamprad,” Åsbrink said.
Kamprad, who recalled fondly his friendship with Ullmann, was initially happy to be interviewed by Åsbrink for her book.
However, after she came across a previously undisclosed Swedish Secret Police file from 1943 at the Swedish National Archives documenting surveillance of Kamprad and identifying him as a member of the Swedish Socialist Unity (the Swedish Nazi party at the time), the IKEA founder refused to cooperate any further.
According to Åsbrink, the file — whose contents indicated that Kamprad continued to attend fascist movement meetings and to be in close touch with and financially support fascist leader Per Engdahl into the 1950s — has disappeared since the publication of her book in 2011.
“I also have a strong feeling that as a result of my book, I was denied access to other documents at the archive — or was given only censored ones — when I was working on my next book,” she said in reference to “1947: Where Now Begins,” which was published in English translation in 2018.
Furthermore, Åsbrink more than hinted that the the timing of the IKEA Foundation’s donation of $62 million to the UNHCR for Somali refugees in Kenya shortly after the initial publication of “And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain” was deliberate.
“IKEA was clearly trying to quash my story, to whitewash what I had discovered and reported,” she said.
A rich life in letters
While the unlikely friendship between Otto Ullmann and Ingvar Kamprad is the headline-grabbing aspect of “And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain,” it is not the lion’s share of its content, nor its most emotional.
Åsbrink uses around 50 of the letters from the box to create the skeletal structure of the book. Around it, she builds out through additional research what happened to only child Ullmann, his homemaker mother Elise (Lisl) and journalist father Josef (Pepi), and various uncles and aunts from Kristallnacht in November 1938 until all contact was cut off in late 1944, when Elise and Josef were transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, and presumably murdered shortly thereafter.
Before the war, 13-year-old Otto had been evacuated to Sweden from Vienna by Christian missionaries focused on saving souls in a Kindertransport-type operation. Sweden allowed entrance to very few Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. The Swedish Jewish community succeeded in bringing in between 500 and 600 children, and Otto was one of 100 “Mosaic” children and youth rescued by the Swedish Society for Israel.
“The biggest challenge was of course that I had only Otto’s parents’ letters to him, and not his responses to them. I had to work backward and deduct what he had written,” Åsbrink said.
In addition, she had to crack the code in which Otto’s parents wrote to him. For instance, many of Elise’s brief messages to her son from 1942 mentioned that Josef — who had heretofore been the primary correspondent — was unavailable to write as much as usual because he was working day and night and was very tired.
“I couldn’t understand why Josef would be working day and night when by that time Jews were not allowed to work at any jobs or professions and were for all intents and purposes confined to their homes in dire conditions,” Åsbrink said.
She came across the answer in documents housed at the Archive of the Jewish Community Council of Vienna. Josef was tasked with enforcing the deportation orders of the Jewish Community Council. It was a bid to buy time before he and Elise would be deported themselves.
It becomes harder to read the parents’ letters as their separation from Otto stretches to five years and the likelihood of their ever reuniting with him greatly diminishes. The last letters clearly constitute a farewell and an ethical will.
‘Be sure to eat your oatmeal’
The earlier missives, written when Josef and Elise still held out hope for a reunion, are rather mundane. They are filled with reminders to Otto to eat his oatmeal (not his favorite food), make new friends, enjoy learning new skills, and stay healthy.
“I was initially disappointed by the letters. There were no juicy reports of life under the Nazis,” Åsbrink said. “But then I came to understand what they really were about.”
She realized that the letters represented the only window Elise and Josef had back into being normal human beings and parents again.
“By speaking of normal problems and being civil, they kept in touch with the people they used to be,” Åsbrink said.
Writing “And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain” has been part of a long process Åsbrink herself has undertaken toward identifying as Jewish after having been brought up to tell no one about her heritage. She is the daughter of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor father and a British mother whose father was a Sephardic Jew from the Thessaloniki community.
“My grandfather and great-grandmother were murdered in the Holocaust. The Holocaust left us with almost no bodies and with so many names that were lost,” she said.
“At least I could pick up five names from this grave and give them back their life and love,” Åsbrink said of Otto’s beloved parents, aunts and uncle — Josef Ullmann, Elise Kollmann Ullmann, Margarethe Kollman, Adolfine Kollmann Kalmar, and Paul Kalmar.
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