My maternal Grandfather, Oscar Israelsson, was a tall and stately man and seemed to be born to become a leader of men. He came from a family of small factory owners, an occasional engineer and big farmers in Småland, a southern province that borders on Skåne, in the very south of Sweden where I grew up. Only the fields in Småland were known to be extremely stony, so farming was hard work. For many generations back the farmers had had to clear the fields of stones and so built beautiful stone walls around their fields. That hard work seems to be the origin of the stinginess of the Smålanders. I will always remember my grandfather as a handsome and proud man who always walked very upright, and I felt proud of him. Especially when I saw him dressed up for a dinner out or a party. In fact, the next to the last time I saw him with my niece Kajsa, when he was still up and walking every day in the park at the retirement home, he was still holding himself perfectly straight.
People who grew up in small towns and villages in those days – Oscar was born in 1881 – did not as a rule go to the bigger towns or cities to get secondary education. Social democracy hadn’t been invented yet and the intelligent ones got a sufficiently good basic education in elementary school so that they could continue on their own developing their minds and their knowledge of the world. They could on their own find out about the basics in scientific and humanistic fields, and they could develop the everyday good sense that serves us well as we go about making a niche for ourselves in our environment.
Oscar had known my grandmother Bertha Johannisson from the small town of Lenhovda from his early youth. She was a fair maiden from a proud and well-off farmer’s family and her parents were all set on a good marriage for her. Maybe a bit better than the young suitor who had suddenly come into the picture. However, this was going to be another marriage for love and there was no convincing lovely young Bertha that Oscar was not good enough for her. Bertha’s parents, Lovisa and Fabian, were not going to regret their acceptance of the young man as their son-in-law.
Grandpa first had a starch factory in Blekinge, close to Småland and all seemed to go well for the young couple who had now become a family of four. But one hot summer’s day the factory burned down to the ground. There was no telling what caused the fire and Grandpa, like so many small business men in those days, had no insurance.
They moved to northern Skåne and heaven only knows how he managed to make a new start in life. He somehow bought a mill and a saw-mill in the neighborhood of Kristianstad. The mill was run by a steam engine and so was the saw mill. It had once been intended to be water powered, but there was not enough water in the little stream and so the steam engine had been installed. The farmers delivered their grain under a covered entrance to the mill and there was a lot of friendly chatting about the weather and the harvest that could go on for quite a while. Machines were constantly grinding away in the two-floored building. We could see the grain going into the grinder and thought it somewhat of a miracle that it came out on the first floor as flour. Grandpa had his own electric generator. Grandpa and Grandma both descended from stingy Småland farmers and anything they could produce themselves, even at an initial cost; was their way of life, be it electricity or eggs from their chickens.
They had a big house and Grandpa had an office with a telephone and a leather sofa that could be made into a bed. In a corner there was a black iron stove and on the wall behind it was an iron decoration with two standing-up lions turned towards each other. I once saw the identical decoration piece in a museum somewhere. In these old houses there would be a fireplace in every room.
The sofa which to my great surprise could be made into a bed was handy when there were big family gatherings, such as Mother turning 30 or Grandma turning 60. There would be evening gowns and all sorts of finery. A movie was taken for Mother’s 30-year celebration, that still exists. My nephew Måns rescued what was left of old movies by putting them all on a CD. Gun and I run into Mother’s arms and our Dad was very much part of the happiness.
The sawmill was of more interest to us little girls than the mill whenever we spent our summer vacations with our grandparents. We would play in Grandpa’s lumber yard and you could do a lot with the boards sticking out on the sides at various lengths and heights from the ground. It was easy to make seats and tables from those board ends, and from there many games were invented. Those games were accompanied by the piercing sound of the saw wheel that cut through the big trunks of wood.
My grandpa talked about inches and feet, which was old-fashioned even in those days in Sweden, and only used by lumber dealers. An inch we call a thumb, since that was the origin of this measure, and a foot was a foot also in Swedish.
Grandpa was the President of the Southern Swedish mill owners’ association and after each yearly meeting with dinner and dance (and evening gowns!), Grandma wrote a short article for the mill owners’ monthly magazine. She would ask Gun and me to proof-read it for the spelling and usually we did find some spelling mistakes.
Grandma had a small library in Grandpa’s office where Gun and I could always find books to read during our summer vacations. It was books like The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, Ben Hur and such — good reading for young children.
Mother gave us a game of croquet one year and in the large field next to Grandma’s garden behind the big white house we managed to find sufficient flat ground to put up our game. We played with some very good friends we had made in the village and they were delighted to get a real game to play with. And of course we went swimming in the little river that was just deep enough at a place a bit upstream.
These were the war years and leather for shoes was rationed. Even the soling required coupons. So a fashion was born where shoes were made with thick wooden soles and cloth instead of leather, and they looked quite nice. But in the summer we kids ran around mostly barefoot and in what we called sun-suits.
Some of my fondest memories from summers with our grandparents was hearing Grandpa, when he was in a good mood, tell us about glass-blowing. His family descended from the Belgian Walloons who had been invited in the 17th century by a Swedish king to settle in Sweden and to teach the Swedes
various skills having to do mainly with iron but also with glass. An uncle of his had a glass works factory and as a young boy he liked to watch the glass blowers turning turning turning their pipes and miraculously creating the different shapes from the molten glass. The best part of it was Grandpa’s gleaming eyes when he told us the stories from his youth. Those were good days.
It was a warm summer day in Småland and we were out playing in front of our house. I was four or five years old. Suddenly we saw the ice-cream man turn the corner with his very special cart where the lids opened at the top. He only came by in the summer and in those days there was no ice-cream except during the warm season. And there was only one flavor, vanilla. But what else could you wish for when you could get the best vanilla ice-cream that was ever made by man? It was heavenly.
We ran as fast as we could to Mother to tell her the ice-cream man had arrived. She gave us each a big copper 5-öre piece to buy two cones. I took a lick with the deepest pleasure a delicious-tasting ice-cream cone can possibly give. I was so happy I started laughing and dancing and, I didn’t know how it happened, but suddenly my ice-cream was lying in the sand. All I had left was the cone I was holding in my hand. The heavenly ice-cream was melting fast, running out in little rivulets in the warm sand. Tears, oh tears!
Oscar loved music. He learned to play the violin more or less by himself and he even played the piano as far as simple songs went. He was no Isaac Stern, but he enjoyed playing his violin and we all liked to hear him play, on the rare occasions that he did. It meant that Grandpa was in a good mood when he got his violin out. One day he took down a long hunting horn that was mounted on the wall in the huge entrance hallway, above a little group of wicker chairs and table. He put it to his mouth and produced some beautiful sounds, really making you feel as if you were in a forest where hunters were closing in on a poor hunted beast.
There are many old movies from that time taken with Mother’s 8-mm movie camera. Some of them have sadly been ruined with time, but since my nephew Måns managed to rescue quite a few we still have a few pieces of movies from those days left for posterity, since they are now on a CD. The quality is far from the best – no sound of course – but in one of them Grandpa is playing the violin. A lady I don’t recognize is playing the piano and lots of couples are dancing in the salon, a large room that was Grandma’s great pride. We were rarely allowed into the room unless Mother had come for a visit. Then the salon was opened up. Magda had always been a very spoiled child and she remained that way throughout her life.
My grandfather, after he retired from work in his business, began to read very seriously. He didn’t go for novels of the kind my grandmother liked to read. He wanted philosophy. He bought a full set of books by all the major philosophers and he read them all, according to Arne who liked and admired my grandfather very much. No, Grandpa Oscar didn’t like fiction. The serious thought-provoking philosophers were his thing. He lived to be 101, outliving his wife Bertha by a few years. His 100th birthday was a big party with flowers almost covering Oscar himself in the photos. He also got a telegram from the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, which was the tradition in those days. That was in 1981 and there were not as many centenarians as there are today and the custom has most likely gotten lost.
My great-grandmother, Lovisa, was quite a character. She lived to be very old and we all loved her. I will never forget her wonderful smile, but neither will I forget how she snored. We had to share a room, which was Grandpa’s office – she, my sister Gun and I – for the celebration of her 80th birthday. The big white house, as I call it, Oscar’s and Bertha’s house in northern Skåne, was cram full of family. Gun and I shared the wide sofa-bed, but Great-grandma was sleeping in a bed that had been set up in this room for the event. And how she snored. She clearly slept on her back and since she had been a widow since her husband Fabian died many years earlier, nobody had obviously ever told her to turn over on her side. The severe-looking leather-covered sofa in Grandpa’s office could fortunately be made into a wide bed, which I didn’t even know until that day..
The story goes that when she prepared for a dinner or a reception in her house in Lenhovda in southern Småland, she would light a cigar and go from room to room smoking it to spread the pleasant odor of cigar smoke throughout the house.
Also, having very frequent childbirths and ultimately eight children, she occasionally tried to get rid of a pregnancy by riding a bicycle. This would have been around 1900. How many great-grandmothers from that era do we know who would ride a bicycle uphill to get rid of a pregnancy that came too soon after the preceding one?
Oscar and Bertha had three children, two sons and a daughter who was my mother – Magda. My grandfather did not believe much in formal education, but in Mother’s case, she got the last word. Grandpa thought that if you were intelligent you would make your way to a successful career anyway. Which is in fact what all three children ultimately did.
Magda, however, was too strong-minded not to get her own way. She was also her father’s favorite child and thus she won. So off she went to secondary school in a nearby town. As she started studying German, Grandpa studied it with her and that’s the way he got to know a bit of a foreign language. Magda had been stubborn when it came to traveling to another town to be able to go to secondary school, but after a few years she got fed up with school and home – for some reason that will always be a mystery to all of us.
Mother wanted to become a photographer, like an uncle who was one of the very few people who had received a gold medal from the Swedish Photographers’ Association. This uncle, Jacob Sörner, lived in a city called Borås, in the province of Västergötland, not far from Göteborg. She was welcomed in his home and became like a daughter to that couple. There was one son, Ryno, who was much younger than Magda. It is not quite clear to me how she became so proficient, but I do know that she also studied photography with one of the very best photographers in Sweden, Edvard Welinder in Stockholm. Later on she became the one who taught photography to other young photographers from all over Sweden. We were all proud of her – and she was the prima donna!
When I was five, Mother decided she wanted a bigger world. So she and my father planned to move from Vaggeryd, the small town in Småland, to Malmö, a big city in the very south of Sweden, right across from Copenhagen in Denmark.
Her grandmother Lovisa was dubious and said “Wouldn’t you rather be the first one in Vaggeryd than the last one in Malmö?” Mother quipped, typically: “I’d rather be the first one in Malmö.”
From then on she became a celebrity photographer with medals galore from the Swedish Photographers’ Association.
She actually got to be at the very top in Sweden, in her generation at least. She also became the theater photographer almost at the beginning of our new and stately theater in Malmö, Malmö Stadsteater. 1
Mother had many fun ideas. Once she planned a party for all our friends where we would be dressed up as flowers, each one a different one. I can vividly see my young girlish-looking mother kneeling on the floor surrounded by rolls of crepe paper in different beautiful colors from light mauve and purple to yellowish green.
Flowers were always part of Mother’s world, as much as animals of all kinds, nature in all its forms. When I was a baby we had a collie dog whose name was Pojken (= the boy). Mother told me how he would guard me, sitting between me and the fire in the tiled old-fashioned fireplaces we had in every room in Vaggeryd – beautiful things, always standing high in a corner of the room. And Pojken would also sit between me and the water if we were out on a dock.
We had cats and dogs at various times, but Mother didn’t stop there. In my home there were as many animals, at different times, as you could possibly get into an apartment. Biking back from work one day she found little white mice in a gutter. They had clearly escaped from a circus that had just left from a nearby site. She somehow managed to get them home and we had at least two white mice for quite some time. Sooner or later, a mouse was bound to be stepped on by someone, however, and that’s just what happened. Their saga was rather short. The same for the little yellow chickens Mother took back from our grandparents’ place. She should never have done that, but then what is the fate of a cute little chicken anyway? They were at first packed in cotton in a box to keep them warm, and as I remember, with warm water bottles in the box too. But alas, one day I tucked them in too well and in the morning at least one of the two chicks had suffocated. Oh, I cried and cried.
One day Mother somehow found a squirrel. He was probably a bit lame since she managed to catch him. Well, he recovered and he would climb up and down on our curtains and appear where we least expected him. There are problems with small animals that run all over the place, as anyone can understand, and we were cleaning up little pellets all the time. The end of the squirrel was sad. Dad came back from work one day and threw his heavy briefcase on the big bed. He of course had no idea that the squirrel was peacefully sleeping under the bed-covers. A sad ending for a cute little squirrel.
Hamsters, yellow birds in a cage, gorgeous fish in the huge aquarium in Mother’s room. For an evening we even had a hedgehog and I have no idea how Mother managed to pick it up.
We gave him milk which he lapped up and then noisily click-clicked across the parquet in the living room. We put him back out the very same evening, I believe. Mother used to tell us about how she tamed fish to eat out of her hand when she was a child. Some fish I am sure would willingly come up to the surface and eat food that was offered if it was the right kind, maybe a worm. Some of Mother’s ideas for domestic animals were not very good. Even the hamsters somehow got out of their cage once in a while and one day we found that our Stora kokboken (“The big cookbook”) had one corner chewed up. It was time for a new cookbook anyway, so not a big deal. But it was a bit of a mess cleaning up all the tiny pieces of paper left behind their gnawing. They had gotten into a kitchen drawer from behind. I have seen cows in the streets in India happily munching on a piece of cardboard, but our hamsters were well fed and were just having fun.
Mother was indeed a character and she never did things the way other mothers did. When she cooked, which wasn’t very often, since she worked hard in her photography business and we always had a maid, but Mother’s cooking was always delicious. I still remember things she prepared, and some dishes that were quite complicated,I know I will never taste the equal of ever again.
For the flower party we had, I believe she made the costumes for all the kids, our closest friends of course. There was John and Ingrid, the doctor’s children, our best friends in school and kindergarten, Margaret, the butcher’s daughter, a bit chubby, as behooves a butcher’s daughter, and cute little Allan, who was always the smallest one of us all. And Marianne and Margit who lived upstairs from us were not forgotten. Our apartment and Mother’s photography rooms were on the second floor. The store and the studio were on the ground floor. This little Allan is in several photos from those cloudless days and also in the 8mm movie Mother took on my fifth birthday, my last birthday in Vaggeryd. That summer we moved to Malmö.
The floor was covered with rolls of crêpe paper in beautiful colors. She cut out and sewed or stapled together all the costumes for the flower party. Gun was an orobus tuberosus, a light purple flower of the leguminocae family that we call gökärt (cuckoo flower), a pea flower. I believe it has many different names even in Swedish. That was her favorite flower at the time. I was a primula veris, of the primulacae family, gullviva, cowslip in English. Gun’s costume was gorgeous in its mauve coloring. Mine was yellow and green of course. Mother taught us Latin names for flowers even before I started going to school. I have never lost my great love for flowers and I still today know a whole lot of flowers by their Latin names.
Carl Linnaeus 2. We Swedes call him Carl von Linné, usually Carl Linnaeus in other countries. He was Swedish of course, but I don’t think many children were taught botany by their mothers at an early age, if at all.
Obviously since I went to school in Sweden, I later got to learn a lot more about botany — families, classes and many more Latin names of individual flowers. In fact, in what would be junior high school in the U.S. we had to collect a minimum of 50 flowers, press them in an especially-bought heavy wooden press so roots and leaves and petals were all visible, and we then taped them up in what was called a herbarium. We had to learn all the names, in Swedish and Latin, the families and the class of each one of them. I remember I had 60 flowers in my collection. I didn’t want to be too far behind my best buddy at the time, wonderful unforgettable Aina, who had 90 flowers. I was very impressed.
Aina was a poem. She was blond with somewhat curly hair. Her parents were divorced, like mine. I did know her father once when they lived in an apartment in the big building of the fertilizer factory where he was probably the CEO or head engineer. It was Aina’s birthday party, ten years maybe. When the party was over, her parents accompanied us over a huge metal bridge that spanned over the entire mass of rails that went to Malmö Central Station. They probably took us to where we could get on streetcars and buses. Aina had had an older sister, called Maja, who was always spoken of as if she were an angel. She died in her young age. I never felt like asking of what.
At the end of grade school, Aina and her mother moved to a small apartment in a loft very close to our new school and we had a lot of fun in their apartment. There was an attic space next to the kitchen that used to be all empty and had a very low ceiling and no windows. One day there was a bed in there. Aina said it was for a friend of her mother’s and we giggled. We never talked about it again and it was all very hush hush.
Aina was always a lot of fun. Always new fun ideas and fun stories that she probably made up, about her aunt who came back from America, about her grandmother’s senility and generally about events in her life. She had the most amazing imagination. One fun little thing we did was getting little pins, all metal and putting them in the tracks of a streetcar. When the streetcar had passed over it, the pin had become a delicate flat little sword, which we pinned on our coats. When I think of her as a little girl I see her in a light blue dress with a little collar. I must have seen her in that dress quite a few times.
She was very good at Swedish essay writing. And she once wrote little verses about her closest friends, probably for a party, which I have forgotten about. However, I still remember the verses about me and about our friend Ragnhild.
Just in case someone ever reads this who knows Swedish, here is the verse about me that I think was very funny, funny rhymes and fun made-up words. I didn’t actually have long curls, as she says, but rhyme oblige. She says I made no mistakes in spelling, but I do remember that I had one mistake one year. I think I had spelled kam (comb) with a double m. And she says I’m afraid of the dark, which I was, but the fun thing is the way she makes up the word for the dark, as if it were a genius, a spirit, and made up to rhyme with kvällen, the evening. I didn’t dare go out in the evenings, after dark.
Siv har så långa lockar, hå hå ja ja
i rättstavning inga bockar, hå hå ja ja
Hon rädd är för mörkepellen, hå hå ja ja
och vågar ej gå ut på kvällen, hå hå ja ja (to be sung of course to a fun melody)
We had a special little graduation reunion in 1992 at Britt’s house in a posh northern Stockholm suburb, when Aina finally joined us. It was just a group of the closest friends and I spent most of the evening talking to my dearest old buddy. She hadn’t been able to come to our reunion in 1962 in Malmö, but had written a very funny letter that Karin read aloud to us.
Our next reunion wasn’t until 2002, a big event organized by Karin and Britt. 50 years. Wow! I did recognize most of the old ladies though. But Aina wasn’t there. Britt had let me know that Aina died of lung cancer in the late nineties. Aina, Aina, how could this little girl so full of life and laughter ever die? But, my dear Aina, you will always be alive to me. She had five children and 15 grandchildren in ’92 and she easily took the prize for those numbers.
But back to botany and Aina’s 90 plants. We were of course tested too. So she had to learn all the details about those 90 plants. I guess our biology teacher, Mrs Matton-Lindblad, checked us on ten or so flowers and then said OK. We were taught botany one year, zoology the next and the human body the year after that. I was the assistant to Matton, as we usually called her, the year we did the human body and I’ll never forget when she said, Siv, get the bone-man please (out from a backroom where there were lots of material for biology teaching). It was a complete skeleton of a man, but certainly not a real one.
After that year there was Gymnasium and Latin and no more time for biology. But my love of flowers and animals and all aspects of nature would always stay with me, certainly imbued in me much more because of Mother than from the compulsory learning of the Linnaeus system in school.
It was a cold winter at the beginning of the war and we were on our way to the paradise of my childhood in southern Småland. In the city of Vaxiö we changed to a narrow-gauge train that ran by coal. I was thrilled and curious. Why was it so dirty? What were those blue and white bowls that were set out on the floor at regular intervals? Since the locomotive was run by coal, the windows were closed tight. The train blew its whistle again and again, as if to show off its power and strength.
It was just before Christmas and there was a lot of snow outside. The wooden telephone poles went by like high masts against the white landscape and the telephone wires seemed to be moving up and down as I sat looking out the window at the snow. Up and down, up and down, a hallucinating sight you don’t see any more since telephone wires are now buried in the ground. And every once in a while a cloud of black soot was belched out of the engine.
The wooden benches we sat on looked quaint, but the soot got onto everything inside in spite of the closed windows. I was used to seeing upholstered seats in a train. Mother explained that the bowls on the floor were spittoons, set out with regular intervals in the long carriage. But why would people spit indoors, we wondered. That’s the way things used to be, said Mother, and they still kept the spittoons even though they didn’t serve any purpose any more.
The train worked its way from Växiö to a town called Tingsryd – slowly. We must have changed trains again in Tingsryd, and I can’t remember where we finally got off this quaint old train. But when we did, there was Mother’s Uncle Julius waiting for us with a horse and a sleigh with little bells that jingled. We had never traveled by sleigh before and it was even more unforgettable than the funny little train. First, heavy blankets were tucked around our legs against the cold and then our jingly sleigh set out on a path so narrow that the snowy branches of the trees on the sides almost swept against us. This was a fairy tale. Snow, snow and snow on both sides of the sleigh and you could see the soft white cover over the ground deep into the forest on both sides. The branches of the pine trees were heavy with snow. We didn’t usually have a lot of snow in Skåne where we lived now and to us this was paradise. The horse made snorting noises and the bells kept jingling. We were moving as through a white tunnel and we felt warm inside the blankets. We must have traveled a couple of kilometers on those little roads and it could have lasted forever as far as I was concerned.
Their farm was the wonderful Knällsberg, filled with memories of hay rides, wild strawberry and blueberry picking in the big forests and wonderful feasts in the big dining room. Aunt Sigrid was a fabulous cook, which her sister, my grandmother, was not. Uncle Julius, who was everybody’s Uncle Julle, and my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Sigrid, were my very favorite relatives. And of course all their eight children ranging from grown-ups to adolescents.
One clear memory that will always stay with me was one day when a cousin of Mother’s came running into the house saying “Hurry hurry you’ll see something you’ve never seen before!” We ran with him out into the stables and there in a separate little pen was a newborn foal. He had just been born and he was still lying down. As we were watching he got up onto his thin legs for the very first time, a bit unsteady, the mother mare standing next to him. I asked if I could hold out my hand to him and they said Yes, I could. The foal licked my hand with a scratchy feeling tongue. What a thrill. I was in heaven.
But this time it was not summer and hay rides. Or picking berries in the vast woods that the family owned, accompanied by two of Mother’s youngest cousins. The house, which was almost like a mansion in fact, was the home for a family of ten, plus guests at this time of the year. But somehow there was room for everyone. The children ranged from about Mother’s age down to near my sister Gun’s age. And how they always spoiled us! The youngest girls were Karin and Ingrid and they let us have their dolls’ house furniture which I kept for years and I made up my own little dolls’ house at home in Malmö. The two youngest children were Arne and Stig and they would come to the woods with us to pick wild strawberries and blueberries. They made cones from birch bark to put the berries in and they were full of fun and ideas that were all new to us.
And there were the hay rides. We would sit up on top of the horse drawn cart on the prickly hay and as we got to the farm we slid down the side and a grown-up cousin caught us on our way down. It was heaven.
But this time it was Christmas and our Grandma and Grandpa were there too. Aunt Sigrid and her daughters had set a long table in the huge dining-room with everything you could possibly eat for a real Swedish Christmas. Aunt Sigrid was the most wonderful cook I knew and she lavished cream and eggs on everything she cooked. She was also the most loving and generous person I’ve ever known. It’s very funny how my own grandmother, her sister, was so stingy that she wouldn’t use the eggs and cream and butter that it would take to make good food and so her food always came out tasting watery. So much for sisters being alike. Usually they are very different it seems to me.
I will never forget one time in the middle of summer when Aunt Sigrid came into the dining room from the kitchen with a huge dish overflowing with wild strawberries and blueberries and saying ‘My dear children I have got nothing but berries for dessert’. When talking to everybody she would always say ‘my dear children’.
There was no refrigerator in those days, but the cellar which you got to from a trap door in the kitchen floor was quite cold enough, especially in the winter. In the evenings the Christmas table (julbord) was covered with big white sheets after the meal, but of course all the meats were stored in the cellar before the sheets were spread.
I remember the dining-room very clearly. It seemed huge to me and along one side of the room there was a hard but comfortable sofa that at the time seemed to me to be ten meters long. Of course it wasn’t, but it was the longest and also the hardest sofa I had ever seen.
Every visit to this paradise stands out in my memory as brightly colored leaves in the book of my childhood. Whenever I came back later on when Aunt Sigrid had become a widow and had moved to a comfortable apartment upstairs, the downstairs now being the home of the oldest son, Sten, and his family, I still felt the old flair of warmth and happiness that had always been associated with this big farm, its huge forests, the milling around of kind people, the numerous animals, and life and movement everywhere. But Aunt Sigrid was never quite the same after Uncle Julle died.
Two days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. Munich was forgotten and Chamberlain had been made into a fool for ever having trusted Hitler on his word.
After Christmas of 1939 there were rumors that children in Malmö, and maybe all over Skåne, were to be evacuated. Denmark and Norway had been occupied by the Nazis and the Swedish government was far from sure that Hitler didn’t also have his eyes on Sweden, mainly because of its iron mines, but also to get into Norway and into Finland where the winter war with Russia was going on. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression Pact had been signed – hypocritically on Hitler’s side – in August 1939 and that made Russia the enemy too. Swedish children collected money for Swedish volunteers in Finland, to buy warm sleeping bags and whatever they would need during that cold winter. 3
My sister Gun collected money for the Swedish volunteers and she got mentioned on the weekly children’s radio program, every Thursday at 5, run by the inimitable Sven Jerring who was all Swedish children’s Uncle Sven. The program was called the Children’s Mailbox (Barnens brevlåda) and Uncle Sven (farbror Sven) received children who sang, read their poems or told stories, and in the end he read letters from sick children in hospitals all over Sweden. 4 It was an excellent program and all Swedish children were glued to their radios at 5 every Thursday afternoon. We would be out playing in the park in front of our apartment building, but when 5 o’clock approached we would all run to one or another of our apartments.
I remember well one afternoon when all the kids were sitting or lying on the floor in front of the radio in our living room. I remember how Uncle Sven would praise the children who didn’t sing too well even more than those who did. It was 1939 and families had one radio, not multiple radios all over. So one Thursday afternoon in December that year Uncle Sven read my sister’s name and thanked her for having collected all that money for the Swedish volunteers in the Finnish winter war against Russia. I felt so proud of her. “We thank Gun Molin in Malmö” said Uncle Sven. She also got a pretty certificate thanking her. We actually had a family friend, Gösta Klinglund, who was then a volunteer in Finland, or who was going to leave shortly, and that had clearly spurred Gun to do the collection of money in our apartment building. He came back safely when the Winter War was over. It was a fierce war though and the Finns managed to hold off the Russians mainly because they were on skis around the border and the Russian tanks were sinking into the mud in the melting snow when spring approached. It actually turned out to be a guerilla war. England had been extremely close to declaring war on Russia too, which would have been a disaster. It was Winston Churchill, then a very secondary figure in the British government, who made the British government understand at the very last moment that it would have been madness. A British fleet was already on its way to Narvik, the port city in northern Norway, but it was called back and a calamity was avoided.
I was six years old, kneeling on the rug in front of the fireplace, my hands under my chin. The black headlines in the newspaper were staring at me. Mother was standing next to me talking on the telephone on the mantelpiece. Something terrible had happened. It was so frightening it couldn’t be said out loud. Mother said “They did it after all. I can’t believe it.” What, she didn’t say. But she was crying. Was this the end of games and laughter and sunlight? The long words in the newspaper were difficult to make out and the black ink was frightening. I had come up from playing in the park because I’d fallen and scratched my knee. Mother was supposed to put on a band-aid but she had forgotten that my knee was sore and she’d forgotten that I was hungry. Time had stopped and waves of dark fear were emanating from the telephone. And fear was coming at me from the black letters in the headlines of the newspaper.
She hung up and I asked her what ‘they’ had done. She said The Russians were bombing Helsinki. It was November 30, 1939. The headlines were big and black but some words were not so easy to make out. Mother said Russia wanted to secure its access to the Baltic and this was the beginning of war in Finland. What’s war? When people want to get what’s not theirs and they just go right in and take it. Like Hitler had done in Poland a couple of months before. Then there is war.
I had of course heard the name of Hitler before. It was someone everybody feared. Mother said he was like the president of Germany. I knew that Germany was a country like Sweden and that it was on the other side of the Baltic. But it was not like Sweden. There is Hitler and he is taking over one country after the other. And now there is Russia and Stalin who is going to make war on Finland. Mother was trying not to show me that she was crying and I asked her if the war was going to go on for a long time ? She said ‘Yes war was terrible and it might go on for a long time.’
At the beginning of the war, the British bombers on their way to attack Hamburg would fly over Denmark and Malmö. We had a total blackout, heavy dark paper in all windows in Malmö at the time. I’ll never forget the search lights that crisscrossed over the sky on most dark evenings. However, a British bomber, possibly still seeing some lights and believing it was Hamburg, by mistake dropped a bomb over Malmö. It landed without any harm done in one of the big parks, called Slottsparken, but it did make quite a crater of course. To begin with nobody really knew, not officially at least, where the bomb came from. Was it the German Luftwaffe on their way to London or was it the British Air Force on their way to Hamburg?
I wrote a newspaper that was made up of four small pages stapled together. There was a front page article about a big bomb that had been dropped in the park and how it had made ‘a deep hole in the ground’. I was thinking that the sky carried lead. Heavy bombs were like lead. Bombs were death falling haphazardly on whatever happened to be in their way. You happened to be there – you were dead. Death became something very close to us when we understood that it could have happened to us.
Mother kept the newspaper I wrote and I remember the big printed letters scrawled over the page mentioning the big hole that I never saw. Grown-ups were talking about the event, perplexed and worried. I somehow understood that it was believed to have been an English bomber that had mistaken Malmö for Hamburg or some other city in Germany. They said since Malmö was totally darkened because of the war there was little difference between it and an also darkened city in Germany. I thought to myself that it was really a careless way of conducting a war if you weren’t even sure of where you dropped death.
Mother had the wonderful idea of organizing an evacuation camp of her own. Mother often had the greatest ideas and at that time we adored her, for good reason. She put in an ad in the local newspaper, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, and made it known that she was opening a private evacuation camp in northern Småland in a mansion that she had rented. It was situated not far from Vaggeryd where we had formerly been living. She got several answers and they were all told to put name tags in their child’s clothes and linen. She closed her Mohlins Foto atelier on Gustav Adolfs Torg (Plaza) for a semester and we all went to northern Småland, Gärahovs Herrgård. I remember a few of the children still today and Gösta Klinglund’s young daughter, who was about my age, was among them. This was in the spring and summer of 1940.
We spent a wonderful spring semester and the summer in the peace of a mansion in beautiful northern Småland while the war was heating up more and more in Europe. Mother had assured the help of at least one woman friend from Vaggeryd and the whole thing went very smoothly. Gun went to school in Vaggeryd, a private school where we both went when we lived up here, Gun in first grade, I in kindergarten. I turned 7 that spring and in Sweden we start school at that age, so I was free until the coming fall semester, when this spring and summer would just be like a wonderful dream. It seemed like eternal sunshine with occasional and sudden rain showers when we would run around on the big lawn in bathing suits holding huge wheels of Swedish knäckebröd (crisp bread) on our heads like umbrellas. Laughing happily as the bombs were destroying Europe.
Another vivid memory from that time was one early and sunny morning when Gun and I were out early in the morning looking for wildflowers for Mother’s birthday, June 7, we saw oodles of backsippor — hillside anemones — on a sunny green slope. We might well have been looking for muguets (lilies of the valley) since they were Mother’s favorite flowers. I can still see the deep purple flowers spotting the hillside. I love those timid little deep purple flowers and I have managed to plant some in the front patch here in Genas. They pop up every spring with their downy little heads and when they open up, their heads are always bent over, as if they were timid. In Brand up at the Lünersee, after the Seilbahn or the Bösertritt up to the lake, we always saw them after they had bloomed and the tips had become delicate looking tufts of downy threads. They are almost as beautiful as the flowers. I remember that our German friend Fritz loved those seedy after-blooms.
The lake where we went swimming was a fair distance away. We had to walk through the pine forest that was part sun part shade and that smelled of summer warm pine needles. Under the carpet of needles there was the sandy soil. I was sitting on a tree root digging my toes into the warm soil and Gun and I were wondering where the pungent smell was coming from. It seemed to us it must be worms in the soil that I was digging up with my toes, and we were trying to find out. The sun came slanting down through the pine trees and there was a warm and timeless odor of resin and sun-warm pine needles. Slowly moving heat waves in the half-shade under the giant trees. We were on our way down to the lake and waiting for the others to catch up.
I came out of the water, lips shivering with cold from the lake water. Mother was on the beach holding out my bathrobe, kneeling in the sand. I ran towards her laughing throwing myself into her arms and being wrapped up snugly in the yellow robe, being rubbed warm by Mother. She was smiling happy and for one long moment the war was forgotten.
When my grandparents got to be too old to manage in the apartment they then had in southern Skåne. they moved into a retirement home in the vicinity of Ystad, an old medieval town on the Baltic, close to my younger uncle’s house. I went to see them both quite a few times and they were very pleased with the excellent care at the home. They had some of their favorite furniture, Grandpa his library with, among other books, the entire set of the philosophers’ writings, and Grandma her beloved rococo-style dresser, which I never much liked.
I usually went to see them with my sister or with a niece or two. The flowers I brought them always pleased them greatly. Once when Grandma had taken to her bed for good, I hugged her and remarked on the pretty pearl necklace she was wearing around her neck. It was actually a gift from us all. Except one little gold chain I often saw her wear when I was a child, the only piece of jewelry Grandpa ever gave her was, probably for their 60th wedding anniversary, a diamond and platinum ring that was so exquisitely made that, even though the two diamonds are quite small, it looks beautiful. I now have both of those, the little pearl necklace and the ring. Both my grandparents were very economical in the Småland fashion, so the diamond ring was an exceptional gift from Oscar.
On that visit, Grandma said she would so much like to give me something. Then her face lit up and she pointed to a shelf in a bookcase where there was a beautiful wooden bowl my uncle had just given her.
”I want you to have that bowl Gösta gave me”, she said.
It was just after Christmas. Gösta was my younger uncle and I was sure she had enough gifts from him, so since she wanted me to have it, I accepted it happily and gave her another big hug. Now every time I use that bowl for serving, I think of Grandma.
When I brought my husband John to meet them for the first time, Grandpa was so delighted with the visit that he went to his room to get his violin. He came back and said to John, “I hear you are very fond of music so I want to play a piece for you.” Which he did. John was very moved. Oscar was 92 at the time. And he was still very much the stately man he’d always been.
On one visit by my niece Kajsa and me , Grandpa talked a lot about all sorts of things, about how careless and demanding people had become, he said. They are just never content with what they have. They always want more and more and it’s just buying and buying. I could not but agree, even though I knew that Grandpa was against social democracy. I knew well what he meant and of course he was right about excessive buying and increasing materialism, even though we wouldn’t agree on political issues in general. I could have argued with him that when he grew up there were lots of really poor people, particularly in stony Småland, and that at least in Sweden there is no poverty any more. But I chose not to argue.
This was a couple of years before he turned 100, but he still took his daily walk in the grounds belonging to the retirement home. As Kajsa and I were leaving, Grandpa said with a big smile “Well, come back when I am 100 – if you are still alive and in good health.”
The next time I visited Grandpa with John, he was in the hospital and he was now 101. He was asleep as we came in. I sat down gently on his bed and stroked his shrunken and bony body under the blanket. His strong frame had shrunk to what was not recognizable any more in that bed as the strong and tall man I knew. Suddenly he woke up. As I had been living abroad for many decades, he hadn’t seen me more than a handful of times since I was a young girl. So how surprised I was when he opened his eyes, and right away said, “Siv”, without a moment’s hesitation, as if he had been expecting me. Then I knew that he loved me.
Continued: Chapter Two – Copenhagen
- Theater pictures by Magda Molin and Bästa bilder – 58 of Mother’s best pictures, in my judgement. ↩
- Professor of botany and medicine at Uppsala University in the 18th century. In his studies he traveled widely and set up a classification system for flowers that is still valid and used the world over. At the time of his death, he was one of the most acclaimed scientists in Europe. ↩
- The Finnish troops fought incredibly bravely and, to begin with, they were very successful along the 1000 km long border with Russia. The Finnish soldiers on skis fought a guerilla-like war on the Soviet troops who were not well prepared for the massive snow and cold, their heavy tanks getting bogged down in the masses of often muddy snow. However, ultimately the Russian troops proved to be superior in number and equipment and when the fighting centered in on the Karelia isthmus, the Soviet troops broke through the so-called Mannerheim line and the Finnish government had to sign a dour peace treaty in Moscow on March 13, 1940, losing almost all of the Karelia isthmus, which is still Russian territory. ↩
- Bqrnens brevlåda was an extraordinarily popular program for children which was broadcast from 1925 to 1972. Sven Jerring got to be known to the entire Swedish people as farbror Sven. ↩