In the project I Förvar (In Custody) two artists explore the encounter with sites in Sweden where there were refugee camps during the Second World War. People with different experiences and faites entered into the everyday Swedish world in the woodland and brought shards of the disastrous situation out there in Europe. The traces are gone, but we know that something happened here where now seventy-year-old pine and fir trees are standing. As artists, our working method is subjective and figurative but behind are concrete facts and coated events. We want to try and look and start from the Now that existed Then.
How was it in Sweden then? In the country that was surrended by the war, the trade routes were blocked and most goods were rationed. The government’s method was to criss cross between the power states Germany and the Allies to avoid Sweden being drawn into the war. At the same time, refugees poured into Sweden. The Swedish government, the ordinary Swede, the refugee – what kind of scope to act did they have?
The American historian Timothy Snyder uses spatial concepts when describing history; space, in between, patterns – rooms, structures, directions and perspectives. These are also strong artistic concepts. The form itself can describe an ideological position. Through Hannah Arendt’s eyes, we can see the story as an appearance in the room, the individual’s or the group’s. With Focault we can investigate surveillance and the room, the camp: a heterotopic space in the mix of history.
The topic of refugees is highly relevant today, but that Sweden also has accepted a large number of people in the past is quite unknown. When the refugee camps were closed down after the end of the war, they were no longer an issue.
Before the Second World War, Sweden had a very restrictive attitude towards foreigners. After 1933, when the wave of refugees – German Jews and Social Democrats, who were forced to flee from Nazi Germany – also reached Sweden, there were individuals and voluntary refugee committees who took care of them. But with more and more violence in Germany and more and more refugees arriving in Sweden, the situation became untenable. In May 1939, the Swedish Parlament decided that 500.000 Swedish crowns would be allocated for refugee assistance. This was the very first time there was a proposal that the state should take social and economic responsibility for refugees. However the goal remained to be as little as possible responsible.
September 1, 1939 Germany attacked Poland and World War II began. During the war that lasted until May 1945 over 200.000 persons from all over Europe fled to Sweden. It was long before the concept of immigrant policy was a term used in parliamentary debates; the refugees were called foreigners.
When Germany invaded and occupied Norway in April 1940, thousands of Norwegians fled across the border to Sweden. How the authorities dealt with this huge group of refugees became a model for almost all reception of refugees during the war in Sweden. The Norwegians had their own refugee office, which was responsible for the reception and also for the costs of the refugees. They were anxious that the refugees should work and provide for themselves as soon as possible. Work was also considered to be what defined a decent person regardless of the nationality. In order for a refugee to have the right to live in Sweden, he had to have a Work Permit – a permit to practice a special profession, and a Residence Permit – a permit to live within a defined geographical area. In order to obtain a work permit in their own profession, male refugees had to work first at least five months in the forests.
Stone walls, stair–steps in scrubby woodland … such traces are found today in the forests of central Sweden. Here in the middle of the country there were hundreds of camps for lumberjacks. Imports of coal and oil were cut and fuel shortages prevailed in the country. The refugees were sent to cut down forest. The foreign men disappeared from the big cities into the forests filled with mosquitos of central Sweden. There they were under control of the isolated camps.
Throughout the Second World War, Sweden was a country surrounded by countries at war. Part of the balancing act of staying out of the war was for sure to monitor the people who made their way into the country. The refugee and internment camps for foreign soldiers were placed in the forests. The traces of the camps in the landscape are also traces of the authorities’ attempts to control people they did not trust in an uncertain time.
(Transl. Gaby Oelrichs)