Reviews One in a thousand. An ordinary extraordinary woman
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, 107-108
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 23, 2016
In a Swedish film from 1948, Främmande Hamn [Foreign Harbor], shot partly in Gdynia, the role of an old Polish woman is played by Elsa Meyring, who was living in Stockholm at the time. The scene in which she appears was probably shot in a studio in Stockholm, but the plot, supposedly taking place in 1938 in a Baltic harbor, might not have been totally unknown to the actress.
Meyring was born Elsa Bauschwitz in Stettin, Germany, in 1883. She married Theodor Meyring in 1904, and during World War I she took an active part in the social welfare of invalids and widows. From 1919 to 1929 she was a member of the Stettin City Council, with responsibility for the welfare of the youth of the city, and was the first woman member of the council.
This seems like the beginning of a successful political and social career in Stettin and Germany. But things would turn out otherwise. Helmut Müssener and Wolfgang Wilhelmus, two scholars long dedicated to the study of exile in the unique triangle of German, Swedish, and Jewish relations, have compiled and written a book on the extraordinary life of this talented and humble woman. The book contains both her own life story as a “German non-Aryan woman in the 20th century” as well as many documents pertaining to her life and the political circumstances that shaped her life’s trajectory, plus a prologue explaining things taken for granted in her own account of her life.
In December 1939, a young woman of Baltic German descent arrives in Swinemünde, the outport of Stettin, on a boat from Helsinki together with a large group of Baltic Germans. After some weeks, she and her mother are given an apartment in central Stettin, fully furnished, but deprived of all personal details.
Simultaneously, the Jewish population of Stettin is forced to leave their apartments on the night of February 12, 1940. One of the many interesting and terrifying documents in the book is a Merkblatt issued to select members of the Nazi Party with extremely detailed instructions on how, “with hardness, accuracy, and caution” [Härte, Sorgfalt und Umsicht], without any consideration of the Jews’ complaints, to evacuate all Stettin Jews. The population was moved to the freight station to wait in the stark cold. They were given old cement sacks filled with some food and then packed into fourth-class wagons without toilets, lighting, or heating. They were forbidden to open the windows but managed to get some snow to melt for drinking water. Elsa’s cup and saucer became a common treasure. After a journey of three days and nights, the train arrived in Lublin, chosen by the Nazi German administration to be a center of reception for expelled German Jews. They had to leave their few remaining belongings and walk in deep snow, the elderly frost-bitten people left to be taken care of by local Jews.
The brutal expulsion of the Stettin Jews was reported in the foreign press and induced the (in)famous pro-Hitler Swedish explorer Sven Hedin to protest to Heinrich Himmler against the treatment, but he was bluntly rebuffed, as reported in his memoirs of visits to Berlin. (His protest is not mentioned in the present book.)
The group was divided and directed to three villages populated by Orthodox Jews, who were to take care of the Stettin Jews at their own expense. Elsa’s elderly husband had a physical and mental breakdown, and was sent to an overcrowded Jewish hospital in Lublin, where he died. Elsa, with her background in the social services, volunteered as a cultural interpreter between the ordinary Germans and the impoverished, Orthodox Yiddishspeakers.
The deportation is described in great detail in Elsa Meyring’s memoirs in the book. But Müssener and Wilhelmus also follow another trajectory: how the Swedish bureaucracy dealt with the attempts by people in Sweden to save the Meyring couple by allowing them entry into Sweden, a country that tried to stay isolated from the influx of refugees and job-seekers by means of a formal attitude by which political activity against authoritarian régimes was (reluctantly) seen a reason for asylum, while the evident oppression of Jews (and Roma) in Nazi Germany was not.1 On October 3, 1939, three Swedish citizens of good repute applied to the Swedish Foreign Ministry for entry permits on behalf of the Meyring couple. Some months before, the former town councilor and former Swedish vice-consul of Stettin, Georg Manasse, now exiled in Sweden, had written a letter of recommendation concerning his former colleague that was attached to the several documents in the application. However, on October 26, 1939, the National Social Welfare Board denied the application “for the time being”, but this decision was not transmitted to the Stockholm Mosaic Community (the Jewish community of Stockholm) until February 2, 1940. This refusal a few days later provoked the pro-Nazi professor at Stockholm University College, the ex-German Nobel Prize laureate Hans von Euler, whose Jewish docent Erich Adler had earlier tried to save the Meyring couple, to renew a request for their admission to Sweden. A week later, the request was dismissed. However, on March 1st, 1940, after meetings with representatives of the Mosaic Community and other parties, the Swedish Foreign Ministry informed its legation in Berlin that the Meyring couple would be allowed entry into Sweden for a stay of three months. In the meantime, Elsa’s husband had died, and the visa allowance expired, but it was renewed and she was allowed to buy a passport issued by the governor general on June 14 and an entry visa for Sweden, allowing her to fly from Berlin to Stockholm.
This strange document is shown in the book: a passport of Rzeczpospolita Polska in Polish and French, but filled out in German and stamped by the Office of the General Government of All Occupied Polish Territories. The passport contains a visa stamp from the Swedish Legation in Berlin allowing entrance for a period of three months “under the condition that the passport holder does not engage in political propaganda”, and the exit stamp from Tempelhof Airport. The passport makes it possible (not without problems, sacrifices, and some good luck) for her to take a train to Berlin and fly to Stockholm on June 28, 1940. “Das Wunder war geschehen” [the miraculous had happened], she writes at the end of her report.
The surviving members of the deportation are forcibly moved again in the spring of 1942, and put to death in the camps the same year.
While in Sweden, Meyring works as a volunteer with the Emigrantenselbsthilfe, the Rescue Service for German-Jewish migrants. As her passport from a non-existent state is invalid, she applies for an alien’s passport, which is accepted, but it has to be renewed every six months. Until the end of the war, she reports intending to leave the country, but with the fate of the German Jews, Stettin turning into Szczecin, her homeland and home town cease to exist. She now applies for a residence permit (p. 199: we read 1940, but the correct year is 1946!), intending to stay in Sweden, and in 1949 she applies for Swedish citizenship, enclosing her life story and recommendations from a number of prominent people. A very detailed report from the Stockholm police, based on the application and a personal inquiry, and containing only positive information, is sent to the Stockholm Governor’s Office for a decision which, in an “obedient pronouncement”, rejects the application, because she “enjoys financial support for her livelihood”. After a long bureaucratic delay, a new application is made, showing that the financial support is minimal and that she is living within very modest means.
She was finally granted Swedish citizenship by the Swedish Minister of Justice on March 9, 1951. She died on December 17, 1967, in Nytorp in the Jewish Home for the Aged in Southern Stockholm, and is buried in the Jewish section of the Southern Cemetery.
Elsa Meyring’s own story, the comments by Müssener and Wilhelmus about political conditions in Germany and Sweden, and the many bureaucratic documents give a moving and exciting account of the life of a minor figure yet an extraordinary person, and also of the circumstances surrounding her life in two countries during World War II. ≈
1 The official Swedish handling of Jewish immigration is treated in detail in a recent doctoral dissertation by Pontus Rudberg: The Swedish Jews and the Victims of Nazi terror, 1933—1945 (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis 2015), 253.