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Carl Henrik Carlsson: Swedish roots in the Suwałki area

The Suwalki corridor is often mentioned when today’s security policy situation in Europe is discussed. The area, only about 6.5 miles as the crow flies, is the strip of land in northeastern Poland and southern Lithuania where the distance is the least between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Russia’s ally Belarus.

For Russia, it would be strategically important to cut off this only land connection between the Baltic states. For other NATO countries, it is important to be able to defend the area and help the Baltic countries by land if Russia attacks. For those who live in the area, it must feel very unsettling.

What probably not many people know is that the Suwałki area has a strong historical connection to Sweden. I am not thinking of Swedish troops ravaging there in the 1650s, but of quite a few Jews in the area immigrating to Sweden during the 1860s and 1870s and even later. Today there are thousands of Swedes with roots from here.

Jews settled early in the area, state borders shifted and the population occasionally had to deal with new rulers. Originally, the area was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but after the third partition of Poland in 1795, it came to belong to Prussia, and for a period to the Duchy of Warsaw created by Napoleon.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815 it was included in Congress Poland under the Russian Tsarist Empire and administratively Suwalki became in 1867 one of ten governorates in Russian Poland since Poland lost its special administration.

A majority of the inhabitants of the multicultural area were Lithuanians but a full ten percent Jews, ethnically to be considered Lithuanian Jews, litwax, who spoke a particular dialect of Yiddish. Religiously, they usually joined midnightan opposition movement against Hassidism¸ and one or another was also influenced by Haskalahthe Jewish equivalent of the Enlightenment.

By the middle of the 19th century many Suwalki Jews began to move, as part of the great European migration to the west. Most ended up in the USA, many in South Africa, Great Britain and France, for example, and not so few in Sweden. The journeys across the Atlantic were still expensive and difficult, and Sweden abolished the passport requirement in 1860. A survey I made showed that of all Tsarist Russian-born Jews living in Sweden in 1880, approximately three-quarters came from the Suwalki Governorate, an area no larger than Uppland or Skåne. A typical chain migration.

Some came from the provincial capital Suwalki, but the vast majority from somewhere shtetl (small town with a large Jewish population), many directly on the border with East Prussia, which facilitated emigration. In the north, for example, was Wladyslawow (in today’s Lithuania Kudirkos Naumiestis) with a couple of thousand inhabitants around the turn of the century. A little to the south was a string of even smaller border towns with a high proportion of Jews and relatively large emigration: Wisztyniec, Wizajny, Przerosl, Filipow, Bakalarzewo and Raczki . Incidentally, it was at the Battle of Filipow on 22 October 1656 that the Polish-Lithuanian troops were defeated by troops from Sweden, among others.

Many of the Jews were small traders, restaurateurs, artisans, fishermen, laborers and farmers. Some probably ran larger business operations and engaged in cross-border trade. Even at this time there were narrow strips of land between different states with different borders than today. The narrowest strip of land, only a couple of miles long, between “Russia proper” and East Prussia was only a few miles south of the Suwalki area. The geographical location was advantageous for those who wanted to make money from smuggling.

During the late 1860s, the area suffered from stunted growth and famine, which together with infrastructural changes led to economic decline and stimulated emigration. Many young men also escaped the harsh conscription and a few after participating in the failed Polish uprising of 1863. That two of the insurgents executed in the square of Suwalki were Jews was certainly a deterrent.

But even if one or the other had livelihood problems, it is striking how well they generally became the “socially useful citizens” that the contemporaries aspired to.

Immigration to Sweden was thus to a large extent a chain migration: someone came first and established themselves, then brought there family, relatives and acquaintances. Many started out as farm traders, but were perhaps soon able to open a permanent shop, not infrequently as a clothes merchant – as the Jewish Museum’s large collection of clothes hangers testifies to. It was certainly often difficult, not least during the long recession at the end of the 19th century, and many traveled on to the United States after a few years.

Despite the free immigration, these newcomers were not particularly welcome in Sweden, either among the authorities or among the established Jewish congregations. They were seen as different and as a potential burden on society. But even if one or the other had livelihood problems, it is striking how well they generally became the “socially useful citizens” that the contemporaries aspired to.

Several established themselves as merchants in one of the many half-sized Swedish cities where these newcomers settled and formed their own small congregations: Malmö, Lund, Landskrona, Kristianstad, Helsingborg, Halmstad, Växjö, Kalmar, Oskarshamn, Karlstad, Sundsvall and several other cities. One or two settled in Stockholm and Gothenburg, where there had long been Jews.

In Karlstad, you could eventually even build your own synagogue and were not forced to rent premises. Both Nissen Felländer from Raczki and Levin Klein from Przerosl were periodically the city’s highest-rated private individuals. Another of the city’s immigrants, Mikael Savosnick from Raczki, moved to Trondheim with his family after a while, which eventually had fatal consequences: a couple of his Swedish-born children were murdered in the Holocaust.

Some immigrant Jews or their children founded successful textile factories. The fact that Schwartzman & Nordström in Uddevalla in the 1920s called a new brand “Tiger” – the foundation of the fashion company “Tiger of Sweden” – is not, however, because the founder broke Swedish and could not pronounce “tyger”. A good story, but not true. The founder was born in Malmö, although his parents immigrated from the Suwalki area.

These immigrants remained virtually all of the Mosaic faith, but within a few generations their descendants must have essentially assimilated and ceased to be practicing Jews. Today, there are thousands of Swedes with Jewish roots in the Suwalki area, although many probably do not know it or the geographical details.

Many Swedes who have made great efforts and made an impression on the public originate from the area, which stands in stark contrast to the concerns from a “usefulness point of view” that were once raised against their ancestors. I sometimes joke that we could assemble a fairly competent government only with people descended from the very small shtetl Raczki: well, a couple of these descendants actually already have cabinet experience.

In the autumn of 2016, I visited both Raczki, where my grandmother’s father Simon was born, and the small village of Purviniske (as it is called today) a few miles north, where my grandmother’s mother Mathilda was born. When Simon and Mathilda married in 1864, there was no state border between them, but after the First World War the Suwalki government was divided between the new states: Lithuania (and later for a long time the Soviet Union) and Poland. During the First World War, the area was the scene of war and Jews were particularly hard hit. They were considered pro-German and many were deported by the Russians inland away from the border areas.

Many streets and houses in Raczki still remind us of how it looked in the 19th century when Jews were in a clear majority in the city. But in 2016, no Jewish traces remained except for a weathered tombstone in the wooded area that was once the Jewish burial ground.

In recent years, however, the small town’s Jewish history has been noticed by local historians, and in the town’s square there are now so-called stumbling blocks that remind us that Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust once lived here. Because even though the number of Jews gradually decreased with emigration, roughly 400 remained when the Second World War broke out. Almost no one survived the Holocaust; Incidentally, I met one of these few in Chicago many years ago where she laid the foundation for a Holocaust museum.

On the other side of the square in Raczki once stood the house where my family lived for at least 100 years; to my great delight I was able to locate the place thanks to an old map. In the neighboring houses lived other families whose children moved to Sweden. For me, Raczki has become a kind of home village in the same parity as, for example, Piteå and Småland’s Burseryd, where I also have deep roots.

I stopped a woman on a bicycle with torn clothes and bad teeth. She had never heard of the village

However, finding Purviniske on the Lithuanian side was not the easiest. The village is marked on the map, but not on any road signs, and I wandered around a bit in the barren and windswept surroundings that did not exactly shine with prosperity. I stopped a woman on a bicycle with torn clothes and bad teeth. She had never heard of the village, but took out her cell phone and made a couple of calls. In the end I thought I knew where the village was, although not exactly the house where my ancestors lived.

There are no relatives left in the Suwalki area – and basically no Jews at all – and I don’t know anyone there, except for a young local historian in Raczki. But if something were to happen to the area and its residents, it would affect me deeply. Raczki on the Polish side is perhaps – at least in the short term – not as vulnerable as Purviniske on the Lithuanian side.

But I think of the helpful cycling woman with the tattered clothes who tried to help me find the village where my grandmother’s mother was born. What would happen to her and everyone else if the Suwalki Corridor was attacked?

Carl Henrik Carlsson is a researcher at the Hugo Valentin Center, Department of History, Uppsala University. His book “Jews’ history in Sweden” (Nature & Culture 2021) was nominated for both the August Prize and the Great Nonfiction Book Prize.

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