What happened to Holocaust-education in Iceland?

The Jewish community in Iceland is both young and very small. Yet the island at the edge of Europe has a rich history of antisemitism. To learn more about this apparent paradox, K. publishes a disturbing text by researcher Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson. He tells us about Iceland, its elites of dubious ancestry, its antisemitic undertones… and its few Jews.

 

Photo taken in downtown Reykjavík, Iceland in the thirties showing a pro-Nazi march
Photo taken in downtown Reykjavík, Iceland in the thirties showing a pro-Nazi march

 

The Jewish community in Iceland is both small and young, yet this island on the outskirts of Europe has a fairly rich history of anti-Semitism. The number of Jews in Iceland has been minute since the first odd Jew turned up in Iceland in the 17th century: there was never a systematic emigration of Jews to Iceland, no synagogues there save for those which popped up to serve British and American servicemen stationed on the island during the Second World War, and later at the American-staffed NATO-base in Keflavík.  Jewish life, as a fully integrated constituent of Icelandic life, was nonexistent in Iceland until the recent advent of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which now organizes and strengthens Jewish life in Iceland by running a Jewish Center in Reykjavík. It was only with the arrival of the Jewish Center that Judaism became an acknowledged religious community in Iceland. 

The Icelandic authorities have vowed to educate young people about the Holocaust and antisemitism, but as yet this promise has not been kept. A good argument for necessity of Holocaust-education are the numerous Icelandic members of Iceland’s two Nazi-affiliated parties in the pre-War period and Icelanders who volunteered in the Waffen-SS and other Nazi units.  Another good point to consider is that, in 1939, Iceland expelled stateless German Jews who had arrived there via Denmark. In a letter sent together with the refugees, the Icelandic Ministry of Justice made a remark to the Danish immigration authorities, promising to pay for the further deportation of the Jews in question to Germany, provided Danes refused asylum to the Jews Iceland had already banished. Anti-Semitism in a country populated by so few Jews also makes it ideal for the Icelanders to educate about the Shoah and the dangers of Anti-Semitism.  

In 2000-2004 Iceland participated in The Stockholm International Forum Conferences and promised to introduce an education on the Holocaust at the first Stockholm conference held in January 2000. In 2004 Iceland signed the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust – Education, Remembrance and Research.[1]

Education is the only solution against ignorance and hate 

In 2002, when I held a position as a senior researcher at the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide studies in Copenhagen, I wrote a short e-mail to the Icelandic Ministry of Education and Culture asking about the country’s new policy on teaching about the Holocaust (Shoah) in Iceland, i.e., about the European genocide that Nazi Germany and many collaborating Europeans carried out on Jews, people of Jewish, Roma and Sinti and other groups During WW II.

A head of office at the Icelandic Ministry of Culture, Sólrún Jensdóttir, who represented Iceland at the Stockholm Forum and the European Council, responded to my letter on January 7, 2003, and informed that Iceland had agreed to hold a Day of Remembrance in the schools from 2003, in accordance with a decision reached in a seminar of the Council of Europe “Teaching about the Holocaust and Artistic Creation,” Strasbourg, 17-19 October 2002.[2] After that response, I was becoming somewhat hopeful for the future.

Simone Veil addresses the conference Teaching about the Holocaust and Artistic Creation , Strasbourg 17-19 October 2002
Simone Veil addresses the conference Teaching about the Holocaust and Artistic Creation , Strasbourg 17-19 October 2002

Only a few years later, when I followed up on my inquiry in 2003 and to hear what had happened on the issue of Holocaust education, it became clear that absolutely nothing had– neither after the Stockholm International Forum in 2000, nor since the Seminar in Strasbourg 2002.[3]

It turned out Iceland had failed to keep its promises. I contacted Sólrún Jensdóttir, the responsible Head of Section at the Icelandic Ministry of Education and Culture, and expressed my personal disappointment.  Her response was to utter rather distasteful comments, including the assertion that, “There is no need to remember anyone while the Israelis behave like they do.” 

Although I emphasize that education about the Holocaust is the main object of this short essay, I must mention that Sólrún Jensdóttir, the former head of office at the Ministry of Culture, is the daughter of Jens Benediktsson (1910-1945), an Icelandic theologian and active member of the Icelandic Nazi Party.  

Lack of commitment

There is a clear connection between this strange Icelandic oblivion to its international commitments, the inevitable flare-up of Icelandic anti-Semitism every time extremists launch attacks on the State of Israel. These extremists want to exterminate Jews in Israel as well as Jews elsewhere. We cannot forget that, when some Icelanders go completely out of their minds in discussions on social media and claim that “Hitler should have completed his mission.” 

This situation is one of the consequences of the complete lack of Holocaust education. Icelanders are poorly informed about the fate of the Jews and the other horrors of the Second World War. . The Ministry of Education and Culture, as well as the Icelandic schools, have failed. That’s why people utter outrageously horrible things on social media, comparing Jews to Nazis and Auschwitz to terrorist enclaves, where the rulers aim at the same solution for Jews as did the Nazis. Icelanders would not react with such hate if they had sufficient knowledge of the history of the 20th Century, or if the Icelandic authorities kept their international promises.

For a long time, there was little mention of the Holocaust in textbooks on the history of Europe in the 20th Century and how insignificant that material was can be read about in a short but concise report from the University of Akureyri from 2004.[4]

The first Holocaust Remembrance Day in Iceland was infiltrated by anti-Semites

The Jewish community in Iceland, under the wings of the Chabad, has held a Memorial Day in 2020 and 2021 in collaboration with embassies of four countries in Iceland. In the second year (2021) the ceremony was without guests, but it was streamed over the Internet. The first year the present author attended and witnessed how an Icelandic Holocaust denier and a Polish Catholic Priest abused the ceremony. Ex auditorio, the denier claiming that the Holocaust was a lie, and the priest that the Polish participation in the Holocaust and the atrocities in Jedwabne and Kielce were all lies.

The more I think about some Icelanders in relation to their Nazi sympathies, the anti-Semitic sentiments of a country with hardly any Jews, and the number of Icelanders who were willing to spy for the Nazis, I am thankful that Icelanders spent the Second World War on an island, far from their fascist idols on the European mainland. 

This attitude of the Polish priest serving for the Catholic Church in Iceland is in accordance with the present Polish Government wishes to outlaw anyone who claims that Poles participated in the slaughter of Jews in the town of Jedwabne on 19 July 1941. The main perpetrators were ethnic Poles. Earlier Polish Governments have apologized for the atrocity.  In Kielce, in July 1946, a mob of Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians murdered at least 42 Jews and injured over 40 in the worst outburst of anti-Jewish violence in postwar Poland. The Icelandic Catholic Church seems to accept a priest denying violent Anti-Semitism in Poland.

The Icelandic press decided to remain silent about that part of the first Holocaust Memorial day in Reykjavík, Iceland, I made my own report.[5]

Likewise the Icelandic media was mostly silent about facts about the war crimes of Evald Mikson (1911- 1993), who in Iceland found protection from justice for crimes he committed in Estonia in 1940. This Estonian member of the Political Police in Tallinn was responsible for the murder of Jews in Estonia well before the Nazi occupation of the country. When Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, requested an investigation into the crimes of Mikson, Iceland’s determined protection of this war criminal became even more obvious. Evidence of his crimes was denounced by Icelandic politicians using Cold War-style rhetoric entirely devoid of valid arguments, as Russian/Soviet propaganda.  In 2020 Icelandic media didn’t find it interesting neither that the first Holocaust Memorial Day in Iceland was dishonoured by a Polish priest and an Icelandic Holocaust denier

The more I think about some Icelanders in relation to their Nazi sympathies, the anti-Semitic sentiments of a country with hardly any Jews, and the number of Icelanders who were willing to spy for the Nazis, I am thankful that Icelanders spent the Second World War on an island, far from their fascist idols on the European mainland. 

2019 – Still no Holocaust education in Iceland

In 2019, Iceland informed other member-states of the Council of Europe about what the Icelandic policy on Holocaust education really is. Contrary to what the country promised back in 2000 and 2002, the Icelandic stance is now in total contradiction to earlier international commitments: 

“Iceland has not established a Holocaust Remembrance Day. There are no plans to establish a Remembrance Day to commemorate the Holocaust. Consequently, Iceland has not officially recognized the Roma Genocide. It is to be noted that according to estimates, Iceland does not count any Roma as residents. [6]

An insult is added to injury, because Icelandic authorities must surely know about the severe racist reaction towards Roma people, who have travelled to Iceland, in segments of the Icelandic society.  Most Roma people in Iceland come to Iceland to accept the lowest paid jobs, but others have come as beggars. 

Since 2007 Icelandic authorities have repeatedly expelled Romanian visitors of Roma origins. I 2013 a prominent media personality in Iceland reflected on news in international media about the little blond girl Maria, who is a member of Roma family from Bulgaria residing in Larissa, Greece. Television host Egill Helgason in an article in an Icelandic daily DV assumed like the International press that Maria, due to her fair complexion, was a Nordic child kidnapped by gypsies. Helgason argued about Maria, who like other of her siblings turned out to have a form of albinism not uncommon among Roma-people: “Actually I have once seen a group of gypsies with a strangely blond child. This was in Southern-France about a decade ago. Some gypsies were in a town-square with a little boy, who was so fair-skinned, that he most of all looked liked he could be from Finland or Sweden. Then they disappeared and I never saw them again”.[7]

Icelandic Government officials must be writing against better knowledge, when reporting the above-mentioned to the Council of Europe. The reaction of Icelandic Police and Immigration authorities towards Roma who have tried their luck in Iceland is well documented. In 2019 Sofiya Zahova a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iceland and a spokesperson of Roma-people in Iceland, estimated the Roma in Iceland to about 400 individuals in 2019, most of them hiding their identity because they are frightened by negative reactions of the Icelandic society, as they are used to in the European states they travel from. Dr. Zahova announced her findings at the annual International Gypsy Lore Society conference, which was held in Iceland in 2019.[8]

Is it wishful thinking or simply a lack of knowledge, which has to be upheld by Icelandic officials in the foreign office that causes statements about no Roma-people residing in Iceland? The official claim that there was no count of any Roma in Iceland in 2019 is simply outrageous. Dr. Zahova has since 2016 held several courses for Reykjavík municipality’s social workers and kindergarten-personnel to educate about Roma minority and Roma history. 

One can ask why Icelandic officials continue to present incorrect information to the Council of Europe – and which Government minister has given a blessing for the nonsense of the claim. The Minister of Education and Culture at the time was Lilja Alfreðsdóttir. Her interest in the Holocaust is negligible. She didn’t have the will to arrange and financially support a visit of the first Jew born in Iceland, Felix Rottberger, on his 80th birthday, although the President of Iceland welcomed such a visit. Felix Rottberger, who today lives in Germany, was expelled to Denmark, with his parents (originally from Berlin) and sisters from Iceland in 1939. The political party which Mrs. Alfreðsdóttir belongs to promised to pay for the family’s further expulsion to Germany, if the Danish authorities didn’t grant them asylum. Members of this party, Framsóknarflokkur [The Progressive Party], were instrumental in the expulsion of the Rottberger family and other Jews from Iceland.  

 Felix Rottberger, the first Jew known to have been born in Iceland. Iceland expelled him in 1939. Here he is educating about the Holocaust in Denmark. Iceland doesn't want to pay for his travel from his home in Freiburg, Germany, to enable him to tell his story to the Icelanders. Photo by the author 2016.
Felix Rottberger, the first Jew known to have been born in Iceland. Iceland expelled him in 1939. Here he is educating about the Holocaust in Denmark. Iceland doesn’t want to pay for his travel from his home in Freiburg, Germany, to enable him to tell his story to the Icelanders. © Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson

The Holocaust is no way foreign to Icelanders. Jews were deported from Iceland by government ministers and police authorities eager to facilitate further deportation to Nazi-Germany, wherefrom the Jews had fled. The Icelandic authorities committed a crime. Today, Icelandic authorities say they know nothing, and they remember even less. 

A light at the end of the tunnel is when the present Prime Minister’s party Vinstrihreyfinging – Grænt Framboð, [The Left Green Movement] wants to commemorate the Holocaust. However, that party and other left-wing parties have declared their solid support for forces that want to exterminate the Jews and the State of IsraelIn 2007 the Left Green Movement submitted a parliamentary resolution in the Icelandic Parliament, Alþingi, where the recognition of Hamas was proposed. The resolution was never passed.[9]

Commemoration of the Holocaust has to go hand in hand with educating about the Holocaust.  An important task is awaiting the Icelandic authorities.


Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson

 

Addendum by the author : 

I have never understood why the authorities in my native country promised to initiate Holocaust-education in 2000 and 2002, subsequently to do nothing to follow up on the issue. To the best of my ability, I have tried to understand how Iceland and some few Icelanders were, directly, or indirectly, a part of the Nazi-craze in Europe, and why Iceland promised to educate about the European tragedy, but didn’t keep the promises. One chapter in my book about the Danish expulsions of Jews from Denmark 1940 to 1943, Medaljens Bagside (2005)[10], is dedicated to Iceland.  I have also written a short story about the Jews of Iceland and recently I presented a thorough analysis on the history of anti-Semitism in Iceland–a country, largely, without Jews.[11]

 

Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson is an independent scholar, archaeologist, and writer. He has a PhD in medieval archaeology from the University of Aarhus, Denmark (1992) and has worked as an independent archaeologist (1986–93) and as a researcher, archaeologist, and curator at the National Museum of Iceland (1993–97). Subsequently, he took a necessary leap into historical research and was a senior researcher at the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2000–02). He researched the expulsions of Jewish refugees from Denmark and was for a while editor-in-chief of the Danish journal RAMBAM. He has also worked on research projects for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.

Notes

1 The declaration and information about the participant nations can be found here: https://www.government.se/49b72c/contentassets/66bc8f513e67474e96ad70c519d4ad1a/the-stockholm-international-forum-conferences-2000-2004
2 Information on the Seminar can be found on the website of the European Council https://www.coe.int/en/web/holocaust/1st-ministerial-seminar-day-of-remembrance-?desktop=true
3 Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, “Iceland, the Jews, and Anti-Semitism, 1625–2004,”Jewish Political Studies Review 16, no. 3–4 (2004): pp. 131–56; Also published in Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, “Iceland, the Jews, and Anti-Semitism, 1625–2004, ” in Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel and the Jews, ed. Manfred Gerstenfeld (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Institute for Global Jewish Affairs, 2008), pp. 179-203 ; See footnote 44, https://jcpa.org/article/iceland-the-jews-and-anti-semitism-1625-2004/
4 Markus Meckl, Guðmundur Gunnarsson & Jakob Þór Kristjánsson, Report on Holocaust Education in Iceland,   University of Akureyri, Faculty of Law and Social Sciences, 2004; https://fornleifur.blog.is/users/5c/fornleifur/files/holocaust-final_21217-1_21219.pdf
5 Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, ” This is not about the weather in Reykjavík… This is a Holocaust-report from Iceland”, Fornleifur  [blog], 23 January 2020,  https://fornleifur.blog.is/blog/fornleifur/entry/2245019/
6 Council of Europe: Factsheet on the Roma Genocide in Iceland. The declaration of the Icelandic authorities can be found on the website of the European Council:  https://www.coe.int/en/web/roma-genocide/iceland#45649495_48526986_True
7 Egill Helgason. “Hið dapra sígaunalíf”, Silfur Egils on web-media Eyjan / DV  (22 October, 2013): https://www.dv.is/eyjan/2013/10/22/hid-dapra-sigaunalif/
8 “Segir Rómafólk á Íslandi vera Huldufólk“,  Morgunblaðið  [daily], 17 August 2018,  https://www.mbl.is/frettir/innlent/2019/08/17/segir_romafolk_a_islandi_vera_huldufolk/
9 The resolution of the Icelandic Left Green Movement can be read here on the website of the Icelandic Parliament: https://www.althingi.is/altext/134/s/0003.html
10 Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson,  Medaljens Bagside [Eng. The other side of the Coin]: Jødiske flygtningeskæbner i Danmark 1933–1945, (Copenhagen: Forlaget Vandkunsten, 2005,  pp. 8-13; See the chapter: http://www.forlagetvandkunsten.dk/data/512660/Medaljens_bagside.pdf
11 Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson,“Iceland, the Jews, and Anti-Semitism, 1625–2004,” Jewish Political StudiesReview 16, no. 3–4 (2004): pp. 131–56. Also published in Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson,“Iceland, the Jews,and Anti-Semitism, 1625–2004,”in Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel and theJews, ed. Manfred Gerstenfeld  (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Institute for Global Jewish Affairs, 2008), pp. 179–203, See: https://jcpa.org/article/iceland-the-jews-and-anti-semitism-1625-2004/ and Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson. “4. Iceland: A Study of Antisemitism in a Country without Jews”.  Antisemitism in the North, edited by Jonathan Adams and Cordelia Heß, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2019, pp. 69-106; https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110634822-006

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