‘The Swedish Silence’ uncovers truth of a nations’s inaction

Birgitta struggles to discover why her father, Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter, was so slow to share early information he received about Nazi concentration camps in the film ‘The Swedish Silence.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

In 1943, a Nazi SS officer approaches a Swedish diplomat on an overnight train between Warsaw and Berlin, and tells him, tearfully and in awful detail, about the mass murders being carried out in Nazi concentration camps. The SS officer shows the diplomat documents to prove what he is saying, and finally ends by pleading with the Swede to tell the world. 

Yet the horrifying truth that Kurt Gerstein revealed to Gören von Otter was not shared with the world by the Swedish government. That puzzling Swedish silence is the subject of Swedish director Carl Svensson’s intriguing, sometimes disturbing documentary, “The Swedish Silence.” The director will attend the screening at the film festival to discuss his film.

It sounds so unlikely — a German SS officer turned whistle-blower on the Nazis revealing the mass killing of the Jews to a Swedish diplomat whose country then does nothing. Svensson delves deep into this true story, peeling back layers of history to reveal his own country’s guilt, as well as possible explanations for the silence.

Svensson tells this story on two tracks. One is in the present, as the daughter of the Swedish diplomat, now in her 70s, embarks on a journey to at last learn the facts about her father’s role in this silence. The other uses a narrator and archival images for an in-depth look at what happened when the two men met and afterward.

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Early on, the documentary includes a reading from Gerstein’s account of what he told von Otter, a very graphic and disturbing description of the murder of a group of Jews at a concentration camp. The sequence may be too much for some audiences, but including it makes clear just how horrifying what Gerstein told von Otter was, making it seem inconceivable that the Swedish diplomat would not feel moved to act. 

Gerstein hoped that revealing what was happening in the concentration camps would cause a revolt among the German people and the ousting of Hitler. Gerstein chose to share the information with von Otter because Sweden was a neutral country and he thought that would make it more convincing. He also tried to get the information out through the Swiss and leaders of the Catholic church in Germany.

Gerstein was an unusual SS officer. Jailed for opposing the Nazi regime, he nevertheless was allowed to join the Waffen/SS. The deeply religious Gerstein considered himself an infiltrator but he eventually found himself part of the Nazis’ most secret plan, to find a more efficient way to do mass killing. He was sent to concentration camps to observe the methods.

Possible answers for the silence, and other facts gradually emerge as the filmmaker digs deep into the history, and follows von Otter’s daughter as she learns the facts she had never known about Gerstein and von Otter.

“The Swedish Silence” is a powerful, surprising, and often unsettling documentary but ultimately worth the discomfort to discover this astounding, tragic story.