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Reinventing Myself

Sara Miriam Gross

As a child in Sweden, Chana Sharfstein watched her family rescue embers from a flaming Europe. She then moved to Crown Heights, built a beautiful family of her own, and became an author, tour guide, and more, in her continued quest to illuminate the past as she educates future generations.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

landscapeChana Sharfstein might not know about all her father’s noble activities during World War II, yet the heroic things she does recall were enough to inspire a book. Mrs. Sharfstein, a native of Sweden and resident of Crown Heights for over 50 years, has written a different kind of Holocaust memoir, for although she grew up in a war-torn world, her own childhood memories are filled with warmth, love, and mutual kindness.

Mrs. Sharfstein’s acquired knowledge of Yiddish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, German, English, Spanish, and Hebrew has helped her navigate her colorful life. The unifying thread running through her varied experiences is a desire to educate future generations and a powerful dedication to illuminating the past. Her new book, It was Evening, It was Morning: Scandinavia in the Aftermath of World War II is the latest platform for her historical illuminations.

After all these years, this great-grandmother, author, documentary film visionary, museum docent, tour guide, and English-as-a-second-language innovator, has revisited a time she believes must not be forgotten. “The world must remember the Holocaust and become acquainted with the wonderful individuals who rebuilt their lives after the war. We gain strength from their stories and become inspired to grow in our own lives,” she says. “We need to know about our past, use it as a base, and build upon it.”


Saved by the Fishermen

Mrs. Sharfstein’s late father was the esteemed Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Zuber ztz”l, a Russian-immigrant Torah scholar who became one of the leaders of the Swedish community from his position at the helm of the Adas Yisroel shul in Sodermalm (the largest of the group of islands that form the city of Stockholm).

Although many of her father’s relatives had already left Russia and settled in the United States, it was then the years of the Great Depression, and Rabbi Zuber was warned that it wasn’t a good time to land on America’s struggling shores. So this branch of the Zuber family, with the blessings of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn ztz”l, accepted an appointment in The Kingdom of Sweden, in Scandinavia’s triple kingdom of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In this way, they were blessed to live out the stormy years of World War II in safety and relative security in a neutral country.

Unbelievably, as Mrs. Sharfstein describes it, only an hour’s flight away from the death camps, Chana’s mother was picking blueberries to make Swedish blueberry soup and Chana was riding her beloved red Husqvarna brand bicycle. Basic foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, and bread were indeed rationed, but there was almost no anti-Semitism, so life was challenging but sweet. Enjoying the uniquely Scandinavian flavor of tolerance, acceptance, and even accommodation, Chana was exempt from Saturday classes at her school, the Katarina Norra Folkskola.

By 1943, Denmark was the only occupied country that actively resisted the Nazi regime’s attempts to deport its Jewish citizens. When the Danish resistance learned that the Nazis were planning to take the Jews to concentration camps, the Danes responded quickly, hiding Jews in their homes, hospitals, and churches, and organizing a nationwide effort to smuggle the Jews by sea to neutral Sweden. Within a two-week period, fishermen helped ferry over 7,000 Danish Jews — 90 percent of the Danish Jewish community — to safety across the narrow strait separating Denmark from Sweden. Mrs. Sharfstein’s interview with one of these fisherman six decades later clearly indicated that the fishermen simply considered that noble act part of a day’s work.

How was it that the Swedes and other Scandinavians, all tall, blond, and blue-eyed, accepted and even protected their Jews, including petite, dark-haired Chana and her family? “Remember that Sweden has not been in a war since the times of Napoleon,” Mrs. Sharfstein points out. “The Swedes enjoy nature, fresh air, good food, and have a live and let live attitude. The crime rate was low and people lived quite peacefully. Sweden’s economy as a social democracy was always stable, there were no homeless or hungry, no poor and no slums. They looked at foreigners as different — but not bad. In this, the king of Denmark led the way, stating, “They are all my citizens and I will protect them.”

Yet the Zubers did weather the war in their own way. Although Sweden was never invaded, as Norway and Denmark were, no one knew that would be the case. So young Chana kept a blanket roll containing basic essentials such as clothing, utensils for eating, soap, and a toothbrush in her closet throughout the war years — her parents had signed an agreement that she could be evacuated with her school in case of attack. One night, when her parents thought she was asleep, young Chana witnessed her parents stuffing the couch cushions with a wad of bills. “They were hiding money in case the Germans invaded Sweden.”

Rabbi Zuber too wanted to aid the rescue effort, but having grown up in the suffocating environment of Stalinist Russia, he found himself in a vulnerable position. He, his rebbetzin Zlata, and their four children Mendel, Sholom, Leya, and little Chana, were not Swedish citizens and continually feared they might be sent back to Mother Russia. Once the Zubers were granted citizenship in 1942, Rabbi Zuber had the status he needed to help out Klal Yisrael on a wider scale.


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