JERUSALEM (AP) – They used to paint swastika graffiti, get into street fights with immigrants and distribute anti-Semitic propaganda.
But after studying the cases of a few of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, some former Swedish neo-Nazi teenagers came to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with new attitudes.
The teens, some of whom were active members of neo-Nazi groups, visited the memorial Monday to present the findings of their research into the stories of 16 Holocaust victims from their hometown of Karlstad, and add pages of testimony for the previously unknown dead.
The project is the initiative of Swedish Holocaust educator Christer Mattsson. The concept is to take troubled youths off the street, confront their prejudices and ignorance and slowly convert them into Holocaust educators themselves.
“The first time I took a neo-Nazi to Auschwitz, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But after seeing it, after seeing where Jews used to live, he said: ‘I can no longer deny it happened, or salute what happened.'”
The journey has been an arduous one. Of the 100 teenagers in his program, Mattsson said about five to eight are “hard-core neo-Nazis” — some completely reformed, others not. Those, some sporting Nazi tattoos, did not make the trip to Israel, either for fear of offending survivors or to remain anonymous for their own safety.
The only former active member who arrived, 17-year-old Joar, refused to be photographed and would be identified only by his first name for fear of retribution from his former friends.
The shy, blond Joar hid behind a baseball cap and a large pair of sunglasses. He would only say that he used to have “different opinions.”
“I didn’t know so much. I’ve learned a lot about the Holocaust,” he said, through a translator. “I have a different perspective on life now.”
Sweden remained neutral during World War II. It had a very small Jewish population and closed its gates to refugees. That policy began to change as the horrors of the Holocaust became apparent and Sweden began to lean toward the allies.
In 1944, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg began handing out papers to save thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi death camps. After the war, some 27,000 survivors arrived in Sweden.
In Karlstad, 16 Jewish women died shortly afterward, most from illness, and were buried in a Jewish cemetery. Mattsson took his students there to ask them if they still believed the Holocaust to be a myth. They, in turn, decided to investigate the women’s stories. The result is a 100-page book that details their stories.
On Monday, they presented their findings to Israel’s official Holocaust museum and memorial.
Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari said it probably marked the first time it had ever dealt directly with neo-Nazis.
The teenagers toured the museum and met with Mirjam Akavia, a Holocaust survivor who fled to Sweden after the war.
She vividly described her childhood and how she was yanked out of school and sent to the camps, where only she and sister emerged while the rest of her family perished.
“When I was 12, it was the end of my beautiful childhood. It was the end of everything,” she said.
The Swedish teenagers were not much older when they encountered their own local brand of anti-Semitism.
“The headmaster of my former school, who is here today, was beaten up by people I knew three years ago,” said 17-year-old Jennifer Lindstrom, who said she joined Mattsson’s group so she could have the tools to battle her classmates’ rhetoric and actions.
“Maybe because I have been studying about the Holocaust and Nazism, maybe because I have been to Auschwitz and the empty shtetels (Jewish villages) in Poland or maybe because I got sick and fed up with racism and neo-Nazis — I could not remain silent.”
Lindstrom’s principal was assaulted because he tried to keep the neo-Nazi students out of his school. The two other teenagers in the group were Johanna Karlsson and Deken Izat, a Kurdish immigrant to Sweden who used to belong to a rival gang that battled with Joar’s.
Lindstrom said that finding out what happened in her own backyard proved to be the best way for her and her new friends to counter racism.
“It is slightly unreal to be here today and handing over material that we have worked with for so long, knowing that it will be here at Yad Vashem for always,” Lindstrom said.