Jews are still not welcome in Iceland


Last weekend I attended Mr. Felix Rottberger's birthday party. My good friend Felix, who is the first Jew born in Iceland, celebrated his 80th birthday. The birthday party was not held in Iceland but in Germany. His parents fled from Berlin to Iceland in 1935, later to be expelled by Icelandic officials in 1938.

Only a few people in Iceland fought openly for the rights of the family to stay there. Among them was a Danish diplomat, the first secretary in the Danish embassy in Reykjavik, C.A.C. Brun, who managed to delay the expulsion of the family to Germany and prevent that the family was shipped back to Germany in 1938. The Icelandic Government prepared a letter in Danish and German to the Danish authorities, in which the government announced that if Denmark didn't want the Jews expelled from Iceland in Denmark, Iceland would pay for their further deportation to Germany.

img_3149b.jpgThe exile in Denmark was not a very hospitable one either. Finally in 1955 after years of post-war harassment by Danish authorities Felix' parents Hans and Olga Rottberger moved to Germany with all their children and settled in Konstanz in the South of Germany. Later Felix moved to the city of Freiburg near the border to France and Switzerland, where he worked for decades as the caretaker of the old Jewish Cemetery in Freiburg.

When I received my invite to Felix Rottberger's birthday Party in August, I immediately began trying to get Iceland to invite Felix and his wife Heidi to Iceland to visit the country that expelled him at the age of two.

Felix, who is man of no great means, has as a devout Jew a longing to visit the grave-sites of his grandmother Helene Mann and her son and brother of Felix' mother, Hans Mann. My intention was for Felix to see the good things happening in the country which could not accept him 78 years ago and among other things to meet with the Jews living in Iceland.

The newly elected president of Iceland, historian Guđni Th. Jóhannesson, was immediately prepared to invite the Rottbergers to a reception and a grand dinner at his residence south of Reykjavík when they come to Iceland. However, an Icelandic president is not a man with the same power in the Icelandic society as the president of the USA or France have in their countries respectivly. The office of the Icelandic President is a tiny institution with a very limited budget. Thus the president advised me to contact the Icelandic government, i.e. the Foreign Ministry. I immediately wrote to the foreign minister, Mrs. Lilja Dögg Alfređsdóttir, who asked her permanent secretary to respond. The ministry on behalf of the government in office condition such an invite by handing the responsibility for it to the University of Iceland, where in the view of the ministry there should be held a conference in connection with an invite to Felix Rottberger.

When the media in Iceland are at the same time reporting about a record bad financial situation for Icelandic Universities, such an conference and invitation to Felix Rottberger wasn't anything which could be arranged in the nearest future. And a conference on what is the Foreign office thinking about, one must ask? Whom to blame for expelling Jews from Iceland in the later 1930ies? We know all the details. The research has clarified the crimes. The political parties responsible, and in office at that time, where the very same parties which are in office today.

Maybe someone is eager to discuss who was most anti-Semitic, the Independence Party (Sjálfstćđisflokkur) or the centre-right liberal Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkur). Actually members of both parties were in the 1930s well inspired and fascinated by the Nazi ideology, and in the post-War period even members of a small Icelandic Nazi party were incorporated in the Independence Party. Some of the former Nazis where promoted to important and high positions in Icelandic post-WWII Society.


Felix, with the black hat and his Israel-tie, surrounded by his siblings, relatives, children and grandchildren in Freiburg on 24 September 2016. All photos  by Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson.

The coming elections for the Icelandic parliament (Alţingi), at the end of October, were triggered after the fall of Prime-Minister Sigmundur Davíđ Gunnlaugsson, after he and his wife were exposed in the Panama Papers revelation as major Icelandic owners of off-shore assets well hidden from the tax office of the Icelandic welfare state.

The former PM, who is hoping for a swift come-back after the Panama Paper scandal, has blamed his fall on an international conspiracy lead by the Jewish business magnate George Soros. The blaming-it-on-George Soros - phenomenon is widely seen in Nazi and right extreme circles. Now Soros is also to blame for the moral perversion of a former Icelandic Prime Minister. The present foreign minister, who could not see the moral importance in inviting a Jew who was expelled from Iceland 78 years ago supports the candidate for the PM-office in the coming election, who blames his own cock-ups on Soros.

Could it be that Foreign Minister Mrs. Alfređsdóttir also believes that George Soros was behind the alleged conspiracy against the former Prime Minister? At least she now openly supports a person who is in the habit of blaming his mistakes on a Jewish businessman and a Holocaust-survivor.

 There will be another government after the present one, which I sincerely hope will invite Mr. Rottberger to Iceland. Let's hope that a new government doesn't condition an invite for Mr. Rottberger with a seminar on the situation in Gaza.

Icelanders must learn to take collective responsibility for past mistakes and not blame all things bad which happen in Iceland on foreigners and the surrounding world. The blaming game, and in particular blaming the foreigners, and in extreme cases blaming the Jews for home-made mishaps, seems to be the main weakness of the Icelander, whenever there is the slightest trouble or crisis on the home front.

Icelander expelled Jews in the 1930s and have since than had a very strict and reclusive immigration policy were the "uniqueness" of the population has been seen as one of the arguments for admitting as few new settlers as possible. In 1939 one heard the same arguments for expelling the Rottberger-family as one hears for not admitting Syrian war-refugees today.

Since Icelanders, all 330.000 of them, are so unique and so eagerly want to play a role among the nations (which is also a phrase not so seldom heard), why not publicly apologize for the bad treatment of Jewish refugees in the 1930s and let an old man feel that he is welcome in Iceland after all the years of official silence since his family was cast out of Iceland in 1938?

The warm-hearted nature and wits of Mr. Rottberger is something Iceland would have benefited from if he had been allowed to become an Icelandic citizen. There is still time to become acquainted with him. Iceland can in fact still learn a lot from the world which surrounds it. People elsewhere are not so different from Icelanders.


Photo Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjalmsson

On 4 October 2016 Felix Rottberger will be decorated by the German president Joachim Gauch with the Verdienstorden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Berlin. Felix receives this honour for his lifetime efforts to educate about the Holocaust and the fate of the Jews in Germany. That mitzvah has become one of the most important ones in Felix Rottberger's life. Now Felix can call himself a "Ritter" (Knight) - A Knight of the Holocaust education and remembrance: Such knights are important in times where so many people try to forget or distort the memory.

From the web of the German President

Felix Rottberger, Freiburg im Breisgau
Verdienstkreuz am Bande

Der ehemalige Mitarbeiter der jüdischen Gemeinde in Freiburg hat sich als Zeitzeuge bei der Erinnerungsarbeit große Verdienste erworben. 1935 flohen seine Eltern vor dem NS-Regime zuerst nach Island, wo er geboren wurde, 1938 mit ihm weiter nach Dänemark. Dort musste er sich getrennt von seinen Eltern verstecken und lebte in ständiger Angst, entdeckt zu werden. Um die Auswirkungen von Rassismus und Nationalismus zu verdeutlichen, geht Felix Rottberger seit langem in Schulen und Begegnungsstätten, diskutiert mit jungen Menschen über die Zeit des Nationalsozialismus und schildert eindringlich das Verfolgungsschicksal seiner Familie. Zudem bietet er für Schulklassen und Gruppen immer wieder Führungen in der Synagoge und auf dem jüdischen Friedhof in Freiburg an, bei denen er auch anschaulich jüdische Sitten und Gebräuche vermittelt. Mit seinem großen persönlichen Einsatz hat Felix Rottberger in Freiburg eine besondere "Kultur des Miteinander" geprägt.

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