Saturday, October 24, 2015

Baltic Bridges - Commissioner Sven Nilsson PART ONE “Our old grandmother is suffering...”

Sven Nilsson

I know how hopeless darkness feels,

how deep its chasm falls.

But from its furthest darkened border,

a bridge toward light extends.

Dawid Ekman
From the collection of poems, A Bridge toward Light

(Translation: Sven Ljungholm)

World War II caused great worry in politically neutral Sweden. A large part of the male population was conscripted for service in the military. Certain commodities were designated 'ration cards', and even though Sweden was located outside the war zone, people took notice of the fact that the neighboring countries were occupied. German transport trains rolled through Sweden.

The Salvation Army was affected in many different ways by the war. The male officer corps was mobilized for military emergency units. Within the local corps many men were inducted and which is why many of the brass bands had difficulties in functioning. But Salvationists in the various units took their Army engagements with them to their assignments and did much in the way of sharing their faith with others. Since many of our younger generations do not have personal memories of the war years, some of my own recollections can serve as an introduction to the story of The Salvation Army in the Baltic.

" Our old grandmother is suffering from a very serious illness, we sometimes wonder how much longer she can survive?" The message had been sent from Riga to Commissioner Karl Larsson, the leader for The Salvation Army in Sweden and Latvia. He understood the somewhat obscure text and answered: " Are the pains internal or external?"

After some time the answer came from Riga: "External! It is the frigid climate that is responsible, and a stroke is not out of the question."

Correspondence was censored, but the message as to the actual situation reached home. What was hidden behind that communication? The Salvation Army in Latvia was experiencing difficult persecution and was the grandmother in question. A poet once wrote: "The Army is my mother". Now she had been transformed to an elderly, ill grandmother.

We who heard Commissioner Larsson read the message during officers' councils at the annual congress were moved. The distance to the Baltic States was short. Our neighboring lands were occupied and the war events made a great impact on us. We had heard Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson's words that Sweden's level of readiness was sufficient, but we who had been drafted into the military service were aware of its deficiencies.

I had been serving my government and its military for almost a year and a half and the end was not in sight. I served deep within the interior of the mountain world of Lapland, close to the Norwegian border at a field hospital where we admitted ill and wounded service men but also refugees from many countries. They were frost bitten and distraught, and we listened to their dramatic stories. The war was brutal, even if we heard and saw only a small part of what was happening.
Some of us had guarded the German transport trains that had stopped at the station in Långsele and had served Swedish pea soup to seriously wounded German soldiers, who sometimes had to be hand fed, because they had lost their arms. In Sweden we lived as if we were an island in an ever tumultuous sea.

I had received permission to participate in the annual congress in Stocholm. The Salvation Army leaders had formulated a permit stating: " it is important that Corporal Nilsson, who is a Lieutenant in The Salvation Army, be given the opportunity to participate in the Congress deliberations." That is, in the officers' councils. It was in one of the meetings that the information from Riga was communicated.

During the congress the younger male officers were billeted in the gymnasium at Norra Real School, and when the officers' councils were concluded it was expected that everyone would return to their homes, as the gym was closed. But the train to Norrland was not scheduled to depart until the following day. The daily pay from the military was very low, so the funds did not stretch to a hotel room, which is why I got to spend the night in " hotel Humlegården (city park) . The park bench was hard but was compensated for by the small birds' reveille, which rang more softly than that of the military. Humlegård Park was filled with stacks of firewood for the future needs of the Stockholmers and the potato plants thrived in the flowerbeds. The thought of  "old grandmother" on the other side of the Baltic Sea returned often, but it would take a long time before the truth was completely revealed. And yet, will it ever be possible to know the whole truth?

Now that the leaders of The Salvation Army have given me the responsibility to write a history from these last few years I cannot detach myself from the revolutionary experiences of my first years as an officer. I have prioritized the story of the Baltic history of the Army, starting with the events of the early 1920s (Sweden's Army history comes in a separate volume.) It is a story of a self sacrificing and faithful battle carried out by people driven by the love of Christ.

End Part One

Sven Nilsson
Stockholm 2003

1 comment:


It's taken me 16 months since Commissioner Sven Nilsson suggested that the book be shared in the FSAOF blog, to secure its release. We will share it piecemeal over the next few months as a tribute to those many valiant warriors who served in laying the Army's foundation in the Baltic states. And, as a tribute to the author, the Dean of SA historians in Scandinavia.

The blog, read by 6,000 to 8,000 persons weekly will include vignettes from a book I'm writing; Return to Russia with Flag Unfurled: SA in Russia 1913-23 and our return 1990-94.

The book will be translated into both the Swedish and Russian languages.