Passage to Sweden
Documentary tells the story of compassion and bravery to rescue Europe’s Jews
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
When Suzannah Warlick was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., she had no idea that she would one day make a documentary film about the European Jews who escaped to freedom and safety in Sweden during World War II. It was a winding road to filmmaking, but one that would ultimately qualify her to produce and direct her latest documentary film, Passage to Sweden.
Warlick’s interest in filmmaking sparked when she got married and worked closely with her wedding videographer to produce and edit her very unique wedding video. She then decided to take a class in video editing, which led her to her first project, a 10-minute documentary called The Queen’s Court, featuring a group of men dressing in drag to attend a female impersonators’ ball. In her following documentary, Supporting Actors, she exposes the brutal business of acting, highlighting industry professionals with the power to make or break a career.
But it was when she finished her last documentary, Match & Marry, about matchmaking and marriage, that the seed was planted for Passage to Sweden. One of the matchmakers she interviewed was Chana, who had grown up in Sweden during Word War II. She said, “Suzannah, you have to make this documentary about what happened to the Jewish people in Scandinavia during the war. This topic is unfamiliar to most people. They only know about what happened in Poland but not about what happened in Scandinavia.”
Initially, Warlick was lukewarm to the idea. She wasn’t a historian and didn’t think she was qualified to make a film on a historical subject. Somehow it was meant to be. When Warlick told a colleague about the potential project, he wrote a check to her on the spot and told her to go make her next movie. The project had received its initial funding, and there was no turning back.
It was a long journey to the completion of the project, taking Warlick to Scandinavia twice to carry out research and conduct interviews. There were starts and stops in the work along the way. For one thing, she had a full-time job and a family to raise. And then, as is often the case, the project changed and evolved as it unfolded. A relevant historical documentary is, in any case, no small undertaking. As she worked on the script, she also had to meticulously go back and verify the facts. Ironically, it was the onset of the pandemic that finally allowed Warlick to find the time to focus and finish her work—another silver lining scenario of COVID-19.
Passage to Sweden not only led Warlick and her co-director Michael Schwartz to Sweden, but to Norway, Denmark, and Hungary. There they explored the life journeys of Jews from those countries who found refuge and protection in Sweden during World War II.
They learned that the history of the Jews in each of the three Scandinavian countries was different. The Jews in Denmark coexisted with the Danes for several centuries before World War II, while in Norway, Jewish communities didn’t even exist for half a century before World War II, making the Jews not as assimilated into Norwegian society as their Scandinavian neighbors. The Swedish experience differed in that, on the whole, the Jews assimilated much more quickly there than in neighboring countries. Warlick remarked that the assimilation process in Sweden could be so fast and deep for some after the war, that many Jewish refugees chose to leave Sweden and immigrate to the United States and Israel, as they wanted to preserve their heritage.
The project highlights the courageous and humanitarian acts of ordinary people who helped save the lives of thousands of Jews from the occupying German forces. A section of the film also tells the story of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save the Jews of Budapest and the “Swedish White Bus Operation” that rescued concentration camp inmates and brought them to safety in Sweden.
There is the famous Jewish saying that “if you save one life, you save the world.” With her film, Warlick, too, wants to make a difference by telling a story that should not be forgotten, with an underlying message of universal humanity that anyone can make a difference. It is an important, timeless, and timely message for us all today.
To learn more about Passage to Sweden and to schedule a screening event, visit www.passagetosweden.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 4, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.