Review: A Forgotten Hero: Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish Humanitarian Who Rescued 30,000 People from the Nazis, by Shelley Emling

Count Folke Bernadotte is largely forgotten today, but his murder in Jerusalem in 1948 made headlines around the world. The first UN peace mediator in the Middle East, he was targeted by members of the Lehi (Freedom Fighters of Israel), better known as the Stern Gang. His crime, in their view, was that he was an enemy of Israel and was close to forcing the newly-formed Israeli government led by David Ben Gurion, into relinquishing control of Jerusalem and more. His murderers were never punished.

Shelley Emling has done a service by revisiting the life of Count Bernadotte, and focusing on his role in the final days of the Second World War when he organised and led a rescue mission to take female prisoners — overwhelmingly Scandinavians — out of Nazi concentration camps and to safety in Sweden.

Emling is extremely sympathetic to Bernadotte and that comes through on every page of the book. But she’s also aware of the controversies that surround him, including allegations that he got rather too chummy with some of the Nazi leaders and that he did little to free Jewish prisoners (she contests this point). Emling quotes at length Bernadotte’s words in which he describes first meeting SS boss Heinrich Himmler — and this does little to warm us to the man, who was at the very least naive.

His murder was obviously a crime, and the culprits should have been punished — not least because the attack is a stain on Israel’s reputation that has never been erased. But the story of Bernadotte’s life and his death is a more complex one than this short book can cover.