Farfar and War

Note: This story was originally published in Knee-Jerk magazine. Then it was published in the Scarlet Leaf Review. It’s also on the website of the Peter Cassel Society in Sweden. Therefore, I guess I can include it here.


On the day Abraham Lincoln was shot, April 14, 1865, August Malmqvist, my father’s father, was born in Sweden. The news about Lincoln would reach Sweden by telegraph, and in the years to come August would know that his birthday had some significance beyond Ösebo, his birthplace. August’s mother, Anna Elisabeth Jacobsdotter, born in Ulrika, Östergötland in 1825, would have been a few months shy of her 40th birthday when August was born. August’s father was Sven Jacob Isaksson, born in Ösebo in 1822. August should have used the name August Svensson, since in those days names changed with each generation. August put a stop to that as an adult, having decided that there were too many Svenssons in Sweden. He took the name Malmqvist, which would give him more individuality.

I never met my grandfather, or any of my grandparents. August was the only one of my grandparents still living when I was born, but I lived 3,000 miles away. I regret that I never met him. Nevertheless, I feel close to him, because he was a musician, and I play his violin. I own violin music copied in his own hand perhaps one hundred years ago. I have photographs of him. He looks at the camera, and he seems kind.

I once asked my father, “Daddy, what is the first public event that you remember?” My father said, “The war between Japan and Russia that began in 1904. Papa worked at the telegraph office in the railroad station in Karlskoga. The news came over the telegraph and when he came home he told us about it.” I imagine this event.

It is February 8, 1904. My father, August Harald Malmqvist, the oldest son in the family, is five. Rambunctious and naughty, he plays in the parlor of the family’s two-storey home, hiding under furniture, grabbing doilies and putting them on his head, pretending a block of wood is a gun, and torturing his younger brother, Karl Gunnar,  who will be four years old on March 4. Karl Gunnar cries to his mother. “Harald is hitting me!” My grandmother, Augusta Josefina Johansson Malmqvist, runs into the room. “Harald, stop that! You are too much for my nerves. Gunnar, stop crying; be a little man!” Augusta turns and walks back to the kitchen where she is preparing dinner. Tonight it will be kroppkakor, potato dumplings filled with salt pork. Harald already has a taste for this Swedish delicacy that he will keep for another 91 years, in Sweden, in Canada, and in the United States. Gunnar snivels some more and wipes his face on the doily Harald left on the floor. The front door opens. Papa is home.

Papa is proud of his two boys, and secretly pleased with their liveliness, a sentiment not shared by his wife. He stops to greet them, and tousles their hair with affection. “Have you been good boys today?” Ja, Papa, ja, Papa, always yes. August frowns as he thinks about other boys in faraway lands putting on uniforms and fighting for or against someone else’s cause. Augusta comes into the room, a worried look on her face.

“August, is everything all right?”

“Ja, of course. But something came over the telegraph today—Russia is at war with Japan.”

The Russo-Japanese War was the first significant war of the twentieth century, the result of rivalry between Russia and Japan over the status of Korea and Manchuria. Russia was looking for a port on the Pacific Ocean, for trade and for military reasons. True, they had Vladivostok, but that port froze during the winter. They wanted Port Arthur in China. Japan had earlier offered to recognize Manchuria as a Russian sphere of influence if Russia were to recognize Korea as Japan’s sphere of influence. Russia refused, and Japan attacked the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. The rest of the world was surprised when Japan won this war that lasted almost nineteen months. Both countries would cause more carnage before the new century was over.

My grandfather worked in the telegraph office, but he also worked in the Bofors factory. Bofors started as a hammer mill in 1646, produced steel in the nineteenth century, and made weapons for use outside of neutral Sweden. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, owned the factory from 1894 until 1896, the year of his death. Under Nobel’s direction cannons became a major product of the Bofors factory.

Augusta turns to her husband. “The war does not concern us, does it?”

“Nej, except that sooner or later everything concerns us. Sweden may be neutral, but can that last forever? And we make weapons, good ones.” August takes his violin out of its case, tightens the bow, and starts to play an old dance tune. August Harald and Karl Gunnar wave their hands and prance around the room.

August looks at his wife. “Come, Augusta, play a tune on the piano,”

 “August, I’m trying to finish preparing dinner. Later, maybe.”

 A century later I am puzzled by Alfred Nobel, the man who hated war yet made money making weapons. A book on my bookshelf—Alfred Nobel: The Man and his Work by Erik Bergengren—tells me that “From the end of the 1880s and as a direct result of ballistite research, Nobel interested himself more and more in the technical side of firearms. According to what he repeatedly declared to Sohlman and others, this particular field attracted him chiefly as a mental problem. At the same time, with his innate, intense aversion to war and violence, he became, paradoxically enough, an increasingly strong opponent of the practical use of such inventions. ‘For my part, I wish all guns with their belongings and everything could be sent to hell, which is the proper place for their exhibition and use’, he wrote at this time.” Nobel’s dynamite was to be used originally for mining operations and other peaceful purposes, but it led to maiming, death, and massive destruction.

Karl Gunnar Malmqvist would later be known as Gunnar; August Harald would become Harald August, and then, in America, Harold August. On this night in 1904 the boys eat their kroppkakor and listen to their parents’ conversation.

“Ja, Augusta,” my farfar says, taking a sip of beer, “I think we do have something to worry about. We are a neutral country, but how long will that last?”

“August, look at these little ones; I do not want them to have to fight in a war. And I do not want them to make cannons or guns or dynamite.”

“It is not such a bad way to make a living. I do it.”

 “I want more for my boys.”

“Mama, I want to fight in a war,” says August Harald. “Bang, bang!”

“Nej, that is not what you want to do, little one.”

“Why not?”

“August Harald, war is a bad thing.”

“Then why do we make guns? Boom! Boom! We make guns! We make dynamite!”

August looks at his sons. He wants to pick up his trombone and find the other six factory workers in the Björkborns Musikkår and play into the night. He wants to tune his violin and play the waltz by Offenbach that he has just copied in ink from a score owned by his friend Ericsson, the trumpeter. August wants to play the violin while his wife plays the piano and his sons dance and clap their hands. He does not want to make weapons. He does not want to hear about Russians and Japanese fighting each other. He wants to talk to Alfred Nobel and ask him how he managed to make weapons in a neutral country while at the same time passionately hating war.

But Alfred Nobel had died eight years earlier in Italy, surrounded by servants who could not understand what he was saying. In his final illness all he could remember were the words of his first language: Swedish.