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Swindler, Savior, Healer, Spy — Investigating Felix Kersten

Scriptwriter John Bernstein
Scriptwriter John Bernstein Picture by: Pauline Taubach Felix Kersten

Screenwriter John Bernstein immediately recognized the dramatic elements in Felix Kersten's story. Has he discovered a hero greater than Oskar Schindler?

"I first heard about Felix Kersten five years ago in a Tampere pizzeria from my friend and colleague Arto Koskinen. Over a fine Finnish Porter beer, Arto proceeded to spin a mesmerizing tale of an enigmatic character rumored to be either a “great humanitarian savior” or a “cunning swindler” whose deeds and tales prior, during and post-World War Two, would easily rival those of Baron Munchausen himself.

I was intrigued.

As a practicing playwright and screenwriter, I immediately recognized the potential of a fascinating dramatic material and made a note to myself to research the subject further.

Two years later I again met Arto, for a change of scenery in Munich, and we resolved that the time had come to address ”The Felix Kersten enigma”.

History is rewritten by the victors.

I commenced by watching Arto’s documentary that poignantly asked “Who Was Felix Kersten?" (1998) and followed it up by poring over Kersten’s memoirs, assorted articles both academic and journalistic, as well as books, monographs, documentaries and even a poem on YouTube written about Kersten. And then an interesting discovery – I realized that many years ago I had actually met three important figures who intersected with Kersten before and after World War Two: Hillel Storch and Norbert Masur – Sweden’s representatives of the World Jewish Congress, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

Storch and Masur met with Kersten to negotiate the possible release of Jewish prisoners from a number of concentration camps, notably the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Masur ultimately met with Himmler and Walter Schellenberg in 1945. In that infamous meeting Himmler remarked “I want to bury the hatchet between us and the Jews”. Holocaust survivor, American-Jewish writer Elie Wiesel met Kersten in Stockholm after the war, and remarked “I don’t trust this man…”

Arto Koskinen ja John Bernstein kävelevät Gut Harzwalden bunkkerialueella
John Berstein and Arto Koskinen walking at the grounds of Felix Kersten's old estate at Gut Harzwalde. Arto Koskinen ja John Bernstein kävelevät Gut Harzwalden bunkkerialueella Picture by: Pauline Taubach Felix Kersten,Arto Koskinen,John Bernstein

For Arto, making the documentary was a process of diving into heady and uncharted waters fraught with mysteries, forgeries and never-ending duplicities unleashing more and more unanswered new questions, rather than providing answers. For me, it was a matter of trying to determine whether the material was an account of history, or rather a cunning attempt on Kersten’s part of spinning literature in which Kersten emerges as an unsung hero.

Winston Churchill famously said “history is rewritten by the victors”. Felix Kersten had craftily turned his sullied and checkered affiliation with the losing Third Reich into a newer and different account that obviated the past and created a new self-congratulatory scenario that posited Kersten as bigger than Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and Chiune Sugihara combined.

It is Goethe who said that “truth or lies, everything can be contradicted”. Humiliated by Folke Bernadotte’s quick 1945 account of the White Buses Operation in “Slutet”, Kersten resolved to vilify Bernadotte and produce so-called “memoirs” which would make readers both love and admire Kersten while also “forgiving” him for closely associating with Heinrich Himmler who, more than anyone else, was personally responsible for the murder of millions of Jews.

What is left after we have eliminated all errors?

Our journey to discover the real truth behind Felix Kersten’s legacy (or is it Felix Huberti’s?), has been long, arduous, surprising, illuminating, and occasionally dangerous and frustrating. What is called “truth” is only left after we have eliminated all errors.

Can we do that? We feel that we are so close, yet the full truth is still elusive. We will keep going and I hope all of you listeners will continue to stay with us in our persistent odyssey to unravel further secrets."

The author John Bernstein, is co-writer of “The Felix Kersten Files” podcast. He is a screenwriter and dramaturge who has written several award-winning films and is a professor at Boston University.

The Felix Kersten Files podcast is available on Yle Areena, Spotify and iTunes.