21 January 2020
They were refugees who had fled from war, Nazism and occupation. The Norwegian couple Helga and Hjalmar Wergeland found asylum in Sweden and in the summer of 1944, in the shadow of war, they ordered a sofa and coffee table from Carl Malmsten for their home in Stockholm.
As so often was the case, Malmsten named the furniture after his clients.
That was the sofa, ”Wergeland”, that Ylva Hansen found for her exam project at Träakademien. In June 2019, she received her degree in furniture upholstery and today, after a long career at Swedish Television in Umeå, she has openend her own upholstery workshop in her home village Sävar, near Umeå. ”But it took a while before I could unravel the history”, she explained over the telephone. ”There was nothing in print, but I found information about a resistance fighter called Wergeland on the internet. Via the Malmsten Archive in Sickla, I could verify that this was the same person who had ordered the sofa.”
In her documentation, Ylva Hansen tells the story:
When the Germans occupied Norway in 1940, Hjalmar Wergeland was a young, newly qualified doctor. He was one of Norway’s foremost gymnasts and had taken part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He was also a good ski jumper and his choice of career and fitness were to become important factors in his efforts within the Norwegian resistance movement.
Both Hjalmar and Helga Wergeland were active resistance fighters, and the book A Stand Against Tyranny, where Hjalmar Wergeland is among the interviewed, describes the risky work of helping needy countrymen with food and money. Sometimes, large sums of money had to be smuggled over long distances to reach distressed Norwegians.
On such an occasion, Helga was travelling by train with a suitcase containing half a million Norwegian kronor. She struggled to get the heavy suitcase on board the train and finally asked a Nazi officer for help, who kindly gave her a hand. In the early stages of the occupation, the Nazis wanted to gain the trust of the Norwegians.
Hjalmar was responsible for the resistance dispatch office in Telemark, but the Nazis became suspicious, and when Gestapo tracked him down in November 1943, he hid in the wilderness for two weeks before he followed many of his countrymen and fled over the border to Sweden.
Helga followed on, and the couple were able to continue their resistance from Sweden. Hjalmar, together with two Norwegian colleagues, organised medical staff who had been forced to flee and administered health camps for Norwegian refugees and soldiers.
At the same time, the Wergelands’ were setting up their new home in Stockholm, and it was now that they contacted Carl Malmsten. Two years previously, Malmsten had designed the sofa ”Umeå” and with some minor alterations to the design Hjalmar and Helga order the sofa , which Malmsten then called ”Wergeland”.
A few months after the sofa had been delivered, Hjalmar wrote to ”Mr. Professor Malmsten”: ”My wife and I would in this way like to thank you for the beautiful sofa you have made for us. We find it utterly lovely, it pleases our eyes daily and is comfortable to sit in.” In the letter, Hjalmar told how much their friends like the furniture: ”All our friends are very envious, they have never seen a lovelier sofa and never sat in a more comfortable one … We will need expert help with the interior design of our home even in the future.” But Hjalmar also described the difficulties in taking pleasure of beautiful things while the war was ongoing in their home country: ”Although we are enjoying a good standard of living, our thoughts go to those on the other side of the Kjölen mountains, and the conditions in Norway are such that our welfare is almost a burden.”…”Despite everything, our time in Sweden has been rich in experiences”…”And it is great to be able to take with us a reminder of this time, especially when it is an object which brings such a sense of beauty to the eye and of wellbeing to the body.”
A few days later, Carl Malmsten replied: ”It was so nice to learn that the sofa graces your home and that you have pleasure from it. May you soon be able to return and start the rebuilding of the new Norway. It must be difficult being here and waiting, not knowing when the roads across Kjölen will reopen… I am so grateful that you want me to help with the further design of your home…”
After the war, Hjalmar and Helga Wergeland returned to Norway where Hjalmar’s first task was to care for emaciated Russian prisoners of war in the northern part of the country. Later he worked as a consultant at the paediatric department at Rikshospitalet in Oslo. Helga studied psychology and worked as a volounteer at the same department.
Ylva Hansen concludes her documentation: It’s moving to read Hjalmar Wergeland’s letter where he expresses his gratitude to Malmsten but also shares his feelings. The reply from Carl Malmsten seems so personal and filled with compassion. This is nice and I’m glad that I have been able to be involved in this story and also to spread it further. A special thanks to Hanna Berndalen at the Carl Malmsten archive for all help; without her this story would never have been recorded!