Founder of Ikea store haunted by Nazi past

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The building's exterior is vibrantly blue and yellow. The founder's past is vaguely checkered.

When Ikea opens its newest store in Emeryville next week, thousands of shoppers will invade the mammoth building in search of stylish, low-cost furniture.

But not many will know about the founder's past: As a teenager, he attended Nazi Party meetings in Sweden in the three years after the end of World War II.

Ingvar Kamprad, 73, owned up to his old Nazi leanings 5-1/2 years ago after a Swedish newspaper exposed him.

He issued a letter of apology to Ikea employees worldwide, calling himself a "naive" youth who was driven by a fascination with his family's German roots.

"I've apologized. I've apologized to my staff and to everyone," the reclusive Kamprad said in a Reuters interview two years ago. "It was terrible, but now I want to put it all behind me."

But that wasn't the end of the story.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Anti-Defamation League remained on alert, because while Ikea began to pepper the Middle East with its stores, it never opened any in Israel.

That, apparently, is about to change.

Groundbreaking could begin as soon as this week on Ikea's first store in Israel, the store's franchise-holder said Tuesday in a phone interview.

Scheduled to open in the first three months of next year, it will be located in the coastal town of Netanya, which is about halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That store will go a long way toward fully exonerating Kamprad, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Wiesenthal Center.

"It's been a long time coming," said Cooper, who had publicly wondered if Ikea was turning down requests to open a store in Israel to honor an Arab boycott.

Noting that Ikea's Netanya store is still far from a reality, Cooper said that, nonetheless, "the bottom line is that their presence in Israel will be a plus. It will be another chink in the attempts that are still out there to boycott Israel. I just hope they move quickly before they come up with another excuse."

Ikea, which is pronounced eye-KEY-uh, runs about 160 stores in 28 countries, including three in Saudi Arabia and one each in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Some stores, such as the one in Emeryville, are owned by Ikea; others are owned by independent franchisees.

Plans to open a store in Israel were announced in 1994 but apparently unraveled. The current deal has been in the works for about two years, said Dov Rochman, general manager of a company that bought the franchise rights for Ikea's first Israel store.

"For years, I've been saying that Ikea should just go ahead and do it already," Cooper said. "This is not an act of charity. Israel is an ideal marketplace for them."

The Bay Area seems to be an ideal marketplace, as well. The grand opening of the megastore in Emeryville is set for Wednesday, and Ikea officials have secured extra spots in surrounding lots because they fully expect their 1,050 parking spaces to run out.

The 274,000-foot store — larger than a Home Depot, a Wal-Mart, a Safeway and an Old Navy combined — will sell trendy Scandinavian-style furniture at a relatively cheap price because it is made from low-cost materials and is sold ready to assemble.

That seemingly simple formula has rocketed Ikea, a relatively new entity in the United States with just 13 stores, to international prominence.

The company racked up $8 billion in worldwide sales last year, including $881 million at its 13 U.S. stores. The chain struggled to establish a foothold in this country, losing money for five years after opening its first store in Philadelphia in 1985, and even closing one of its three locations in Southern California.

But never was Kamprad's past a factor in people's decision to shop there, Cooper said.

Likewise, Jonathan Bernstein, the director of the ADL's Central Pacific region, said he doesn't expect the Ikea owner's past involvement in a Nazi group to stop people from shopping at the new Emeryville store.

"People have to determine on their own what they want to do in terms of visiting the store or not," he said. "I believe in redemption, in the ability of people to atone for and correct errors of the past."

Kamprad started Ikea as a 16-year-old in 1943, using his initials for the first two letters and the names of two small Swedish towns for the final two letters. The first deliveries were made by milk truck.

During the business' infancy, between 1945 and 1948, Kamprad attended several pro-Nazi meetings led by Swedish rightist Per Engdahl. The Stockholm newspaper Expressen uncovered Kamprad's name in the archives of Engdahl, who died in 1994.

"This is part of my life I bitterly regret," Kamprad said in a statement after the news broke. "At first I got in touch with a pair of Nazified organizations and perhaps I even became a member, I have forgotten. However, after a couple of meetings in pure Nazi style, I quit."

The story made news even in the United States. On the "Dennis Miller Live" show on HBO, the host joked: "The founder of the Ikea furniture stores admitted to being a Nazi sympathizer during World War II. He went on to say that Ikea's original name was Mein Couch."

In order to help stem the tide, Kamprad issued a letter of apology to his 25,000 employees titled "The Greatest Mistake of My Life." In it, he claimed he was only an active participant in the pro-Nazi New Swedish Movement and that he was never a member.

He also pinned his pro-Nazi flirtations on his heritage, saying that his grandmother was a German who had immigrated to Sweden. She encouraged him to get in touch with pro-German organizations when he was only 10 years old.

Cooper and Bernstein criticized Kamprad, nevertheless.

"At a time when the rest of the world was walking and running away from Nazism and fascism, this young man was embracing it," Cooper said.

"He should have known better," Bernstein said. "After all, this was occurring after World War II. The Nazi atrocities were documented and evident to everyone after the war."

Kamprad added to his contrition by commissioning a 1998 book, "The History of Ikea," in which he discussed his 30-year battle with alcoholism and devoted two chapters to his Nazi ties.

"Now I have told all I can," Kamprad said in interview after the book was published. "Can one ever get forgiveness for such stupidity?"

Although Ikea officials wouldn't make Kamprad available for an interview with the Bulletin, "at least he has publicly made the right noises and there is no indication that he still harbors any pro-Nazi sentiments," Cooper said. "He has never made any comments as an adult that have been extremist in any way, shape or fashion.

"But on the other hand, neither did he go out of his way to be friendly toward the Jewish people, toward Jewish interests. And specifically he didn't do business with Israel at a time that would have made a difference."

Explaining the slow pace of breaking into the Israeli market, Mike McDonald, Ikea's president for property acquisition, said, "It takes a long time to get a deal done anywhere you do business."

He said Ikea stores are highly sought after in many countries around the world, and the company can't deal with all inquiries in rapid fashion. Ikea opens about 10 to 12 stores around the world annually.

"We take a lot of heat for not having a store in a lot of countries," he added, noting that a 15th U.S. store is scheduled to open Sept. 20 in San Diego. There are also reports that Ikea is negotiating for a site in East Palo Alto.

While Ikea has invested $46 million for the 15-acre property and building in Emeryville, the Ikea in Israel will be housed in a leased building. "We have found a developer that owns the land and they are building the store," Rochman said. "And we are renting it."

Rochman said about 20 percent of Israelis in the Netanya store's primary target market, which includes Tel Aviv and Haifa, have already heard of Ikea. He predicts much success in a country in which many people live in small apartments and need sleek, modular furniture.

"Ikea is a concept, it's a style," he said. "It's a store that nobody in Israel has seen the likes of before. It will have a huge impact, because customers here are becoming more and more sophisticated and they will love the idea."

Rochman said the Ikea store will be 210,000 square feet with room to expand to 250,000, making it the largest store in Israel. It will even have more parking spaces — 1,200 — than the Emeryville store.

Rochman and his group of investors looked at about 20 locations before settling on the Netanya site.. Zoning ordinances proved to be a difficult obstacle to overcome. "Changing a site from agriculture to industrial or commercial is not easy," he said.

As to whether Kamprad's association with a pro-Nazi party five decades ago will have any effect on Israeli shoppers, Rochman was reluctant to talk about that possibility.

"I heard some stories, but it's not a concern," he said. "I don't want to get into it right now."

Pressed on why it's not a big issue to him, Rochman said, "He apologized and he was young. I don't think our [future] shoppers will care, although maybe some of our competitors will try to use it against us."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.