The founder of the Ikea international furniture store chain based in Stockholm, Sweden, has written a letter to about 25,000 company employees worldwide acknowledging and apologizing for associating with pro-Nazi groups in the 1940s and 1950s.
The unusual admission by Ingvar Kamprad, now one of Sweden's richest men, drew mixed reactions Tuesday from U.S. Jewish organizations. The response of the public here and elsewhere could have major business implications for the fast-growing chain.
Ikea stores operate in 26 countries--including 13 in the United States, five of them in Southern California--where they have proven highly popular with young families because of a reputation for high quality and low prices.
Kamprad's admission followed the disclosure by a Stockholm newspaper that Kamprad attended meetings of Nazi extremist groups from 1945 into the early 1950s. He founded Ikea in 1958.
In his letter, Kamprad said he severed his Nazi contacts in the 1950s and that the period was "a part of my life which I bitterly regret." Kamprad said he was never a formal member of the pro-Nazi groups and that he was mainly attracted by the socialist, non-communist views of Per Engdahl, a leading Swedish pro-Nazi of the post-war years.
"You have been young yourself," Kamprad said in his note to employees. "Perhaps something happened during your own youth which you now, a long time afterwards, think was silly. In that case it will be easier for you to understand me."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he was disturbed because the associations occurred after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
"I consider it abhorrent that a young man--living in a democracy that received information about the genocide that occurred--would associate with groups promoting fascism," Cooper said.
Cooper said Kamprad could establish a financial fund to benefit indigent survivors of the Nazi atrocities as a sign of contrition. He also called on Kamprad to release more details on his association with pro-Nazi groups.
The Anti-Defamation League, the human rights group that monitors anti-Jewish activity, said it would accept Kamprad's account of his past involvement with the controversial groups barring any evidence to the contrary.
"It is unfortunate that it took so long for Mr. Kamprad to admit to his past," said David Lehrer, regional ADL director for Southern California. "Nevertheless, we believe in redemption and in the ability of people to correct the errors of their past."
As for the company's damage control efforts, Warren Bennis, a professor of business at the University of Southern California and chairman of USC's Leadership Institute, said Kamprad was properly remorseful.
"To be an effective leader, there must be candor and the ability to communicate that candor," Bennis said.
Kamprad's "letter was self-deprecating and remorseful. He was asking for forgiveness. . . . The candor was impressive. The question is: Why didn't he do this earlier?"
Associated Press contributed to this report.