In spring 1945, Sweden did something incredible. It voluntarily sent an expedition into Nazi Germany to rescue prisoners from concentration camps and bring them to Sweden. Not a single Swede was among the 31,000 individuals they rescued. This is the story of the White Buses.
By Victoria Martínez
The prisoners could be forgiven for looking with fear upon the buses that arrived at the concentration camps in the spring of 1945. Transports had brought them to places like Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau. Transports had taken their loved ones to horrific deaths. Despite the rumors of rescue, it seemed more likely to be a cruel Nazi ploy.
“On 25 April 1945, suddenly all the Polish women were summoned to assemble on the roll call square with their dressed infants. We got scared because we assumed that we were to go to our deaths,” recalled Stefania Wodzyńska, a 22-year-old Polish Catholic prisoner of Ravensbrück concentration camp.
“25th of April, unexpectedly, behind the wire fence, white buses with Red Cross showed up. The majority of us did not trust in liberation as Germans played often with traps and deviousness under the mantle of the Red Cross,” remembered Estera Melchior, a 19-year-old Polish Jewish prisoner of Malchow, a sub-camp of Ravensbrück concentration camp.
It was indeed a Nazi ploy, but not the one the prisoners feared.
Faced with a crumbling Third Reich, which Hitler led by a thread from his bunker, the same man who had personally overseen and directed the Nazi concentration camps was using the lives of the prisoners as human currency for his own self-preservation. With the blood of as many as 14 million people on his hands, Heinrich Himmler – one of Hitler’s most senior officers – had been secretly negotiating for the release of a relative handful of prisoners to neutral Sweden.
Representing the other side of this negotiation was Count Folke Bernadotte – a member of the Swedish royal family who served as vice-president of the Swedish Red Cross. When Bernadotte initiated the negotiations in Berlin in February 1945, he was acting on behalf of the Swedish government to secure the release of Danish and Norwegian prisoners, while Himmler was operating behind Hitler’s back to improve his prospects following the inevitable Nazi defeat.
The scope of the agreement initially limited the Swedish expedition to relocating Scandinavian prisoners to a central concentration camp where the Red Cross would see to their care. But as whatever advantage Himmler imagined he had quickly dissolved, he agreed to Bernadotte’s request to also liberate female prisoners of all nationalities and evacuate the rescued prisoners to safety in Sweden.
The transports that initially terrified Stefania Wodzyńska and Estera Melchior on April 25 were not there to take them to their death. Instead, they were part of the biggest humanitarian relief expedition to take place within Nazi Germany during the war – the White Buses of the Swedish Red Cross.
“The Red Cross vehicles were already waiting beyond the gates. We were only told at the last minute that we were going to Sweden. We were very happy,” remembered Stefania, who had given birth while imprisoned in Ravensbrück.
“The buses, which [turned out] to be part of Count Folke Bernadotte’s rescue action, carried us [to] liberation and the freedom we only dreamt of,” recalled Estera, who had survived the Warsaw ghetto and three concentration camps, including Malchow.
Between March 8 and May 1, 1945, the White Buses expedition rescued more than 21,000 concentration camp prisoners and brought them to Sweden for medical treatment and recuperation. Of these, 7,000 were Danish and Norwegian, and 12,000 were of other nationalities, both Jewish and non-Jewish. A second detachment brought another 10,000 concentration camp survivors to Sweden after the war ended.
Manning the expedition were 308 volunteers from the Swedish military who took a leave of absence from their military duty to serve in an official capacity as Red Cross volunteers. The 36 buses and other vehicles were also provided by the Swedish military. Later, the Danish government provided significant additional manpower and vehicles to the expedition. The well-planned and organized operation was entirely self-sufficient, including all the fuel and provisions necessary.
Danger was ever-present and came from all sides. The expedition involved multiple round-trip journeys within Nazi Germany between two active front lines and into working concentration camps staffed by hostile Nazi guards and the Gestapo. Despite working under the ostensible protection of the Red Cross, which was made abundantly clear by large red crosses and Swedish flags painted on the roof and sides of the white vehicles – the White Bus convoys were extremely vulnerable to attack, including from Allied aircraft. In fact, incredibly, it was Allied attacks on the White Buses that put an end to the rescue effort.
The worst of these attacks occurred on April 25, when two convoys carrying 706 female prisoners from Ravensbrück were attacked by Allied fighter jets a total of three times. One convoy was attacked twice. The first attack killed a driver and several rescued prisoners and injured the convoy leader and 15 others. After resuming the journey, the convoy was attacked a second time, killing 10 and injuring 20. An attack on the other convoy resulted in further deaths and injuries, bringing the total loss of life to 25.
The following day, the remaining attempts to evacuate prisoners were cancelled due to the increasing danger. By May 1, 1945, all the White Buses had returned to Sweden, filled with survivors. The war in Europe ended on May 8.
“As we drove through the German towns, I noticed the gloominess and apathy of the Germans we saw. We soaked up nature’s unfolding beauty, but as long as I was in Germany, I felt insecure, and did not yet feel free,” recalled Natalia Chodkiewicz, a 56-year-old Polish Catholic who had been a political prisoner in Ravensbrück.
“On 28 April 1945, we disembarked at Malmö [Sweden], freed from the threat of torture and death thanks to the initiative of the Swedish government and Count Bernadotte, and since then the lovely country of Sweden has been offering us hospitality, understanding the exceptionally tragic situation of our country, who, fighting for the freedom of the world nevertheless did not gain its own freedom.”
It’s impossible to do full justice to this important but little-known part of World War II history in a short blog post. My goal was not to delve deeply into the complexities and controversies of this history, but to bring attention to a subject that is frequently overlooked outside academia and educational initiatives, and include the voices of some of the rescued concentration camp survivors as part of the narrative.
“Folke Bernadotte,” by Sune Persson, published by Svenska Institutet, 1998.
“Folke Bernadotte and the White Buses,” by Sune Persson, published in “’Bystanders’ to the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation,” 2002, Frank Cass Publishers.
“Voices from Ravensbrück” Archive, Lund University Library
“The White Buses: The Swedish Red Cross rescue action in Germany during the Second World War,” published by The Swedish Red Cross, Stockholm, January 2000.