How do you save people from concentration camps when there’s a war raging across Europe and beyond? It’s a big question, but the answer sounds scarily simple: in the case of Scandinavia, you get permission from Himmler himself, then commandeer some buses, ambulances and trucks, collectively called the White Buses. You use a volunteer network to drive them from Theresienstadt, Dachau and Ravensbrück through war-torn Europe to the safety of Malmö’s medieval castle.
Last year I went to Malmö and saw the extraordinary place where those liberated spent their first weeks of freedom. Unsurprisingly, it gave me the research bug.
Ditleff and Bernadotte’s White Bus Plan
Norwegian diplomat Niels Christian Ditleff called for the release of Norwegians and Danes from concentration camps in September 1944, but he needed to negotiate carefully with the Germans. After proposing a Swedish Red Cross delegation, and agreeing to a media blackout, Ditleff and his diplomatic colleagues developed a rescue plan to cover all Scandinavian prisoners held by the Nazis.
Ditleff enlisted Count Folke Bernadotte (head of the Swedish Red Cross) to negotiate with Himmler on their behalf, in February 1945. Bernadotte was helped by Himmler’s personal masseuse, Felix Kersten, who had already secured the release of hundreds of prisoners thanks to his connections with Himmler. It’s worth pointing out that Kersten wasn’t a willing employee, but had believed he might be killed if he refused to take on Himmler as a client.
Once Himmler had agreed (because it was clear Germany wouldn’t win the war), tens of thousands of prisoners from concentration camps were released and put on the White Buses – not all of them Scandinavian. From Neuengamme in Germany, a camp partially liberated by Swedish forces, they were eventually sent onto Sweden, via Denmark.
It wasn’t an easy journey through the battle-scarred landscape, nor was Neuengamme a truly safe place to be in the meantime. With typical cruelty, the Nazis had sent thousands of other prisoners to the gas chambers at Neuengamme, or transported them to other camps, to make way for the Scandinavian arrivals.
The first buses set off on 9th and 10th March 1945, armed with information gathered by Norwegian intelligence. One of their key destinations was Theresienstadt, where they saved 423 Danish prisoners, including three babies.
Writing in A Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews During World War II, author Emmy E. Werner described the final stages of the journey:
Two days after they had left Theresienstadt, the convoy crossed the Danish border. Thousands of Danes stood in the streets, waving Danish flags, cheering the prisoners, bringing them cigarettes, flowers, sandwiches and sweets. The convoy passed through the island of Funen, and on to the free port of Copenhagen (Frihavn). Ferries carried the buses to Malmö, where Rabbi Marcus Melchior welcomed them.
Seven White Buses then saved 2,176 Scandinavian inmates at Sachsenhausen from mid to late March. Other camps, including Mauthausen, were visited, but not Auschwitz.
Buses arrived at Dachau between March and April, followed by the women’s prison camp at Ravensbrück, where those saved were taken to Padborg, Denmark, before continuing their journey. Ravensbrück had actually been ‘the seed of Bernadotte’s relief expedition’, as reported in Bystanders to the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation, by David Cesarani and Paul A. Levine.
Most of those rescued from the camps were Swedish or Danish, but the Norwegian statistics are particularly chilling. Cesarani and Levine noted that:
In 1942 and 1943 767 Jews were deported to Germany from occupied Norway… Almost all the deported Norwegian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and most of them were immediately killed… Only 28 Norwegian Jews survived the German concentration camps and of those only three were saved by the white buses.
The final transports from various camps took place in May, carrying political prisoners to safety. As religious beliefs weren’t recorded by Swedish authorities when logging the liberated prisoners, and Jews had been told to rip the yellow stars or triangles from their uniforms, we don’t know for certain how many of those saved were Jewish and how many had been imprisoned for other reasons.
The Allies had asked that the buses be painted white so they could stand out against enemy vehicles. Unfortunately this didn’t prevent a handful of traumatic ‘friendly fire’ incidents in which thousands of survivors were unwittingly killed by the Allies, either on the buses or later on boats. There were also several hundred deaths once people reached refugee camps, as they were simply too ill to survive, despite the desperate efforts of medical staff.
“Many refugees were in a bad way during the journey… many died in Sweden,” says exhibition curator Samuel Thelin. “There were even people who gave birth during the bus ride.”
In total, the Red Cross has estimated that 21,000 people were rescued by the White Buses – 11,000 Scandinavian prisoners, and 8,000 from other countries, including France, Poland, Britain and the USA. Between 75-95 buses made the journeys (total figures are disputed), with the eventual distance equal to driving 36 times around the world.
Whilst this was a Swedish operation run by the Swedish Army and Red Cross, and had to be publicised as such because Sweden was neutral during the war, Danish volunteers made up half the relief force from 5th April.
Malmö as a Refuge
The castle and its museum, Malmöhus, became a holding point for 2,000 refugees before they moved onto separate refugee camps across Sweden or onto Norway. Even Jewish refugees from Denmark were held in quarantine here, to try and prevent outbreaks of disease. A current exhibition, Välkommen Till Sverige (or Welcome to Sweden), shows what it was like for them; at peak times, up to 700 refugees were cared for.
Museum director Ernst Fischer happily turned the space into a reception centre for the new arrivals, acknowledging the museum was “a community servant” and it was their “obvious duty” to help out. Exhibits were moved aside or stored in warehouses to make room.
That year, Fischer wrote: ‘They [the refugees] had to stop and pinch each other’s cheeks to make sure they really were still living beings. Surely we are the dead and climbing the stairs to the gates of heaven?’. In 1946 the museum exhibited artwork by Polish women artists held at Ravensbrück – some of which is on display today.
Refugees arriving in Malmö were given new clothes, had the chance to bathe or visit the sauna, and were disinfected. Teams of doctors and nurses were shocked at the condition of the new arrivals. Because of their experiences in the camps (where a trip to the gas chambers masqueraded as the chance to have a shower), survivors panicked when they were told to remove their clothes and wash.
KW Gurners photographed the refugees as they arrived and settled in. His images are full of hope, and his subjects’ baggy clothes and wide grins hide what they’ve been through, but these people then had to build new lives.
Several short films play on a loop in the museum, including Every Face Has a Name, which aims to trace everyone photographed arriving in Malmö on the White Buses. There’s also a contemporary short film about modern refugees.
Lea, a survivor of the concentration camps, says in another documentary, Minnenas Arv (Memories Legacy): “Jag vill berätta vilken underbar familj jag hade, vad världen gick miste om”, which roughly translates as, “I want to tell you what a wonderful family I had, what the world was missing”. She lost her parents and six of her seven siblings.
The museum signage also explained that: ‘In the time she has lived and worked in Sweden, not a single one of her Swedish friends or work colleagues has ever asked about her experiences’. It’s the silence from the people around Lea that reminds me why I keep reading and writing about the darker parts of history. Not facing something doesn’t make it go away. As that often-repeated George Santanaya quote tells us, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.
Välkommen Till Sverige is on show at Malmö Museer, inside Malmöhus, Malmöhusvägen 6, until April 2016, in collaboration with the Red Cross and Save the Children. Open 10am-5pm daily, with free entry to the exhibition.