The White Buses
Dr. Ruth SImkin prepared these notes for her presentation, much of which is taken directly from Greayer & Sjöstrand (2000) and the Wikipedia article on the White Buses (see below for citation and link). (Edits by Richard Kool)
The Swedish government initiated the White Buses operation in the spring of 1945, which was carried out by the Swedish Red Cross, led by its vice president, Folke Bernadotte, Count of Wisborg was a Swedish nobleman and diplomat. It appears that more than 15,000 prisoners were rescued from the German concentration camps. Among them were nearly 8000 Norwegians and Danes. Apart from Scandinavians, citizens from 20 other countries, mostly France and Poland, were rescued. It was never established how many of them were Jewish because Sweden did not register system of belief when the liberated prisoners arrived. There are very many contradictory accounts in terms of numbers of prisoners rescued, but probably somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000 to 30,000 people were rescued. Most accounts seem to settle around 15,000 people though.
Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Some people welcomed the change of power. Germany had been suffering from the Depression and now Hitler gave hope of a strong, new Germany. The new regime’s attitude towards those who held different opinions became clear very quickly. Even before the outbreak of World War II, the Nazis were limiting the freedom and rights of its citizens and interning political prisoners in work camps.
Sweden protested this. The Swedish Red Cross acted through its president, Prince Carl. In 1933, he wrote to the German president Hindenburg protesting against the Nazis limitations of the freedom and rights of the Jews. “During 1933 and 1934, Prince Carl wrote several letters to the president of the German Red Cross, asking him to investigate the alleged cruelties of the Nazi regime. The Swedish Red Cross offered to visit camps as an independent party, but were told that this was construed to be distrust of German Red Cross activities. The German government did not allow any international inspections of the camps. …The International Red Cross had also been in contact with the German Red Cross for the same reasons, urging them to attend to the prisoners’ destinies from a humanitarian point of view.”
Then the war broke out and lasted for years. As it appeared to be nearing an end, the Swedes were increasingly worried about what would happen to the Scandinavians in the German concentration camps. The Swedes had heard talk of plans to blow up the camps and have mass executions before the allies could get there.
Plans for Action
There were discussions of a rescue expedition in both Sweden and Denmark, but they had no concrete plans as yet. The Danish Foreign Ministry had previously reached certain agreements with the Germans and were allowed to bring home small numbers of prisoners and deliver food packets.
“During the summer of 1944, Sweden started mapping out the Scandinavian prisoners – where and how many there were. A Norwegian professor, Didrik Arup Seip was a great help to them. He had previously been a prisoner in a concentration camp but was released at the turn of 1942-43. Since the Germans, during 1943, had forbidden the Swedish Red Cross consignments of food and medication, he found other ways to supply necessities to the Norwegian prisoners. Food and medical supplies were sent via the Foreign Ministry to the Swedish embassy in Berlin, which in turn supplied Seip and his men so they could forward the aid to the prisoners. These activities made it possible for Seip to discover names, numbers and places of the Scandinavian prisoners.”
There was much diplomatic discussion between Denmark, Sweden and Germany. Even Felix Kersten, who was the personal physical therapist and masseur of Heinrich Himmler, was very involved in planning for the prisoners to be released. Dr. Kersten had cured Himmler of severe abdominal pains, and gained his trust, which he then used to help initiate the escape of prisoners from the concentration camps. Himmler, the National minister and SS commander, was a key person in this rescue action. He realized that Hitler could not now win the war, and he tried to make peace with western powers. To show his good will, Himmler released five “Warsaw Swedes” in January 1944, from Theresienstadt. They were Swedish businessmen who were sentenced for alleged espionage in Warsaw in 1943. This was all done with the understanding that there would be nothing in the press at all. Media silence was imperative during these negotiations.
“Plans were made for a rescue expedition to be executed by the Swedish Red Cross under the guidance of Folke Bernadotte. The aim was to rescue Scandinavians, irrespective of religions and preferably bring them to Sweden before the end of the war.”
In the final months of the war, upon the initiative of Niels Christian Ditleff, a Norwegian diplomat, Bernadotte became the negotiator for a rescue operation transporting interned Norwegians, Danes and other western European inmates from German concentration camps to hospitals in Sweden. This mission took about two months and exposed the Swedish Red Cross Staff to significant danger.
In the beginning of March, the British ambassador was informed of the Red Cross expedition. The British authorised the expedition, but made it clear they could give no guarantees for safety. They suggested painting the buses white, so that they could be easily identified; they also had a Red Cross emblem on the side. The USA was also notified, but their answer, which was positive, was delayed until the middle of April when the rescue action had already begun.
Initially they were to rescue citizens of Scandinavian countries who were in concentration camps and transport them to Sweden, but very quickly the operation expanded to include citizens from other countries as well. They were called “white buses” because all the buses had been painted white with the Red Cross emblem on the side to avoid being mistaken for military vehicles.
Folke Bernadotte alone negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from the German concentration camps according to one account. He met with Himmler many times to discuss the release of the Scandinavian prisoners.
The Red Cross knew they needed people with special knowledge. They gathered professional military people who came to the project as volunteers, because they couldn’t act as soldiers in a country at war. One account stated that there were 308 personnel, of whom twenty were medics and the rest were volunteers. They had 36 hospital buses, 19 trucks, 7 passenger cars, 7 motorcycles, one tow truck, a field kitchen and full supplies for the entire trip, including food and gasoline, none of which was permitted to be obtained in Germany. So the Red Cross volunteers were now ready.
They all gathered in Hässleholm on March 8. Colonel Gottflrid Bjorck was appointed head of the operation and a Red Cross delegation of around twenty doctors and nurses accompanied them under the supervision of Red Cross doctor G A Rundberg. The total transport capacity was about 1000 – 1200 people per trip.
The journey from Hässleholm went in stages because there wasn’t enough room for all the vehicles on the ferry to Copenhagen. The first group went on March 9 and the second on March 10. The Foreign Ministry had ordered the buses painted white – it took all night to paint them. One of the units was already loaded on the Copenhagen ferry so all of Malmö’s painters were called in to get the vehicles painted. The work was finally completed during the voyage over to Denmark.
All the Scandinavian prisoners were to be gathered at Neuegamme camp, which was only a few miles from the Danish border. The prisoners were to be collected and brought to Neuegamme.
“The first trip to Sachsenhausen was made on the 15th of March. There were demands that the buses should be driven by German drivers within the camp, or the prisoners would be forced to walk two kilometers to the outside of the camp. After long negotiations, the Swedish drivers were permitted to drive the buses one at a time each with a German guard. The buses were escorted by the Gestapo who made sure that the detachment followed all their conditions for the extractions. Ten trips were made to Sachsenhausen. They left Friedrichsruh at 5 pm and arrived on the camp at 1 am. This was the safest time to avoid the air raids against Berlin. Between the 16th and 30th of March, 2,161 prisoners were extracted from Sachsenhausen. Five days later, the buses returned to Neuegamme with prisoners from Dachau, Mauthausen, and Natzweiler. They were forced to leave behind 67 prisoners suffering from contagious diseases.”
There were now 3000 Scandinavian prisoners at Neuegamme and there was no room for more prisoners. It was necessary to move a few thousand prisoners to other camps. The Germans demanded that the detachment relocate the prisoners. Colonel Björck did not want to agree to this, but after considering how the Germans transported their prisoners, he felt they would be more comfortable if the detachment moved them. “The Gestapo were brutal to the prisoners and the Swedes found it difficult to hide their contempt and disgust for the Germans.”
Himmler still was not agreeable to the prisoners being sent to Sweden. After much negotiation, he finally agreed to allow Scandinavian women and the sick to go to Sweden, but no media publicity, for fear that Hitler would stop it all.
On April 12, 35 buses left from Friedrichsruh to collect the Scandinavian Jews at Theresienstadt. On April 13, 1945, the Danish prisoners of Therersienstadt received the message that they were going home. This applied to everyone who had been deported from Denmark, regardless of whether they were Danish citizens. The Danish prisoners were first gathered in the Jager Barracks, where they had to wait for the buses to arrive in Therersienstadt. A former prisoner described the waiting time:
Then, all the Danes were gathered in the Jäger Barracks, where we should spend the last days. There was a high fence around the barracks to keep the other prisoners out, while we Danes could go freely in and out. People gathered together outside, partly to ask for the bits of food remaining after we left, and partly to give us the addresses of their families, so we could write and tell them that they were in Theresienstadt. (Elias Levin 2001, p.55)
After waiting for a day and a half, the prisoners were finally allowed to board the buses that were going to take them to Sweden. Denmark was still occupied. 423 people were released from the camp that day. A few children were born in the camp, a few Czech women had married Danish men in the camp and were therefore allowed to accompany them.
One prisoner from Denmark who had been imprisoned in the Small Fortress did not leave with the White Buses and had to make his own way home after the liberation of Theresienstadt in May 1945. The Small Fortress existed before the war and functioned as a prison; it continued as a prison during the war, where approximately 2,500 inmates died.
The prisoners had to march from the camps to the buses. The Germans would not let the buses into the camps because the Germans did not want any outsiders to see the camps.
Most of the prisoners were very ill. In fact, some were left behind because they were simply too sick to make the trip. A huge problem with which they had to deal was the chronic diarrhea of all the prisoners. The Danes provided the Swedes with portable toilets that were used on their transports.
On the 19th of April, Bernadotte received an order to stop the rescue action and the German liaison officer did not think the buses could continue. But later that day, an order arrived from Himmler’s headquarters that all Scandinavians in Neuegamme were to be transported to Denmark. Further transportation to Sweden though was not allowed. The Red Cross then had one day only to accomplish the transportation of about 4200 prisoners . 94 buses, 8 -10 ambulances, 10 lorries, 5 cars, and 5 motorcycles were gathered, formed into 6 columns. The Swedes and Danes managed to transport the Scandinavians from Neuegamme to Denmark within the stated time. The last buses left only 30 minutes before the deadline.
When the buses drove through bombed out Germany, they sometimes came very close to bombing attacks. When they stopped on their way through Europe, they spread out a huge Red Cross flag on the ground so that they would not inadvertently be bombed. When the buses reached the Danish border, the former prisoners were received with food, cakes, and flags. The buses continued to Odense, where the passengers rested for the night. The next day, they drove on to Copenhagen, and the group sailed to Sweden. There they were housed in two quarantine camps, Tylosand and Strangnaes.
On April 23-24, Bernadotte met with Himmler in Lübeck for the last time. The state of the German front was now critical. Himmler was desperate in his attempts to negotiate with the Western Powers. He now gave Bernadotte permission to transfer whoever he wanted. In return, Bernadotte would deliver a message to the Swedish government to be forwarded to General Eisenhower. It was a request for a meeting to discuss capitulation of the whole western front.
After the meetings with Himmler, the Red Cross set out to collect the women of Ravensbrück. Their main aim was to collect women that were very sick. Information varies, but between 100 – 200 women were brought out. The next day, 25 vehicles collected 786 women from Ravensbrück. The Swedes learned that the commander of the camp a few days earlier had released several thousand Czech and Russian women who, without food, money or proper clothing, were trying to get home on foot. The Swedes realized with great sadness that they were unable to rescue these women due to lack of resources.
On April 24, a column arrived in Ravensbrück. The column collected 706 women of different nationalities and headed for Denmark. They spent the night in a forest and divided the column in two the next day. One of the columns was attacked by an allied fighter plane – seven women were killed and fifteen or so were injured. The same day a Danish ambulance column collected 114 women from Ravensbrück. The following day, they returned to Ravensbrück for the last time. On the way to safety they were fired on, they passed the vehicles from the previous day shot to pieces, a baby was delivered, and a German spy was discovered and turned over to Danish police. They got to Padborg where the Red Cross took care of the women and children.
It was clear that the buses would not be able to get all the prisoners home safely. They started negotiating with the railway authorities. On April 25, a train with room for 4000 people left for Lübeck and was supposed to arrive the next day. Everyone waited at the station but no train came. Nobody knew where it was or what had happened. It was called “the ghost train”. On the night of April 29th it finally arrived – 3,960 women got off and later were brought to freedom in Sweden. A few days later, a second train arrived with 2,873 women.
When Denmark was liberated on May 5, 1945, the former prisoners could finally return to Denmark. Some could immediately move into their homes, which had been cared for by friends, or Social Services. For others, they had lost everything, and were emotionally scarred.
On April 15, the White Buses collected 423 Scandinavian Jews from Theresienstadt and started the perilous journey home. On the way back, they passed Dresden which had been bombed a month before, and had an overnight stop in Potsdam, which had been bombed the same night. They reached Padborg on April 17 without casualties. The next day, the Jews were transported to Malmo by ferry. The first air attack against the White Buses happened April 18 when the Danish camp at Friedrichsruh was strafed by Allied fighter planes. Four drivers and a nurse were slightly wounded and ten vehicles were destroyed. In the coming days, a few such attacks occurred; several personnel were killed and wounded.
The main reception station in Denmark was the city of Padborg on the border with Germany. There the prisoners received food and medical treatment before they were transported through Denmark to Copenhagen. They were then transported to Malmo in Sweden by ferry, where the prisoners were received by Lansstyrelsen (the county administration) and Civilförsvaret (Civil Defense). Everyone was placed in quarantine. There were 23 billeting areas, most of them in Malmöhus County with about 11,000 beds. Ambulatory health centres, mostly manned by Norwegian and Danish doctors and nurses (themselves being refugees), took care of the prisoners. For some of the prisoners, it was too late – 110 died after arriving in Sweden, most of them Polish.
Towards the end, there were about 300 staff working who rescued 15,345 prisoners from the concentration camps. 7,795 were Norwegian and Danish, and 7,550 were other nationalities, such as Polish, French, etc. In particular, 423 Danish Jews were removed from Theresienstadt, which contributed to the fact that Danish casualties during the Holocaust were among the lowest of the occupied European countries.
“After the evacuation of Scandinavians from Neuegamme, there were tens of thousands of prisoners of different nationalities left. They were evacuated by the Germans and transported to Lübeck during the period of April 20 – 26. They were brought onboard ships in the harbour and were kept in inhuman conditions. Dr. Hans Arnoldsson received an anonymous letter on the 29th of April where he was informed of this evacuation, and was asked to help the prisoners on one of the ships, “Athena”. He made an offer to the German authorities that he would take care of 250 prisoners from France, Belgium and Holland. There were 2200 prisoners onboard, mostly Russians. Arnoldsson did not have the resources to transport more prisoners, but offered to come onboard to see if he could help. He was denied permission.”
After Germany’s surrender, the White Buses mission continued in May and June and an additional 10,000 liberated prisoners were evacuated. The White Buses expedition was a Swedish triumph that earned the country much goodwill and the return transports through Denmark were met by ecstatic crowds.
Even before the war, “there was a distinct difference in the way Germans treated civilian prisoners and military prisoners of war. The prisoners of war were protected by the third Geneva Convention, which the Germans respected. When it came to civilian, political prisoners, no conventions existed to regulate their treatment.” This was more than obvious at the end of the war. “Folke Bernadotte worked to establish a fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians in a war. At the XVII International Red Cross Conference, held in Stockholm in 1948, the fourth convention and modernisation of the existing conventions were successfully negotiated and a year later the new conventions were ratified in Geneva. However, Folke Bernadotte never experienced this, as he was murdered during a UN assignment in the newly founded state of Israel on September 17, 1948.”
In 2005, the book Blind Fläck (Blind Spot) by Swedish historian Ingrid Lomfors asked questions about the priority given to the Scandinavian prisoners. 2000 French prisoners were transported by white buses to other concentration camps to make room for Scandinavian prisoners. Most of these French prisoners died during transport or soon after. Lomfors met in France with some of the rare survivors. They explained the hope they felt when they got onto the buses – they thought they were being taken to Sweden. They felt completely betrayed when they were taken to other concentration camps (Wikipedia, 2020).
Also, most of the Jews whom the Nazis arrested in Norway were Norwegian citizens. who lost their citizenship when they were arrested. When the White Buses came, these Jews could not go with them because they were no longer Norwegian citizens, and the Norwegian government refused to finance their transportation home.
Quite aside from these issues brought out in the book and by historians, the White Buses was a huge Swedish humanitarian action during the Second World War which saved thousands of people.
At the present time, the Norwegian White Buses Foundation organizes excursions to Sachsenhausen and sites of other concentration camps for school classes accompanied, at least at present, by first-hand witnesses and survivors.
Greayer, A., & Sjöstrand, S. (2000). The White Buses: The Swedish Red Cross rescue action in Germany during the Second World War. Stockholm: The Swedish Red Cross.
Denmark in the Holocaust; The White Busses (sic)
The White Buses (2020). Wikipedia.