Stockholm, Sweden February 5, 1945

Within five months from the start of the German con­quest of Nor­way in April 1940 the first Nor­we­gian poli­tical pri­soners, ini­tially Jews, com­mu­nists, and prom­i­nent poli­tical oppo­nents, were deported to Germany. Two years later, in Septem­ber 1943, the first depor­ta­tions of Danish pri­soners and Jews to Germany began after German civil and mili­tary autho­ri­ties assumed direct admin­is­tra­tion of the coun­try. (Prior to August 29, 1943, the Danish govern­ment, parlia­ment, and court system had func­tioned within the frame­work of a so-called “German pro­tec­tor­ate.”)

As the number of Scandinavian prisoners increased, vari­ous groups orga­nized relief efforts for them. The Nor­we­gian sea­men’s priests, for in­stance, visited pri­soners in Ger­many, brought them food, and brought back letters to their fam­i­lies in Nor­way and Den­mark. Other Scan­di­na­vians like the Nor­we­gian civil­ian inter­nees at Gross Kreutz castle out­side Berlin com­piled ex­ten­sive lists of pri­soners and their loca­tion (8,000 Nor­wegian and 6,000 Danish pri­soners in Germany at the start of 1945) and sent the lists to the Swedish em­bassy in Berlin. (Swe­den was a neu­tral nation during the war.) The Swe­dish em­bassy in turn sent the lists to London and the Inter­national Red Cross headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

On this date, February 5, 1945, Niels Chris­tian Dit­leff, a Nor­we­gian re­fugee in Swe­den, approached the Swe­dish govern­ment about organ­izing an expe­di­tion to rescue con­cen­tra­tion camp in­mates in the ever-shrinking areas under Nazi con­trol and trans­port them to Sweden. Heading up the effort was the vice-pre­si­dent of the Swe­dish Red Cross, Count Folke Berna­dotte. Although ini­ti­ally tar­geted at saving Nor­we­gian and Danish POWs, the “White Buses” pro­gram—known for its buses painted en­tirely white ex­cept for either the Red Cross em­blem or the flags of either nation on the sides and roof—rapidly ex­panded to in­clude citi­zens of other coun­tries. By May 1, 1945—es­sen­tially the end of the war—over 15,000 pri­soners had been res­cued from Ger­man camps; of these 8,000 were Scan­di­na­vian and 7,000 non-Scan­di­na­vian (French, Polish, Czech, British, Amer­i­can, etc.). Among the Scan­di­na­vians were 423 Danish Jews res­cued from the There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp inside Ger­man-occupied Czecho­slo­va­kia (today’s Czech Republic). The White Buses pro­gram proved to be one of the most extraor­dinary humanitarian efforts of the war and one of the least known.

Swedish Red Cross and Danish Government “White Buses” Program in Spring 1945

Danish Red Cross buses Swedish Red Cross buses and drivers

Left: In early April 1945 the Danish Red Cross was able to muster 33 buses, 14 am­bu­lances, 7 trucks, and 4 private vehicles to transport prisoners to free­dom. The buses were painted white and iden­ti­fied with red crosses to avoid con­fusion and poten­tial destruc­tion with military vehicles painted shades of green and gray.

Right: Swedish Red Cross buses and drivers transported prisoners from, among other camps, Neuen­gamme south­east of Ham­burg, Sachsen­hausen and Ravens­brueck north of Berlin, Dachau north of Munich, Maut­hausen east of Linz (Austria), and Theresien­stadt, near the Czech city of Terezín. A Danish pri­soner recounted his arrival at Neuen­gamme, where a 30‑man prisoner-orches­tra in flannel stripe prison garb “welcomed” fresh arrivals. “It made an inde­scrib­able impres­sion on us with this cheer­ful sounding music and then the hun­dreds of pale, ema­ci­ated faces pressed up against the iron fence following us with their eyes.” Of the 4,800 Danes who passed through Neuen­gamme during the war, less than half returned to their homeland.

Ravensbrueck concentration camp prisoners identified for release to Red Cross Gestapo escort for Red Cross buses

Left: Chalk marks on the backs of female prisoners in the Ravens­brueck con­cen­tra­tion camp show that they have been selected for trans­port by the Swedish Red Cross buses. The only major Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp for women, Ravens­brueck was located in Northern Germany, a little more than 50 miles north of Berlin.

Right: Gestapo officers “escorted” the Red Cross trans­ports. Ger­man autho­rities demanded that every second vehicle have a German officer on board.

Women Inmates at Ravensbrueck Concentration Camp