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 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 work 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 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 in 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—some 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.

[amazon_carousel widget_type=”ASINList” width=”600″ height=”200″ title=”Recommended Reading” market_place=”US” shuffle_products=”False” show_border=”False” asin=”1611450632,1602399689,0374529922,0060580984,1846031176,1848325223,0415426510,9652293970,0553807560,1932033920″ /]

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

Danish Red Cross busesSwedish 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.

Right: Swedish Red Cross buses and drivers transported prisoners from, among other camps, Neuen­gamme near Ham­burg, Sachsen­hausen and Ravens­brueck north of Berlin, Dachau north of Munich, Maut­hausen east of Linz (Austria), and There­sien­stadt, near the Czech city of Terezín.

Ravensbrueck concentration camp prisoners identified for release to Red CrossGestapo 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