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.

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