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, first by Adolf Hitler’s Norwegian Reichs­kommisar, or Governor-General, Josef Terbo­ven, then by the Norwe­gian govern­ment of Nazi collab­o­rator Vidkun Quisling. Two years later, in Septem­ber 1943, the first depor­ta­tions of Danish pri­soners and Jews to Nazi Germany began after German civil and mili­tary autho­ri­ties assumed direct admin­is­tra­tion of the coun­try owing to growing socio-polit­i­cal resis­tance to German occu­pa­tion that were acted out in small acts of sabo­tage or defi­ance. (Prior to August 29, 1943, the Danish govern­ment, parlia­ment, and court system had func­tioned with­in the frame­work of a so-called “German protec­torate.” Unique among the Nazi-occupied states of Europe, Denmark’s protec­torate status was a con­se­quence of the tiny nation not declaring war against its invaders, a war that lasted all of 4 hours, and the shared belief that Germans and Danes were racial “cousins.”)

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-chair­man (and effec­tive head) of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Berna­dotte. (Berna­dotte, a nephew of Sweden’s King Gustav V, had already earned an inter­national repu­ta­tion by nego­ti­a­ting exchanges of dis­abled German, British, and Amer­i­can prisoners of war.) 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

White Bus Program: Danish Red Cross busesWhite Bus Program: 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, which served as a transit camp for POWs evac­u­ated from other con­cen­tra­tion camps. A 30‑man prisoner-orches­tra “welcomed” the fresh arrivals to Neuen­gamme, he said. “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.

White Bus Program: Ravensbrueck concentration camp prisoners identified for release to Red CrossWhite Bus Program: 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

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