A while ago I read a comment of someone saying that she could no longer read stories about the Holocaust, not because she didn’t want to but because she couldn’t because the stories were so sad, they were heartbreaking. I can fully appreciate that, because it is heartbreaking and unless you are a complete psychopath and soulless the stories will have a deep,profound effect. However it is important these stories need to be told
Coming from the angle of someone who does a lot of research on the Holocaust,every story is hard but sometimes in a different way. Positive stories are very hard to find but there are some, as this blog will illustrate. But positive in the context of the Holocaust.
The “White Buses” was an operation undertaken by the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government in the spring of 1945 to rescue concentration camp inmates in areas under Nazi control and transport them to Sweden, a neutral country. Although the operation was initially targeted at saving citizens of Scandinavian countries, it rapidly expanded to include citizens of other countries.
After a series of negotioations, the Danish Jews were released from Theresienstadt in the spring of 1945 and brought to Sweden by the so-called White Buses. A dangerous journey that took the caravan of White Busses through war-torn Europe.
All in all , an operational staff of about 300 persons removed 15,345 prisoners from mortal peril in concentration camps; of these 7,795 were Scandinavian and 7,550 were non-Scandinavian (Polish, French, etc.).In particular, 423 Danish Jews were saved from the Theresienstadt concentration camp inside German-occupied territory of Czechoslovakia, contributing significantly to the fact that casualties among Danish Jews during the Holocaust were among the lowest of the occupied European countries.
The term “white buses” originates from the buses having been painted white with red crosses, to avoid confusion with military vehicles.
In December 1944, the Danish Foreign Ministry received permission to bring sick police officers home from the concentration camp in Buchenwald, Germany.
This marked the beginning of a humanitarian operation best known as the Bernadotte Operation or The White Buses. In February 1945, the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte negotiated with Heinrich Himmler for the release of Scandinavian prisoners from the concentration camps, while the Danish Aid Corps arranged for cars and buses to transport the prisoners. The Swedish and Danish initiative was coordinated, and in March 1945, the operation began. The process of bringing the Scandinavian prisoners back home was carried out until the end of April.
The Baltic German Felix Kersten was Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s personal masseur.
He lived in Stockholm and acted as an intermediary between the Swedish foreign department and Himmler. Walter Schellenberg, a trusted subordinate of Himmler, had long held the view that Germany would lose the war and encouraged Himmler to explore the possibility of a separate peace treaty with the Western powers; in this Sweden could be a useful intermediary.
With Kersten’s assistance the Swedish foreign department was able to free 50 Norwegian students, 50 Danish policemen and 3 Swedes in December 1944. An absolute condition for the release of the prisoners was that it should be hidden from the press; if Hitler got to know about it further repatriations would be impossible.
On 13 April 1945, the Danish Jewish prisoners in Theresienstadt 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 Jäger Barracks, where they had to wait for the buses to arrive in Theresienstadt. 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.”
After waiting for a day and a half, the prisoners were finally allowed to board the buses that were to drive them to Sweden – Denmark was still occupied. 423 people were released from the camp that day. Not all of them were originally deported from Denmark: A few children were born in the camp; a Danish boy had been deported from Berlin; and a few Czech women had married Danish men in the camp and were therefore allowed to accompany them.
The expedition had German liaison officers; the most prominent of them being Himmler’s communications officer, SS-Obersturmbannführer Karl Rennau, while Franz Göring was a liaison officer with the Gestapo. The expedition had around 40 German communication, SS and Gestapo officers. The Germans demanded that every second vehicle should have a German officer on board. The “White Buses” expedition was totally dependent on cooperation with the Germans as the country under Nazi rule was a police state. Only with liaison personnel from the Gestapo and SS could the expedition move without restrictions.
Neuengamme concentration camp was overcrowded, and to have space for the Scandinavian prisoners, the SS insisted that prisoners of other nationalities be moved to other camps. The SS commander had no transport of his own and required that the white buses accept the transports, so the newly arrived Scandinavians could solely occupy the Schonungsblock, a barrack building for prisoners not fit to work. Around 2,000 French, Belgian, Dutch, Russian and Polish Jews were transported to other camps. Most of the transports of prisoners for the SS took place between 27 and 29 March, from Neuengamme to subcamps in Hannover and Salzgitter and to Bergen-Belsen. During the evacuations some 50 to 100 prisoners died, and many more died in the worse conditions in the new camps to which they were transported, having been moved to avoid the advancing Allied armies.
The Swedish sub-lieutenant Åke Svenson wrote:
“We could now see how the Germans treated their prisoners in general, French, Belgians, Dutch, Poles, and Russians. It was terrible. This time the Germans had to allow us into the camp as most of the passengers could not walk the minor distance from the barracks to the road. From these barracks a group of creatures were forced, that hardly anymore seemed to be human beings.”
On the way to Sweden the buses drove through bombed-out Germany, and sometimes they came very close to the actual bombing attacks. On 17 April, the buses reached the Danish border, where the former prisoners were received with food, cakes and flags.
The buses continued to Odense, where the passengers rested for the night. The next morning, the buses drove to Copenhagen, and the group was sailed to Sweden. In Sweden, they were housed in two quarantine camps: Tylösand and Strangnæs. After Denmark’s liberation on 5 May 1945, the former prisoners could finally return to Denmark. Some could immediately move into their homes, which had been cared for by friends, acquaintances or the Social Service in the Municipality of Copenhagen. For others, the homecoming was difficult, since they had lost both their apartments and their belongings while they were in Theresienstadt. They were also emotionally scarred, and many suffered from physical injuries from their stay in Theresienstadt.
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