WHITE BUSES AND DEATH MARCHES
Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was clear in his own mind that since the summer of 1944 that the war for the German side was lost and could no longer be won, he sought - on his own initiative, against Hitler's wishes - in a separate peace with the Western powers. Himmler's hope: Perhaps the internationally recognised Red Cross could be an opener for negotiation with Britain.
The situation in the women's concentration camp Ravensbrück in the final weeks before the liberation was full of contradictions and absurdities. While SS-Doctors had their last victims herded to the gas chamber, white buses of the Swedish Red Cross drove through the gate to accomplish in a unique action to take and save several thousand prisoners through occupied Denmark to Sweden.
In her diary-like records of the last days in the women's concentration camp Germaine Tillion describes on March 30, as desperate women who had gone into hiding to save their lives during the dramatic chase by the SS were
caught in a dilemma: "A few meters from where they were trapped, they, to their amazement could observe the whole scene through the windows what was developing. And at that very hour a white-painted Ford of the Geneva International Red Cross passes the entrance to the camp. The Swiss doctor, who heads the mission begins his first attempt in the negotiations for the exchange of 300 French prisoners ".
Secret negotiations between the representatives of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Bernadotte, and the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had already been going on there for weeks. At least two of these meetings took place not far from Fürstenberg, at the SS clinic of Hohenlychen. Initially, the negotiations covered the liberation of the Danish and Norwegian prisoners from Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen, which were successfully completed in late March. Thereafter Bernadotte submitted another offer, to include prisoners of Western European origin to be taken to Sweden. [Bernadotte spoke fluent German, without a trace of an accent, he first flew mid April to Berlin and gave Himmler a book of Germanic Runes, Bernadotte obviously knew the mentality and sentiments of his opponent, the obsession in Germanic Methodology. After the war, Bernadotte was unanimously chosen to be the United Nations Security Council mediator in the Arab–Israeli conflict of 1947–1948. He was assassinated in Jerusalem in 1948 by the militant Zionist group Lehi while pursuing his official duties. The decision to assassinate him had been taken by Natan Yellin-Mor, Yisrael Eldad and Yitzhak Shamir, who was later to become Prime Minister of Israel.sic] At the same time he launched his operation with a number of buses from their temporarily headquarters at Friedrichsruh near Hamburg in the direction of Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen with food parcels for the prisoners. Himmler was willing to make concessions, because he was hoping for a separate peace treaty with the Americans and wanted to save his own skin. In this strange atmosphere the Swedes were able to bring their negotiating skills to the fore and also thanks to the courage of the officers of the Swedish Red Cross who took about 7,500 prisoners from Ravensbrück to Sweden, the exact number is unknown to this day. Other records show: In total, around 31,000 people were taken to safety in the "White Buses" of the Bernadotte expedition, including between 6,500 and 11,000 Jews
|Swedish soldiers that accompanied or drove the Buses|
Besides the Scandinavian females it were French, Belgians, Luxembourg, Dutch girls, and Polish women, among them were some Jewesses. On 21 April the representatives of the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress, Norbert Masur, met together with Himmler. Masur was able to persuade Himmler to release 1,000 Jewish women. The Reichsführer SS, however made one condition that the Jewesses would officially classified as Poles.[his pride was saved.sic] The action took place within a few days. In the transport, on 25 April which left the camp, there were also about 30 small children. On 26 April 3960 Polish women were finally able to be released from the camp. They were brought by train from Lübeck onto the Danish border. In essence, only women from Ravensbrück benefited by the efforts of the original action, of the"White Buses". To the instructions from Himmler, Suhren as commandant of the concentration camp strictly adhered to his orders which affected, apparently only female inmates, no males.
|Count Folke Bernadotte (left) who organised the "White Buses" Operation|
The prisoners were forced to march on several routes towards Neustrelitz and Malchow. Apparently the camp personnel was still hoping to get through the increasingly narrow corridor between the front lines to reach Schleswig-Holstein. Often up into the night, the columns of the weakened and exhausted prisoners dragged forward on overcrowded roads which were already in chaos coming close to war's end. They met civilians who fled before the advancing front, retreating Wehrmacht Units and returning forced labourers. All of them were exposed to low flying aircraft attacks. At night the women camped in barns, haystacks or outdoors. Their ordeal only ended in early May, when the various advance columns of Soviet or Allied troops arrived, and their own guards were gone. How many of the exhausted and debilitated women were still able to move or broke down and were shot by the SS is impossible to reconstruct.
Some overseers and guards procured for themselves civilian clothes and in an unobserved moment left the column of prisoners, some others behaved neutrally towards the inmates. There were also SS-men in these closing days that continued with their murderous violence. SS-Sergeant Albin Conrad was after the fifth Hamburg Trial sentenced to death, because he had caused a massacre during the death march. Conrad was on 28 April with a group of prisoners in the immediate vicinity of the main air-ammunitions plant at Neustrelitz-Fürstensee. Lisa Ullrcih who was then in this column of prisoners reported immediately after the liberation, that at kilometre marker 12.3 the air was shattered by an explosions. "The forest on the right side was ablaze. There was a terrible confusion caused by the air pressure that tossed prisoners back and forth, some on the left side of the forest scattered and each ran for his life. The munitions factory was blown up, and among the prisoners as well as the guards this caused confusion and panic". Charlotte Müller and Vera Maneke testified at the fifth Hamburg Trial that Conrad still in this situation, followed a group of women fleeing into the woods and shot eight or ten of them, others ran towards the lake and were able to hide there.
After most of the evacuation columns came upon American and British Troops in the vicinity of Raben-Steinfeld near Schwerin many of the women survivors came back initially to Ravensbrück. The camps were occupied on April 30 1945 by the Russian 49th Army of the II Belorussian Front. Their doctors and nurses erected a field hospital there for the returning prisoners. Fürstenberger women and girls were conscripted to care for the sick and weakened women and men and were made to bury the dead.
Any of the survivors that were able to travel was waiting for the return journey to their homeland. After the departure of the last prisoners in the summer of 1945 the Red Army occupied the entire camp complex. Until their withdrawal in 1994, Russian soldiers were stationed on the grounds of the prison camp. The factories and farm buildings were subsequently used as workshops, garages and depots. The barracks were dismantled in the early years after the war, and almost all were sold to German refugees and displaced families from East Prussia and other parts of Germany annexed by other countries, most of them erected the barracks again on sites in that region and, built in clusters of land,called Behelfssiedlung,(makeshift settlements) made available by local authorities, and lived there for many more years, even decades. [The barracks must have been of durable material!sic.]
"White Buses" refers to a program 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 program was initially targeted at saving citizens of Scandinavian countries, it rapidly expanded to include citizens of other countries.
All told, the program 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 the casualties among Danish Jews during the Holocaust were among the lowest of the occupied countries of Europe.
The term "white buses" originates from the buses having been painted white with red crosses to avoid confusion with military vehicles. The first section of the expedition departed Hässleholm on March 8 and boarded the ferry from Malmö to Copenhagen. Due to security, the Danish resistance movement was informed, but no problems were experienced - on the contrary, the expedition was very well received. On March 12, the first part of the expedition had reached its headquarters, Friedrichsruh castle, situated 30 km southeast of Hamburg. The castle was close to the Danish border and near the Neuengamme concentration camp, where the Scandinavian prisoners were to be assembled. Friedrichsruh castle was owned by Otto von Bismarck,[Otto von Bismark is buried there,sic] a friend of Bernadotte and married to a Swede. The expedition staff were lodged in the castle and a nearby pub, while the men established a tented camp in the park surrounding the castle.
COMPOSITION OF THE EXPEDITION FORCE
308 personnel, among them about 20 doctors and nurses, the rest were volunteers from the supply regiments T1, T3 and T4; they were commanded by Colonel Gottfrid Björck as he was the inspector general for the Swedish supply forces
36 ambulance buses
7 passenger cars
rescue and workshop trucks and a field kitchen
all necessary equipment, including food, fuel and spare parts, as nothing could be had once in Germany
The vessels Lillie Matthiessen sailing to Lübeck with 350 tons of fuel and 6,000 food parcels for the prisoners, later the Magdalena, both from the Salèn shipping line.
The force was divided into three bus platoons (each with 12 buses), one truck platoon (with 12 vehicles) and one supply platoon. Total transport capacity for the force was 1,000 persons for longer distances; 1,200 persons for shorter distances where the trucks could also be used. The buses used Motyl (a mixture of 50% gasoline and 50% alcohol) and had eight stretchers or seats for 30 passengers. They used 0.5 litres of fuel per kilometer (5.6 mpg); with full tanks they could cover 100 kilometers (62 mi). Each bus carried two drivers.
To avoid publicity in the newspapers the Swedish state information bureau distributed so-called "grey notices" where the editors were instructed to avoid stories about the expedition.
The Danish ambassador in Stockholm had offered a larger force (40 buses, 30 trucks, 18 ambulances and other vehicles). Bernadotte had considered a mixed Swedish-Danish expedition, this offer was turned down on February 23, due to the German requirement that the expedition force had to be Swedish. If not they could launch a full-scale attack on Denmark and Norway.
|One of the remaining original White Buses|
|Another view of a White Bus|
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 onboard. 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.
Bernadotte had promised Schellenberg to have the expedition in Warnemünde on March 3, but it was delayed by more than a week. The main reason for this was the difficulty in obtaining guarantees from the Allied forces to ensure that the expedition would not be attacked. At this stage in the war, the Allies had total air superiority and regularly attacked transport on German roads. The "White Buses" expedition would move mainly within areas controlled by the Royal Air Force. On March 8, the British government informed the Swedish foreign department that it was informed about the expedition but that it could not give any guarantees against attacks; the Swedish expedition was on its own within Germany. Some of the vehicles were hit by Allied aircraft, strafing the roads, killing one Swedish driver and 25 concentration camp prisoners.
EVACUATION FROM RAVENSBRÜCK
On April 8 some 100 Scandinavian female prisoners (including two French women) were collected from the camp and transported directly to Padborg in Denmark. At this stage Bernadotte had got permission to collect all sick prisoners. On April 22 a column with 15 Danish ambulances under the command of Captain Arnoldson departed from Friedrichsruh to collect the women from Ravensbrück.
Female prisoners in Ravensbrück, the white chalk marks shows they have been selected for transport
|Female prisoners in Ravensbrück, the white chalk marks shows they have been selected for transport|
Two new columns arrived in Ravensbrück; one departed on April 23 with 786 women, mostly French, who were transported directly to Padborg. The second column collected 360 French women. The last columns arrived in Ravensbrück on April 25. The situation within Germany was rapidly deteriorating, with frequent shooting on the transports as the Allied forces continued advancing. In the camp a total of 706 French, Belgian, Dutch, and Polish women were loaded onto a column with Danish ambulances and lorries from the International Red Cross. On the way to Padborg this transport was attacked by Allied fighter planes, at least 11 were killed and 26 severely injured; the final number of fatalities was estimated at 25.
The last column, led by Sub-lieutenant Svenson, had 934 women in 20 buses; mostly Polish but also French, American and English. The column rested during the night, was unsuccessfully attacked by fighter planes and arrived in Padborg on April 26, 1945. This was the last Swedish transport before Germany capitulated. The Swedes were fortunately able to use a train - 50 goods wagons with 80 female prisoners in each wagon. The train departed Ravensbrück on April 25 and arrived in Lübeck on April 29. After the passengers had been fed, the train moved on to Denmark.
A total of 3,989 female prisoners were rescued by this method. Within a few days around 7,000 female prisoners were evacuated from Ravensbrück to Denmark and then on to Sweden.According to the Swedish Red Cross a total of 15,345 prisoners were saved, of these 7,795 were Scandinavian and 7,550 from other countries. Around 1,500 German-Swedes were transported to Sweden. A total of 2,000 prisoners were transported from Neuengamme to other camps so that space was available for Scandinavian prisoners. Four hundred French prisoners were transported from Neuengamme or left in Theresienstadt as they could not be delivered to the camp in Flossenbürg.
RECEPTION AND ACCOUNTING
The main reception station in Denmark was in the city of Padborg, on the border with Germany; the prisoners received food and medical treatment before they were transported through Denmark to Copenhagen. Transport to Sweden was by ferry to Malmö where the prisoners were received by Länsstyrelsen, (the county administration) and Civilförsvaret, (civil defence). Everyone that arrived was placed in quarantine, due to the risk of spreading infection. In all there were 23 billeting areas, most of them in Malmöhuslän with about 11,000 beds. Ambulating health centres, mostly manned by Norwegian and Danish doctors and nurses (themselves being refugees), took care of the prisoners. For some of the prisoners it was too late; 110 died after arriving in Sweden, most of them Polish.
According to the Swedish Red Cross a total of 15,345 prisoners were saved, of these 7,795 were Scandinavian and 7,550 from other countries. Around 1,500 German-Swedes were transported to Sweden. A total of 2,000 prisoners were transported from Neuengamme to other camps so that space was available for Scandinavian prisoners. Four hundred French prisoners were transported from Neuengamme or left in Theresienstadt as they could not be delivered to the camp in Flossenbürg.
The "white buses" expedition was a Swedish triumph that earned the country much goodwill, the return transports through Denmark were met by ecstatic crowds. On May 17 Count Bernadotte of Wisborg was on the balcony of the Royal castle in Oslo with the Norwegian crown prince.
Between 1946 and 1948 a British Military Court held in Hamburg seven Trials, during which members of the SS administration staff, doctors, guards and prisoner functionaries were sentenced. Thus, among others, the last officer in charge Johann Schwarzhuber, the Head of the Political Department Ludwig Rahmdohr, the Head of the Tailoring Section Gustav Binder, the Doctors, Dr. Rolf Rosenthal, Dr. Gerhard Schiedlausky, Dr Walter Sonntag and Dr. Percy Treite were sentenced to death and executed.[Dr. Treite although sentenced death in fact committed suicide in Prison April 1947, sic] In court in Hamburg were also the Oberaufseherin Dorathea Binz, the warden, Margarete Mewes and the Block Elder of the Tuberculosis Blocks, Carmen Mory. While Binz and Mory were sentenced to death, the court imposed a ten year imprisonment for Mewes. Mewes was released on parole in 1952.
The first camp commandant of Ravensbrück Max Koegel , who had commanded in the end the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, went 1946 into American captivity and committed suicide in prison. Camp Commandant Fritz [Friedrich,sic]Suhren and Labor Service Director Hans Pflaum managed first to flee. They were re-captured in 1949, and by a French military court at Rastatt sentenced to death.[both were shot, the French normally would not hang soldiers, the request by the French Judge Advocate at the Nürnberg Trials to have Keitel and Jodl because they were soldiers shot was turned down by the others.sic] The former Oberaufseherin Maria Mandel, who had been transferred from Ravensbrück to Auschwitz, was sentenced in December 1947 by a Polish court in Krakow to death and executed.[With the Allies just a few miles from the Ravensbrück camp Suhren took Odette Sansom, an inmate at Ravensbruck whom he believed to be Winston Churchill's niece due in part to her using the assumed surname of Churchill in the camp, and drove with her to a United States base, hoping that her presence would save him. Sansom had in fact been instructed to adopt the false name and to encourage the presumption of her relationship to the British Prime Minister as she was a spy in the camp and the British felt that if the Germans thought she was Churchill's relative they would want to keep her alive as a possible bargaining tool.sic]
In the Soviet occupation zone, before Soviet military tribunals several lawsuits took place during 1948 against guards of the concentration camp Ravensbrück. The defendants were convicted without any findings of individual guilt and sentenced to long prison terms, yet in the mid-fifties, they were either pardoned or released early. Other guards, who were immediately after the war interned in Soviet special camps had been handed over in 1950 to an East German court at Waldheim and there, in summary proceedings(Schnellverfahren), in disregard to the rule of law sentenced to long prison terms. Since 1948, East German courts proceeded within their states[Federal States,sic] of the Soviet zone of occupation their own investigations, mainly against former SS-personal that had been active in a number of satellite camps sub-ordinated to Ravensbrück. These judgements were considerably milder than that of the Soviet military tribunals or that of the judges at Waldheim.
In the context of a growing political instrumentalization of the Nazi past by the East German courts they imposed later, much harsher penalties, as in the case against Christel Jamkowsky in July 1954, for crimes against humanity by the District Court of Gera and was sentenced to death, but in 1955 commuted to life imprisonment. The verdict was based solely on the confession of the accused. The allegations against Jankowsky was, that in 1943 during a target practice she shot about 60 detainees and participated in the killing of women and children with gas, but these accusation were not factually examined. Equally questionable was the last Ravensbrück Trial of the DDR, which took place 1965/66 before the District Court of Rostock. The former guards Ilse Göritz, Ulla Jürß and Frida Wötzel were sentenced to life imprisonment. There, too, the charges against them among other things, for participation in the killings with gas in 1943, although it had been shown, that a gas chamber at Ravensbrück concentration camp was not installed before 1945.