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The White Bus Rescue of Concentration Camp Inmates

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Neutral Sweden to the Rescue

In the late winter of 1945, the Danish government and the Swedish Red Cross worked to get people out of concentration camps and take them to safety in Sweden. A fleet of white-painted buses was used to transport people to freedom.

White buses are staged prior to the rescue mission.

White buses are staged prior to the rescue mission.

German Death Marches

As it dawned on the German High Command that they were losing the war, they undertook massive efforts to cover up the atrocities committed in their concentration camps.

With the Allies advancing from the West and the Soviets from the East, SS guards killed many of the prisoners and destroyed evidence of the existence of the camps. Others were moved away from the front lines and forced into long marches.

If the Germans thought they could extinguish all evidence of their behaviour they were mistaken—but they tried. There was a scramble to sanitize the Majdanek Camp in Poland, but the Soviet advance was so rapid that soldiers reached the death factory and its true horror was discovered. That happened in July 1944 and the heart-breaking footage of the camp and its emaciated inmates reached the outside world.

The Nazis didn’t want to be caught out again so they started moving their captives away from the front lines.

Here’s the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “The SS guards had strict orders to kill prisoners who could no longer walk or travel. As evacuations depended increasingly on forced marches and travel by open rail car or small craft in the Baltic Sea in the brutal winter of 1944-1945, the number who died of exhaustion and exposure along the routes increased dramatically.”

Prisoners were moved from east to west.

Prisoners were moved from east to west.

Releasing Danish Camp Prisoners

The Danish Foreign Minister began negotiating with the Nazis in 1944 with the aim of getting Danish citizens freed from incarceration.

To start with, the Danes focused on people who had been deported for the “wrong” reasons. According to the racial theories of the Nazis this included Jews with a Christian spouse and those with only one Jewish parent. Upon such niceties lives were saved or lost.

First to get out was a small group from the Buchenwald camp.

In February 1945, the head of Sweden’s Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte, started negotiations with Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and one of the principal architects of the Holocaust.

Himmler knew his neck was potentially in a noose. Perhaps, he probably reasoned, if I become a humanitarian it will count in my favour when the inevitable war crimes trials start.

So, Bernadotte had some leverage to persuade the man who ran the camps to release Scandinavians held in Theresienstadt. Luckily, many others were also given permission to leave.

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Count Folke Bernadotte (center). After the war he was tasked with negotiating peace between Arabs and Israel. A militant Jewish group saw him as an ally of Arabs and murdered him.

Count Folke Bernadotte (center). After the war he was tasked with negotiating peace between Arabs and Israel. A militant Jewish group saw him as an ally of Arabs and murdered him.

The Journey Out of Concentration Camps

A caravan of white-painted buses, emblazoned with Red Cross insignia, was put together. The identification was at the request of the Allies so fighter pilots would not attack the buses. However, the Germans caught on to this and started painting their own trucks white with red crosses on the roof.

The convoy was moving through the war-torn country and sometimes came under fire from Allied pilots who could not distinguish between rescue buses and German trucks.

In March 1945, the process began of collecting those who were going to be released from various camps; they were brought to an assembly point near Hamburg.

By the middle of April 1945, the buses had reached the Danish border. Denmark was still a couple of weeks away from being liberated from Nazi occupation, so, at Copenhagen, the evacuees were put on ferries and taken to neutral Sweden where they would be safe.

Dirk Deklein is a Dutch history buff who has written extensively about the Holocaust. He says “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 . . .”

But, the people running the convoy had to make agonizing choices; they couldn't rescue everybody and had to leave many prisoners in a wretched state behind.

A restored rescue bus.

A restored rescue bus.

Why Were Nazi Prisoners Freed?

Adolf Hitler had given orders that all concentration camp inmates were to be murdered; an exception was to be German citizens. So, why did Himmler, one of the Führer’s most dependable henchmen show a spark of humanity and agree to set more than 15,000 prisoners free?

A man called Felix Kersten is given some of the credit for that. He was of German heritage and was born in what is now Estonia. He became a physiotherapist, moved to Berlin, and married an upper-class Aryan woman.

Soon, what were known as his magical healing hands came to the notice of Heinrich Himmler. The SS commander suffered from severe stomach pains and Kersten’s ministrations relieved the discomfort. Himmler made Kersten an offer he could not refuse: become my personal physician or go to a concentration camp.

Himmler came to rely heavily on Kersten’s healing powers and made his therapist into his closest confidant. He was able to strike deals with the monster in which he exchanged a therapy session for the release of a prisoner. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Himmler “used to joke diabolically that ‘every time Dr. Kersten treats me, it costs me one pardon.’ ”

As it became obvious that Germany was losing the war, Himmler started looking for ways to save his own skin. Sensing his patient might be willing to be more generous towards his prisoners, Kersten set up a meeting between Himmler and the World Jewish Congress Swedish delegate Norbert Masur. This resulted in freedom for many Jews.

Felix Kersten also acted as the intermediary between the Danish and Swedish organizers of the white bus rescue.

Bonus Factoids

  • Heinrich Himmler made attempts to negotiate a conditional peace with the Allies. Hitler found out and stripped his most-trusted aide of all his powers. The former Reichsführer SS tried to escape disguised as an ordinary soldier but was captured by the British. On May 23, 1945, while in custody, he swallowed a cyanide pill and died.
  • After the war, Felix Kersten moved to Sweden and took out Swedish citizenship, but he also spent time living in West Germany. He died in 1960 at the age of 61.
  • As early as May 1942, the Nazis started an attempt to hide evidence of their crimes against humanity. In Poland, they used prisoners to dig up bodies from mass graves so they could be burned. The operation, known as Sonderaktion 1005, used inmates in chains to operate machines that pulverized bones.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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