The Swedish Schindler: How Count Bernadotte saved thousands of Jews from death

The midday ferry from Copenhagen drew up alongside the quay at the Swedish port of Malmö on 28 April 1945. Moments later, women – many in striped garb – began to move down the gangplank "all in thin rags, shoes made of paper and wood and odds and ends", wrote a reporter. More women followed, carried off the boat on stretchers: French, Polish, Norwegian, Dutch and many other nationalities.

It was just over 70 years ago this month and 10 days before the Second World War in Europe would come to its official end. The women had come from Ravensbrück, a women's concentration camp 50 miles north of Berlin. Although most camps had, by now, been liberated by advancing British, Russian and American troops, Ravensbrück was still under Nazi control. During these final, desperate weeks, more than 6,000 women had been gassed at Ravensbrück, others shot, starved and forced on death marches, as the German SS attempted to empty the camps and destroy the evidence of its crimes before the oncoming Russian army arrived.

The 500 or so women lining up on the Malmö docks that day had been snatched from this fate by a fleet of Swedish Red Cross buses and ambulances, which had driven them across bombed-out Germany to the Danish border and on to Sweden. More women followed over the next days; young and old, Jews and non-Jews.

Frieda Zetler had been imprisoned first in the Lodz ghetto and then at Auschwitz before being taken on to Ravensbrück. She now tasted freedom alongside Yvonne Baseden, a young British agent with Special Operations Executive (SOE), the spy and sabotage organisation ordered by Winston Churchill to "set Europe ablaze", who had been captured while helping the French resistance. Baseden leant heavily on the arm of a comrade before being ushered into a tent for delousing.

Many women carried Red Cross boxes; others carried babies. A Dutch woman, Anne Hendrix, carried her two-month-old sleeping in a box. French ethnologist Germaine Tillion carried lists bearing the names of those murdered at the camp, including her mother, Emilie. On seeing white-coated Swedish doctors, the skeletal survivors screamed. "I don't want to burn. I don't want to burn," cried one, imagining SS doctors. Swedish nurses fainted at the sight of the ravaged bodies.

As the women settled down they heard about the man who had initiated their rescue: a blue-blooded Swede called Folke Bernadotte. Sometimes Bernadotte appeared among them, tall and smartly dressed, with a gentle manner and an air of efficiency. They called him their saviour. Yet, outside Scandinavia, the story of his White Bus rescue – the biggest humanitarian mission of the Second World War – is little known, perhaps because after the war Bernadotte was appointed UN mediator to the Arab-Israeli conflict and was shot dead by Jewish extremists, complicating his legacy.

Twenty-one thousand lives

Not only were at least 7,000 Ravensbrück women brought on Bernadotte's buses, but up to 14,000 prisoners from other concentration camps too – men and women of many nationalities and creeds, including several thousand Jews. Post-war infighting in Scandinavia about who should take credit for the rescue, as well as Allied reluctance to acknowledge that the neutral Swedes could have pulled off such a coup, played some role in obscuring the value of Bernadotte's mission. Despite his pedigree – he was the grandson of King Oscar II, the last monarch to reign over both Norway and Sweden, and descendant of Napoleonic marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte – Count Folke Bernadotte of Wisborg was an unlikely hero. After a failed attempt in business and a period as head of the Swedish Boy Scouts Association, Bernadotte became vice president of the Swedish Red Cross, a position that would allow him to execute his rescue mission.

By October 1944, the Count had persuaded the Germans to free Allied airmen, shot down over Sweden – a coup that earned him an invitation to lunch with the most powerful man on the planet, General Dwight D Eisenhower, who had just liberated Paris and was setting up his Allied HQ at Versailles. Eisenhower showed Bernadotte his plans for victory in Europe, but, as the Count noted in his memoir, the American general made no mention of how to save German prisoners.

The eastern death camps, built by the Nazis in Poland to exterminate the Jews according to their "final solution", had already been liberated by the Russians, exposing the Jewish genocide to the world, but, by the autumn of 1944, at least a million prisoners were still held in camps on German soil – including Buchenwald, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. Allied chiefs in London and Washington had little interest in protecting these prisoners as they pursued their military objectives, believing the only way to help inmates was to secure a total victory.

Yet that victory was still many months away and reports of atrocities were mounting – many such reaching Bernadotte's ears while he stayed in Paris. France had already lost thousands to the camps, and families were pleading for action. Though it was too late to halt the Jewish extermination in the east, there was still a chance to save the thousands of Jews and non-Jews held in these German-based camps. With the International Committee of the Red Cross paralysed, pleas were increasingly directed at Bernadotte and his Swedish Red Cross.

Meeting Himmler at the lakeside

To most Allied observers, the idea of a prisoner rescue was fantasy. The dangers of entering the war zone were self-evident. Intelligence on the camp locations and about who was held in them was limited, and Hitler would not permit releases – particularly of Jews. But Sweden had its own interest in the rescues, which was, to some extent, self-serving. By 1944, with Allied victory in view, neutrality felt an uncomfortable position to hold and a rescue operation offered the chance to play a heroic role in the final days. The Swedes were also in a unique position; they had unusually good information about what was happening in the camps, and good cause to believe that prisoners might be released – not by the Führer, but on the authority of Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer SS, who ran the camps.

Though it was Hitler's resolution to fight on until the last moment, by the end of 1944 Himmler's aides were letting it be known that the SS chief knew the war was lost and was looking for a way out. Intermediaries said that Himmler was available for talks about a peace deal with the Allies, excluding Stalin. He would also free prisoners as bait to bring the Western Allies to the table. The problem was that London and Washington had "no truck with Himmler", as Churchill put it. The Swedes, on the other hand, saw no reason not to exploit his overtures.

Thousands of Norwegians, as well as Danes, were being held in the camps and Himmler was offering up Scandinavian prisoners first. Perhaps others would follow if Sweden played its cards right? By February 1945, Himmler had asked the Swedes to send a mediator to discuss the prisoner release. Seasoned Swedish officials said Folke Bernadotte wasn't up to the task but others thought the Count's royal blood and confident air would appeal to Himmler. And Bernadotte was only too willing.

The Count met the SS chief for the first time on 10 February 1945 in a secluded lakeside SS clinic at Hohenlychen, about 50 miles north of Berlin, and just five miles from the women's camp of Ravensbrück. On arrival, Bernadotte presented his interlocutor with a rare Norwegian [Scandinavian] artefact, which delighted Himmler, always fascinated by the Nordic race. Himmler seemed at ease with Bernadotte and told him jokes. Bernadotte listened, observing Himmler's "well-manicured hands" as he waited for a chance to nail the deal over the first Scandinavian releases.

As Bernadotte left, the outline plan agreed, Himmler asked if he had a good driver, as there were Allied fighter planes in the air as well as tank traps and barricades. Assured about the driver Himmler replied: "Good. Otherwise the Swedish papers will come out with headlines saying, 'War Criminal Himmler murders Count Bernadotte'."

By the second week of March, a task force had left southern Sweden, driven across Denmark and crossed into Germany. The man who once led the Swedish boy scouts was now leading a humanitarian army – 100 vehicles mostly belonging to the Swedish military, including trucks, buses, ambulances and motorcycles, manned by 250 Swedish soldiers, doctors and nurses. Their plan – as agreed with Himmler – was to pick up Scandinavian prisoners from any camps they could reach before the allied fronts closed up, and bring them to a holding centre at Neuengamme camp before transferring them across the Danish border and on to Sweden.

The Allies had been alerted to the operation by Stockholm and no objections were raised. No safe passage was granted to the Swedes either, though the British had requested that the buses be painted white with red crosses on their roofs, so RAF fighter pilots might identify them. Bernadotte's task force was nevertheless strafed by Allied planes, and his own car was hit, though the Count made a dive safely into a ditch. It soon emerged that German trucks were also being painted white, with red crosses, in an attempt to fool the Allies.

The black compromise

There were terrible moral dilemmas too. Himmler's terms for agreeing to the rescue – particularly the rule that for now only Scandinavians be saved – had meant leaving desperate wretches behind. Bernadotte had not, at first, been allowed by Himmler to rescue Scandinavian Jews – mostly Danish and some Norwegians. If Hitler got to hear that Jews were being released, he said, Himmler would be obliged to call off the entire operation. Bernadotte apparently submitted to his orders, and yet Swedish historian Sune Persson cites Swedish documents showing that from the start of the operation Bernadotte "was actively working on the Jewish cause" and had soon secured the release of more than 400 Danish Jews from Theresienstadt camp.

Another dilemma emerged on arrival at Neuengamme camp, where a holding area was to be designated for the rescued Scandinavians awaiting transfer to Denmark. The Neuengamme commandant insisted that the Swedish White Bus drivers remove his sickest inmates to other camps – some far worse – in the region of Hannover and Braunschweig in order to make room for the incoming Scandinavians. The drivers agreed even though the prisoners were in a pitiable state.

Himmler had banned Bernadotte from rescuing women held at Ravensbrück. There was gassing under way at the women's camp – a fact Himmler didn't want discovered. Whether Bernadotte knew this was the reason we don't know, but, yet again, he took the view that his rescue had to be conducted on Himmler's terms or not at all. Compromises – painful though they were – had to be made if men and women were to be saved. Over the Easter weekend Bernadotte flew back to Berlin to try to improve those terms, but his plane stalled in thick black smoke as the Allies launched a daylight raid over the capital. As soon as the all clear sounded he landed and made contact with Walter Schellenberg, Himmler's right-hand man, and another meeting at Hohenlychen was soon arranged. This time, Bernadotte found Himmler "not only grave but nervy", as he wrote in his memoir. While he was out of the room, Schellenberg told Bernadotte that Himmler wanted the Count to act as his intermediary directly with Eisenhower. Bernadotte refused. When Himmler returned, Bernadotte saw his chance to win more concessions and secured the Reichsführer's agreement that he should go at last to Ravensbrück. By the time he reached the camp, the main gas chamber had been dismantled, though gassing was continuing in mobile trucks.

'Now you will be free'

The first prisoners taken from Ravensbrück were once again Scandinavian – amongst them Nelly Langholm, a Norwegian from Stavanger who had been in the camp for two years. "We couldn't believe it," she said. "We had to walk to the gates. We saw the buses and there were these Swedish men in grey uniforms with red crosses on their arms. I think they told us. 'Now you will go to Sweden. Now you will be free. Can you imagine?'"

Nelly recalled how other prisoners watched as they left. She felt guilty leaving them behind. They had heard the camp was going to be blown up. "It was terrible going through Germany. These terrible ruins. A big town like Hamburg. I don't think I saw a house. We heard the shooting from the West and the Russians from the other side."

Over the following days, rumours spread that more buses would come, but none appeared. Ravensbrück was by now almost unreachable and many of Bernadotte's drivers were heading home. But the Count wanted to bring out more prisoners. The atrocities committed at Bergen-Belsen, reached on 15 April by the British, had been flashed around the world, fuelling fears for the women of Ravensbrück. Bernadotte sought a final meeting with Himmler. With the Third Reich crumbling, he guessed that the Reichsführer might be ready now to offer anything to save his skin. The danger of flying into Germany was such that Bernadotte travelled by sea and land.

Arriving early on 20 April he sheltered in the cellars of the Swedish legation where he learned that Himmler was attending Hitler's birthday party in the Führer-bunker but would meet him later at Hohenlychen. With the Red Army circling Berlin and refugees filling all roads, Bernadotte headed out north again, the sound of Russian cannon sounding in his ears. Himmler did not reach Hohenlychen until the following morning, appearing tired and nervous and "tapping his teeth". Bernadotte presented his latest proposal: to take more prisoners including all the French women from Ravensbrück, to which Himmler suddenly announced that Bernadotte could take all the Western Allied prisoners from the camp, as well as all the Jews. Ravensbrück had filled up with Jews in the last months of the war as Jewish women, marched in from Hungary and from Auschwitz – many of them Polish Jews – ahead of its evacuation, were forced into slave labour here, many of them at a Siemens electrical plant, based at the camp. Bernadotte ordered his buses to turn again towards Ravensbrück to carry out the most dramatic episode of the mission.

As the buses queued in the woods outside, the camp women still feared selection for death. When Jean Bommezin de Rochement, a Dutch woman, heard her name called out she was sure it was for gassing. She wrote in a diary: "We leave the camp in the direction of the gas chambers. We move forward and for many of us this is too much. They are seized by a nervous fit ... we have to drag them forward ... We move and see the back of the camp – here are the stores, there is Siemens. Some of the inmates appear behind the windows and the barbed wire looking at us. They know that 'transport' usually means death."

At last Jean found herself moving towards men who smiled "with tears in their eyes as they see us. Suddenly we are about to mount the buses and there is a scramble for places."

Jean's convoy moved off but amid an allied air attack they were forced to leave the buses. "We are too slow to take cover ... and suddenly we are machine gunned. For a moment I taste the bitter irony of being killed by our own allies on the road to freedom but they are gone and I live. Looking around I see a terrible scene. Behind me a woman is bleeding to death."

Later, reports said 17 Ravensbrück women died in Jean's convoy. RAF planes were said to have been responsible. The British ambassador in Stockholm voiced "regret" but reminded the Swedes of earlier warnings of no "safe-passage". Other convoys were hit, but Bernadotte's buses continued to arrive and the women mobbed them, as reports spread that the SS would eventually blow up the camp.

Swedish drivers who reached Ravensbrück on 25 April predicted this convoy would be the last, as the roads were almost impassable now. At Torgau, 200 miles to the south, Russian and American forces had linked up and the Red Army was closing on Berlin. Women with babies were now taken out. A Polish woman called Stasia Tkaczyk had successfully hidden her pregnancy, and now left carrying Waldmar, just 10 days old. A large group of Jewish women were taken too.

"We suspected they were going to take us to the crematorium despite rumours of liberation," said Basia Zajaczjiwsja, a Polish Jew who worked as a Siemens labourer. And Erna Solewicz, another Polish Jew, remembered a sudden order given in her block that "all Jewish women had to leave the camp".

The next day, the Jewish women were taken to the gates. Guards "tore off our marks and numbers", said Basia, referring to their yellow triangles – in Ravensbrück Jewish prisoners did not wear stars. This way nobody would know that Jews were being released – no word could reach Hitler's people, who, even now, might somehow halt the rescue.

The ripping off of numbers and marks – and the reluctance of Jewish survivors to say that they were Jews on arrival for fear of further horror – would also make it harder later to count the precise number of Jews who were saved from the camp on the white buses.

The commandant said, at the time, there were 3,000 "Jewesses" in Ravensbrück, which was almost certainly an underestimate. Others said it was more like 4,000. By early May, as victory in Europe came closer, 7,000 Ravensbrück women and 17,000 prisoners in total had already arrived on the Malmö quay. How many of the Ravenbsrück women would still have lived to see the Russians arrive at the camp on 30 April is impossible to say, but women continued to die of starvation and sickness even after the camp's liberation and Russians found bodies piled all around the camp.

Those who reached Malmö were certain their lives had been miraculously saved. "I would not be alive without Count Bernadotte," says Baseden, now 92 and living in London. The small British contingent – numbering about 12 – were almost left behind and only made it thanks to a Swedish driver called Sven Frykmann, who personally put them onto a bus.

A British official called George Clutton, dispatched to Malmö to report on the arrival of the British women, said that despite their suffering they showed "a joy in life that I have never encountered in a human being". He added that this may have been due to their feeling of "triumph over death and evil". Clutton's report to his superiors elicited little interest from the Foreign Office in London although, after some debate, the Treasury agreed to stump up for a gold watch for the driver, Sven Frykman, who got the British out. There was nothing for Count Bernadotte.

A shot through the window

Allied reluctance to acknowledge that the neutral Swedes could have pulled off such a coup did not prevent the UN from recognising Bernadotte's skills by appointing him as the Security Council mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1947-48. The UN peace plan, which Bernadotte was charged with implementing, was, however, immediately considered a betrayal in Israel –largely because it did not envisage Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

In order to kill the plan, Jewish extremists – members of the Stern gang, or Lehi – killed the mediator. On the orders of Yitzhak Shamir, one of the Stern gang leaders and a future Israeli prime minister, the assassins pushed the barrel of a sub-machine gun through the back window of Bernadotte's car and pumped six bullets into him. Israeli press condemned the murder at the time, but, over the years, the name Bernadotte became controversial in Israel, and among some of Israel's supporters around the world. The awkward fact that the man who, as UN mediator, was killed on the streets of Jerusalem for betraying Israel, had rescued thousands of Jewish lives from the Nazis, was difficult for some to assimilate.

Certain commentators – even in Sweden – have found cause to downplay Bernadotte's courage during the rescue mission. Some have even questioned whether he ever intended to rescue Jews at all. Although the White Buses are remembered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Bernadotte himself has not been recognised as one of the "Righteous among the Nations" a title awarded to 22,000 non-Jews from 44 countries, who helped save Jews from Holocaust. In 1995, Bernadotte's family were invited to Jerusalem, expecting an announcement from the then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that their father was at last to receive the award. Peres expressed regret that Bernadotte "had been killed in a terrorist way", but there was no suggestion that he be recognised with the award.

"We were very disappointed," says Bertil Bernadotte, who heard afterwards that it was unlikely his father would receive the award while Shamir was alive. "Shamir died in in 2012. Nothing has happened," he says. At a memorial ceremony, held to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation on 30 April this year, Ravensbruck survivors remembered Bernadotte. Among them was Selma Van der Perre, a Jewish Dutch woman, who told me: "Without Bernadotte I would probably not have got out alive."