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The Swedish expedition that rescued thousands from Nazi concentration camps

In spring 1945, as the Second World War was nearing its end, Sweden carried out the biggest humanitarian relief expedition ever to take place within Nazi Germany.

The Swedish expedition that rescued thousands from Nazi concentration camps
The White Buses collect prisoners from a concentration camp in Germany. Photo: Pressens Bild/TT
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Between March 8th and May 1st, 1945, during what became known as the White Buses expedition of the Swedish Red Cross, as many as 21,000 prisoners were liberated from active Nazi concentration camps and transported to Sweden for medical treatment and recuperation.

Excerpts from a collection of survivor testimonies preserved in the archives of Lund University help tell the story of this part of Swedish and European history.

“On 7 April 1945, the Swedish Red Cross mission began its work, and over the course of that day, so memorable to all the prisoners of the Ravensbrück camp (it was a Saturday), survivors returned from Uckermark [an extermination camp]. Then, in the evening, the first Swedish Red Cross vehicles drove into the camp. They brought food parcels and took the first transport of women (Norwegians and Danes) to their freedom,” recalled Zofia Mączka, a physician from Poland who been imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in northern Germany since September 1941.

When Count Folke Bernadotte, a member of the Swedish royal family who served as vice president of the Swedish Red Cross, struck the initial agreement with SS Commander Heinrich Himmler, who was operating behind Adolf Hitler’s back, it was intended only to secure the release of Danish and Norwegian prisoners in selected concentration camps. From April 21st, however, the agreement was extended to prisoners of all nationalities, beginning with the women in Ravensbrück.

Photo: PrB/TT

“On 25 April 1945, suddenly all the Polish women were summoned to assemble on the roll call square with their dressed infants. We got scared because we assumed that we were to go to our deaths,” recalled Stefania Wodzyńska, a 22-year-old Polish Catholic prisoner who had given birth while imprisoned in Ravensbrück.

“Unexpectedly, behind the wire fence, white buses with Red Cross showed up. The majority of us did not trust in liberation as Germans played often with traps and deviousness under the mantle of the Red Cross,” explained Estera Melchior, a 19-year-old Polish Jewish prisoner of Malchow, a sub-camp of Ravensbrück, recalling her experiences of the same day.

“The buses, which [turned out] to be part of Count Folke Bernadotte’s rescue action, carried us [to] liberation and the freedom we only dreamt of,” recalled Estera, who had survived the Warsaw ghetto and three concentration camps, including Malchow.

First, however, the buses had to safely make their way into and out of working concentration camps staffed by hostile Nazi guards and the Gestapo, and through two active front lines. Throughout the journey, despite the large red crosses and Swedish flags painted on the roof and sides of the vehicles, the White Bus convoys were vulnerable to the fierce Allied aerial attacks being conducted in Germany.

“The bus stopped for the night in a forest under the trees, because the Germans were being heavily bombed by Americans at that time, and one of the vehicles in the previous transport had been bombed,” recalled Natalia Chodkiewicz, a 56-year-old Polish Catholic who had been a political prisoner in Ravensbrück. “While we were stopped in the forest, we could feel the ground shake from the detonations.”

The incident Natalia referred to was one of two convoys carrying a total of 706 female prisoners from Ravensbrück which were bombed by Allied fighter jets on April 25th, claiming the lives of 25 people.

One of the convoys was bombed twice. The first incident killed the Swedish driver and several rescued prisoners and injured 16 others. Back on the road, the second bombing killed a further ten former prisoners and injured 20 more.

Risking their lives in this effort were 308 members of the Swedish military who took a leave of absence to serve in an official capacity as Red Cross volunteers. They carried out the well-planned and organized operation using 36 buses and other vehicles provided by the Swedish military. Later, the Danish government provided significant additional manpower and vehicles to the expedition.

The buses make their way to safety. Photo: Scanpix/TT

By May 1st, the last of the White Buses had returned to Sweden. The war in Europe ended just a week later on May 8th.

Though the total number of liberated prisoners varies depending on the source, several scholars have independently determined that between 7,000 and 8,000 were Danish and Norwegian, while 12,000 were of other nationalities, including around 6,000 Poles.

Survivors like Zofia, Stefania, Estera and Natalia were just a few who described what it was like arriving in Sweden after, in the words of another survivor, “leaving the hell behind us.”

Having safely made the remainder of the journey after the harrowing night in the forest, Natalia recalled, “On 28 April 1945, we disembarked at Malmö, freed from the threat of torture and death thanks to the initiative of the Swedish government and Count Bernadotte, and since then the lovely country of Sweden has been offering us hospitality.”

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google’s questions

Why is Sweden called Sweden? Why is Sweden so depressing? Why is Sweden so rich?  In a new series of articles, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you type "Why is Sweden..." into the Google search engine.  

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google's questions
Why is Sweden actually called Sweden? Let's find out. Photo: Google screenshot

The short answer to “why is Sweden called Sweden?” is that it’s not. It’s called Sverige

When The Local asked Henrik Williams, a Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, he also gave the question a short answer: “Because it’s inhabited by Swedes.” 

We can trace some form of the name back to at least the 13th century, when it was called Swearike in Old Swedish. That translates to “the kingdom of the Swear”.

Two thousand years ago, some of the people living in what is now known as Sweden were called Svear or Suiones, depending on which language you spoke and on how you spelled things (spelling varied greatly). 

The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first known description of the Svear in a book written in the year 93 CE, Germania

Everything comes down to this word, Svear, the name of the people. It means ‘we ourselves’. The Svear lived in Uppland just north of where Stockholm is now, until about the 11th century when they started expanding their territory. 

“It’s very common that people call themselves, either ‘we ourselves’ or ‘the people’” said Professor Williams. 

“We are ‘the humans’ and everybody else is something else. Everyone else is ‘them'”.

Of course, nobody uses the word in that way now, but it still forms the basis of the word Sweden.

The 8th century epic poem Beowulf gives the earliest known recorded version of the word Sweoland, land of the Swear

But at that time, there was no Sweden. Instead, the land was occupied by little kingdoms of Swedes and Goths (in present-day Götaland) and warring tribes of Vikings.

It’s unclear when the King of the Swear started referring to himself as the king of a country called Sweden, but it was probably around the time the country adopted Christianity in the 11th century. 

“Sweden” only came into regular use after 1750, when it replaced “Swedeland” in English. But in Scotland, “Sweden” had been used since the beginning of the modern era.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 17th century, people would use Sweden as the name of the people, and Swedeland as the name of the country. 

The first attested use of ‘Sweden’ was in a Scottish timber accounting log in 1503, which refers to “Sweden boards.” 

Most countries went from the Old Norse word Svíþjóð (which is still used to describe Sweden in Icelandic today) and turned it into something in their own languages, like the Old English Swíoríce, the Middle Dutch Zweden and High German Schweden

But it’s not called Sweden everywhere. 

In Finnish, Sweden is Ruotsi, in Estonian it’s Rootsi, and in Northern Sami Ruoŧŧa.

This comes from the root-word Rod, as in modern day Roslagen the coastal part of Uppland. It means rowing, or people who row. And because Finland was invaded by people from Roslagen, that’s how Finns referred to them.