A key person in the rescue action was the National minister and SS commander Heinrich Himmler, being the only person with interest and power enough to pursued Hitler. He had, during the summer of 1944, realized that Hitler would not win the war and had tried to make separate peace with the western powers.
The allied showed no interest in his tentative offers, so to show his good will Himmler released the five so called ‘Warsaw Swedes’. They were businessmen who, in 1943, were sentenced for espionage. Behind the releases was Felix Kersten, Himmler’s personal masseur, who was living in Sweden. After contacts with the Foreign Ministry he agreed to negotiate with Himmler for the release of the Swedish prisoners.
On the 10th February, 1945, the Swedish ambassador in Berlin, Arvid Richert, was told to inform Germany that Sweden would be willing to receive all the Jews from German concentration camps, with the addition “especially those in Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen”. Hopes for a positive reply on the offer were not great. That same day the Foreign Ministry decided to send Bernadotte to Berlin to negotiate for the release of the Scandinavian prisoners. Felix Kersten, who until then had not been involved in the rescue action, was asked by Foreign Minister Günther to call Himmler to prepare for Bernadotte.
After formal instructions from the Red Cross president, Prince Carl, Bernadotte flew to Berlin on February 16 to begin the negotiations. By way of introduction Bernadotte met with the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, head of national security Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Himmler’s aide-de-camp Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg.
On the 19th February he started negotiations with Heinrich Himmler. The Swedish Foreign Minister’s instructions before the negotiations were to “try to secure the realise of all Norwegians and Danes from Germany to Denmark or Sweden”. The instructions were no more precise than that. Günther gave Bernadotte more or less a free hand in trying to achieve as concrete and as extensive a concession as possible. The negotiations included all interned Norwegian and Danish citizens in Germany, consequently even those of Jews birth.
Himmler would not agree to move the Scandinavians out of Germany. However he did authorise a Red Cross expedition to gather all the Scandinavian prisoners in the Neuengamme camp, to be moved near to the Danish border. He also agreed to allow old men and women, sick and mothers, after gathering in the camp, to be separated and transported out of Germany. He also allowed Swedish born German women with children to travel to Sweden.
Himmler insisted that all these agreements were to be keep unofficial. “The Swedish government’s success in creating the least possible publicity around the expedition contributed to a great extent to Himmler’s willingness to make concessions further ahead.
” (Steven Koblik, “If we were silent, the stones would cry out”)
Transportation was to be organised by the Swedish Red Cross, which would also assist the Scandinavian prisoners in the Neuengamme camp. The Germans were not able to manage transportation themselves.
The results from the Bernadotte negotiations were better than anyone had dare to hope for. It really seemed like the rescue action would become a reality. No details concerning the transportation had been worked out, so when the rescue expedition started in March it had to be adjusted to the turn of events and to the current state of war.
“Once the decisions had been made for the Red Cross expedition to Germany, its success depended on Bernadotte and his personal skills and the important help he received from Kersten in the negotiations with Himmler. Decisions were made ‘on the spot’ and it was up to Kersten and Bernadotte to make sure there wasn’t any counter orders from Himmler and his aides-de-camp. Schellenberg was a sturdy support for both of them during the following two months.”
On his return to Stockholm Bernadotte received a letter from Gillel Storch, leader of the Swedish branch of the Jewish World Congress, W.J.C. Storch asked Bernadotte to increase the rescue action so as to included non-Scandinavian Jews. Bernadotte was positive to the idea, but at this time the government was not interested in increasing the action.
Storch then turned to Felix Kersten, who promised to try to make Himmler agree to a program for aid to the Jews. It would include sending medicine and food to the camps, to gather all the Jews in a few of the camps and attempt to get five- or ten thousand Jews surrendered to either Sweden or Switzerland.
When Kersten went to Berlin for the third time he had apart from Storch’s commission also been asked by Foreign Minister Günther to help Bernadotte with his continuing negotiations.
In the beginning of March the Foreign Ministry informed the British ambassador of the planned Red Cross expedition. The areas in which the Red Cross was to work were under intense allied air attacks. The Foreign Ministry asked for suggestions on how to carry out the action as safely as possible. The British authorized the expedition, but made it clear that they could give no guarantees for its safety. They suggested that the buses were painted white, so that they could be easily identified. The same request went to the USA too, but the answer, although positive, was delayed until the middle of April when the rescue action had already commenced.
To insure that the current agreement was still valid and to solve remaining problems, Bernadotte went back to Germany on March 6. He met with Kaltenbrunner and Schellenberg.
Bernadotte managed to negotiate further German concessions. As well as trying everything to secure the success of the rescue action , the Germans indicated that the interns at Neuengamme, under a second phase, would be surrendered to Sweden. They also allowed for all Scandinavian Jews in German camps to be transported to Neuengamme. Now everything was ready to start.
Source: The White Buses. The Swedish Red Cross rescue action in Germany during the Second World War – The Swedish Red Cross, Stockholm, January 2000 /Research: Agneta Greayer and Sonja Sjöstrand/Editing: Martin Wikberg Translation: Annika and Peter Hodgson