The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
The skeletal figures descended the white buses with uncertainty, and in bewilderment looked around at the throng of civilized human beings awaiting their arrival.
The white buses, belonging to the Swedish Red Cross, kept arriving on barges at the shores of Sweden. The head of the Swedish Red Cross, Folke Bernadotte, while negotiating with Himmler, head of the Gestapo, the release of Scandinavian POWs, also managed to persuade Himmler to release some inmates from the Ravensbrueck camp.
Sweden had remained neutral throughout World War II, and became a haven for many refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. At the end of April 1945, only days before the war ended, it opened its doors to us, inmates from the Ravensbrueck slave labor camp and its subcamps. The mission, called “Bernadotte's expedition,” was not well known, because of the need for secrecy. It took place while Germany was still at war.
Those white buses carried loads of emaciated people rescued from Nazi concentration camps. With uncertainty we followed the Red Cross workers, clutching the few filthy possessions we had salvaged while leaving the camps, or some remnants of the Red Cross packages given to us on the bus. As we were taken to the showers, we followed with suspicion, hesitating to enter, not trusting anyone.
After the showers, delousing, and disinfecting, I was given clean clothing donated by the local people. It felt good to get rid of the filthy rags infested with lice. I was put up in a school for temporary shelter. The first few days we spent mostly sleeping or just lying on our mattresses, exhausted from the ordeals during the years in the camps, but there was always someone looking out the window trying to be convinced that we were no longer in camp.
After a few days, in the middle of the night the students came running up the stairs, shouting: “The war is over. The war is over.” In disbelief we joined them, hugging, kissing, and dancing, and rejoicing with the news that the war was finally over. I had hope now to be able to find some members of my family.
Malmo, the city where I had arrived, became overcrowded with newcomers, so I was transferred to nearby Lund. I was again put up in a school, this time, converted into a hospital, where I spent the next four month, to recover from spots on my lungs, acquired in one of the camps while working in a factory that produced soot (carbon). We had nurses in attendance, and were visited often by doctors. Our diet was strictly watched until our stomachs could get adjusted to regular food. The doctors even advised the public not to give us any food packages.
The Swedish people were very generous, considering that almost everything was strictly rationed, most of the food staples as well as clothing. A woman, for example, could receive only one dress, one pair of shoes, two pairs of stockings a year. And no bra.
I still remember the two dresses I received; one had little flowers on a white background, the other had a combination of orange and white with a black thread running through forming little squares. I also received a rain coat, charcoal, with gray and white little checks, which I wore as a regular coat. It fit perfectly, the only drawback, it had a rubberized backing. So when it was cold I was freezing, and when it was warm I was sweating. But a girl has to make sacrifices to look good.
One day we heard a rumor that in one of the camps the Swedish flag had disappeared from the flagpole. The staff was walking around puzzled. Who could have stolen the flag? The crime was soon solved when shortly after on the clothes line blue and yellow bras began to appear.
I was eager to rejoin the human race again, and to appear normal. I used better hygiene, started grooming my hair and the donated clothing seemed like the latest fashions. Even my reflection in the mirror became more amiable. After the afternoon rest I was allowed to go out into the schoolyard. We paraded around like models, our bodies erect, not with slouched shoulders like in the camps. We posed for photos taken by the service personnel, the nurses, or any one with a camera. But there were among us a few girls who still walked around in the hospital robes, wearing felt slippers, and wrapped in their blankets.
The transition to normal clothing from the lice infested camp garments was an easy task, but the nightmares and the memories of the camps still linger on.
About the author
Manya was born in Chmielnik, a small Polish town that had a Jewish community dating back to the 16th century. Her father owned a furniture shop and her mother took care of the home. Manya had two younger brothers, David and Mordechai, and was surrounded by many close relatives. She attended both public and Hebrew schools and had many friends.
1933-39: In 1938 Manya's family moved to Sosnowiec, a larger city located near the German border. There she had her first experience with antisemitism. Signs appeared urging Polish citizens to boycott Jewish businesses. The following year, German troops invaded Poland. On September 4, 1939, at 2 p.m., Sosnowiec was occupied. That same day, local Jews, including Manya's father, were rounded up. The following morning, they were marched to a factory, where their heads and beards were shaved. They were held overnight without food or water and then selected for forced labor. Manya's father was assigned to build army latrines. A month later, her mother was arrested for violating the curfew.
1940-45: In 1941 Manya was forced to work for a German company that produced military uniforms. The following year, the Nazis began deporting Jews from Sosnowiec to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Manya and her family were saved temporarily from deportation because of their work permits. In March 1943, however, she was forcibly taken to the Gogolin transit camp, and from there to the Gleiwitz forced labor camp. She never saw her family again; they were deported to Auschwitz. In January 1945, as the Soviet army approached, the prisoners were evacuated on a death march.
Manya and the other prisoners were transported for ten days in open freight cars in the bitter cold to the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. During the journey, she shielded a sick friend from being crushed in the overcrowded car. Manya's arms were bruised and swollen. Later she was taken to the Rechlin camp, where she was rescued by the Swedish Red Cross in April 1945. In 1950 she emigrated from Sweden to the United States. Manya is currently a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is an active member of the Museum's speakers bureau.
Manya Friedman on why other Survivors should write
“I had little confidence when I started. My hands were so shaky I could barely read my own writing. As I started writing, I was given confidence, support, and encouragement. If I can do this, then you can too.”
Related Map Links
Europe 1933, Poland indicated Poland 1933, Sosnowiec indicated German invasion of Poland, September 1939 Extermination camps in occupied Poland, 1942 Auschwitz environs, summer 1944 Auschwitz Animated Map Major camps in Greater Germany, Ravensbrueck indicated Ravensbrueck environs, January 1945 Ravensbrueck concentration camp, 1945