September 18, 2005
By Manya Friedman
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 vice chairman of the Swedish Red Cross, Folke Bernadotte, while negotiating the release of Scandinavian POWs with Himmler, head of the Gestapo, also managed to persuade him to release some inmates from the Ravensbrück camp.
Sweden had remained neutral throughout World War II and became a haven for many refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. In late April 1945, only days before the war ended, Sweden opened its doors to us, inmates from the Ravensbrück 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 camp, 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 showering, 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, dancing, and rejoicing at the news. I had hoped then 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 one converted into a hospital, where I spent the next four months recovering from the spots on my lungs that I had acquired in one of the camps while working in a factory that produced soot (carbon black). 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, and 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 a combination of orange and white with a black thread running through forming little squares. I also received a raincoat—charcoal with gray and white little checks—which I wore as a regular coat. It fit perfectly, the only drawback being its 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 afterwards, blue and yellow bras began to appear on the clothesline.
I was eager to rejoin the human race again and to appear normal. I practiced better hygiene and 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 anyone 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.
©2005, Manya Friedman. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
PREVIOUS POST: How Can I Forget?
NEXT POST: Grosse Hamburgerstrasse