“In the Katamon quarter [of Jerusalem], we were held up by a Jewish Army-type jeep placed in a road block and filled with men in Jewish Army uniforms,” reads a 1948 United Nations witness statement by General Lundstrom of Sweden. “At the same moment, I saw an armed man coming at us from this jeep… he put a Tommy gun through the window… and fired point blank at Count Bernadotte… there was a considerable amount of blood on his clothes, mainly around his heart… [At the hospital] when the doctor arrived, I asked if anything could be done, but he replied that it was too late.”
It had been just three years since the Nazis surrendered. Count Bernadotte, a Swedish aristocrat and diplomat, had negotiated the release of over 30,000 prisoners from their concentration camps, including several thousand Jews. After the war he was the United Nation’s choice to be their mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a decision that led to his murder at the hands of a militant Jewish group.
Born in Stockholm in 1895, Count Folke Bernadotte was the grandson of King Oscar II, the last monarch to reign over both Norway and Sweden. Following some fruitless business ventures, Bernadotte became director of the Swedish boy scouts in 1937, an organisation with which he had had a long involvement. After the outbreak of World War II the Count trained the boys in anti-aircraft work and as medical assistants and in 1943 he was made vice-chairman of Sweden’s Red Cross. The following year, Bernadotte persuaded the Nazi regime to free Allied airman shot down over Sweden — which officially remained neutral — something that earned him an invitation to lunch with General Dwight Eisenhower.
At the tail end of the conflict, Heinrich Himmler, realising the Third Reich to be doomed, agreed, without Hitler’s consent, to secret negotiations with the Allies on the condition that the Soviets were not to be involved. The Swedes were asked to send a mediator. The Count obliged. He had also negotiated for the release of Danish, Norwegian and western prisoners of war from German concentration camps.
“To most Allied observers, the idea of a prisoner rescue was a fantasy,” writes Sarah Helm for Newsweek. “The dangers of entering the war zone were self-evident… The Swedes were 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.”
The campaign became known as the White Bus rescue. The idea couldn’t have been simpler. A fleet of buses, led by Bernadotte, would be driven across war-torn Europe, the prisoners picked up and taken to Sweden. The idea, also, could not have been more dangerous. German defences were being pulverised mercilessly by the Allied bombing campaign and the Swedes’ safety could not be guaranteed. The buses were painted white to help the pilots avoid them. The Germans began painting some of their vehicles white too. The Royal Air Force is known to have accidentally bombed one Swedish convoy, killing 17 just-freed prisoners. Another time, the Count himself was forced to dive to the safety of a ditch to avoid stray shelling.
Bernadotte was forbidden from collecting Jews, but he did it anyway. The project became the biggest humanitarian mission of the Second World War, 300 personnel in nearly 100 vehicles rescued 21,000 souls. After the Nazi’s surrendered, the White Buses evacuated 10,000 more.
And then came Israel. The UN peace plan to which Bernadotte was tasked had a most fundamental flaw, at least from a Jewish perspective, in that Jerusalem was not recognised as the capital. The Count was also accused by the Israeli government of not taking seriously enough Arab aggression. He did, however, negotiate two truces, but his fate was sealed, the decision to assassinate taken by Natan Yellin-Mor, Yisrael Eldad and Yitzhak Shamir. The latter would later lead Israel as Prime Minister.
Today, the White Buses are honoured at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, but “Righteous among the Nations”, an award given to 22,000 non-Jews from 44 countries who helped rescue Jews from death under the Nazis does not count Count Folke Bernadotte as one of them.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces