Tuesday, July 12, 2016

M Y  M E E T I N G  W I T H 
H E I N R I C H  H I M M L E R
A P R I L  20/21, 1945

N O R B E R T  M A S U R 


We left at 10 o’clock for Berlin. On the way I saw something which really impressed me. The super race on the highway! One cart after another, loaded with all kinds of household goods, quickly gathered together before fleeing. Between the carts women, children, old people. In this manner moved the train of human misery from village to village, city to city, in all kinds of weather, away from the front. It could not remain anywhere, after a short stop for food, it had to move on, chased by the nearing front and the fighter planes. The same picture of misery which we saw so often in photographs and in our minds, Frenchmen, Belgians, Poles, Russians, Jews fleeing before the German soldiers accompanied by the victorious exultation of the Germans. Now finally, the Germans were feeling for themselves what they meted out so willingly to other countries and people.

Shortly before we got to Oranienburg, we passed some long marching columns, men in civilian clothing accompanied by guards. They were prisoners from the Oranienburg concentration camp, on their way north, away from the front. Again, forced evacuation because the Soviet troops were getting close. They would rather have congestion on the roads due to these senseless, and for these poor people, dangerous transports, rather than to give away the loots.

The closeness of the front became evident. We heard the thunder of artillery. The streets were full of all kinds of vehicles. Our car was stopped, we should take wounded people with us. However, we continued on our way and then the street became less congested. Soon we were in Berlin. Now I had the chance to see this metropolis in daylight. A ghostly view. A field of ruins of unbelievable dimensions. The facades on the houses were half destroyed, the insides were blown to bits. Rarely a house which was inhabitable. Two thirds of the city was destroyed before the battle of Berlin began, and still, there were 3 million inhabitants there. How they existed is beyond imagination. During the whole trip I did not see one real store. In front of some of the houses were lines of poorly clothed people waiting to buy food. Traffic was very light, few pedestrians, hardly a trolley. We drove to the Swedish embassy in the west of the city. This elegant area on one side of the Tiergarten was completely razed, only the Victory Column was still standing. What irony of fate!

We tried to reach Count Bernadotte, the chief of the Swedish Red Cross, but did not find him in the embassy. We knew that he was in the vicinity of Belin because he was supposed to meet with Himmler shortly after our meeting. We then went to Gestapo headquarters, also located in the west of Berlin. Then we met there with a colleague of Shellenberg, who was in charge of the Swedish transports for the German government. He knew the position of the bus convoy, which had evacuated all Scandinavians and was on the way to Denmark. He would try to reach Count Bernadotte so that the convoy could be diverted to Rawensbrück.

Our task in Berlin was finished. Now to get home, as the siege of Berlin had begun, and Russian artillery was hitting the center of the city. A plane for Copenhagen was supposed to leave at 2pm and Kersten and myself had seats reserved on it. However, it was questionable if the plane would be able to leave. The thought of the swarms of Allied planes of the day before, did not bring out any comfortable feelings. How could a German airplane escape the lords of the air space? However, it seemed that suddenly the air became “clean” as the Germans called it. We received heavy Mae West type life vest and left at 4pm in a Kondor airplane, a large troop transport. 

After barely two hours, we landed safely in Copenhagen. It was a wonderful feeling to be again in a city where there were no damaged houses and people were calm and well-dressed. We immediately left for Helsingør, Elsinorre, and at 9 o’clock in the evening, we were standing on safe Swedish soil. The trip was finished.

Sunday morning in Stockholm, we learned from the Foreign Ministry that they already had received a telegram from the embassy in Berlin. On behalf of Count Bernadotte, the message came that the bus convoy was on the way to Rawensbrück. Several days later we found out through Bernadotte that Himmler, in addition to giving freedom to the one thousands of women, decided to free all the women located in Rawensbrück. This meant that the Swedish Red Cross was able to rescue 7000 women out of the concentration camps within a few days, women of all nationalities, about half of them Jewish. The Jewish prisoners in concentration camps in Norway, numbering approximately 50, were freed and came across the border within a few days. The Foreign Ministry also told us that the Swedish prisoners held at Grini, near Oslo, as well as several hundred Norwegian hostages, were freed out of the camps as a result of our negotiations.

A visit to the rescued Jewish women in the receiving camps in southern Sweden, affected and overwhelmed me deeply. It cannot be told what they had suffered during six years of incarceration. First they were herded into a ghetto, then one concentration camp after the other, among the horrible Auschwitz. During all these years, always hungry, always in mortal fear of total annihilation, working very hard and always tortured. It is a wonder that they were able to survive. Only a few of the hardiest could withstand the years of terrible agony. How could they resume something of a normal life? Most of them were alone in the world, their families scattered all over, most likely killed. Their homes and their milieu, most of them were Polish Jewish women - was completely destroyed. Belgian, Dutch and others, Jews and Non-Jews, were able to return to their respective home, but for these Polish Jews there was no return to anything. Everything would only remind them of the years of suffering in the ghettos in Auschwitz, of their missing families, of their murdered friends, and their destroyed communities. They were yearning to get back into Jewish surroundings. Palestine is probably their only chance to regain human dignity.

The dramatic encounter that night of two arch enemies, the infamous chief of the Gestapo, and a representative of the tortured Jewish people, caused the beginning of freedom for a few leftover victims of the Nazi extermination. A Jewish intervention, on behalf of the remainder of people who were threatened with destruction, was only possible because of circumstances that all pointed in the same direction, namely the end and loss of the war. Dr. Kersten’s part in arranging the negations, and also the part he played during the talks, has also been mentioned previously. 

The real results of the negotiations and the actual rescue of the prisoners was now possible and indeed began through the efforts of the Swedish Red Cross, which certainly lived up to its highest ideal. The rescue attempt was made possible also through the initiative and active support of the Foreign Ministry. No conditions or limitations were imposed by the Foreign Ministry with respect to the number and nationalities of those to be rescued. All of them were welcomed into Sweden as guests of our government, and because of this, they were able to live a life of freedom in the future.

End of Part III

Translated from original by Henry Karger, 1993
Published with kind permission, WJC

Published by Scandinavian Jewish Forum