Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend. Part 3, Liberation.
Most of the French inmates at the Ravensbrück camp, including Maguy, were liberated in April 1945, the result of an agreement between Heinrich Himmler and a member of the Swedish royal family, Count Folke Bernadotte, acting on behalf of the Swedish Red Cross. There had been earlier exchanges of Ravensbrück inmates through Switzerland, but it was now impossible to get from the Mecklenburg region to Switzerland by rail or road. There was, however, a more immediate path – through Denmark.
Germany had overrun Denmark in April 1940. Until 1943 most Danish institutions continued to function; the Danish monarch, Christian X, had not gone into exile as had the Dutch queen. In 1943, however, there was a substantial disagreement with Adolf Hitler over his demand that Denmark join the Anti-Comintern Pact, capped with a misunderstanding over an exchange of telegrams between Christian and Hitler. The Germans moved in to administer the country directly.
Initially it was mostly Danish and Norwegian inmates that were liberated, transported to the Danish border on specially marked “white buses” and then by rail through Denmark and ferry to Sweden. Himmler eventually opened the rescue to all nationalities, and the Ravensbrück rescue became the largest in World War II. There is a surviving list of the convoys of white buses and their routes. The most likely convoy for Maguy would have been the one that left on 2 April 1945. It involved 934 women and was apparently the last to leave Ravensbrück.
What motivated Himmler? He and other Germans were being warned by the Allies that they would be tried as war criminals after the war, hence he was likely thinking about ways of avoiding the hangman’s noose. He understood that with this Swedish intervention, there was an opportunity to polish his ‘humanitarian image.’
Like the Swiss, the Swedes had remained neutral during the war. Sweden had provided a refuge for Danish and Norwegian Jews when Germany threatened to deport them to concentration camps. On the other hand, Sweden had allowed passage of German troops during their occupation of Norway. And they were resisting Allied pressure to stop their export of steel and machine parts to Nazi Germany. Perhaps they also were taking the opportunity to polish their ‘humanitarian image.’
The arrangement was that a Danish train would connect to the white buses arriving from Ravensbrück at the German-Danish border. The women would then be transported by rail through Denmark and by ferry to Sweden. Maguy remembered the overnight train trip on Danish rail. Everyone was holding their breath.
By then Danish railway workers were on strike, unwilling to allow German transports to use their rail system. But Bernadotte talked them into allowing the passage of these special trains. In all 17,000 women were rescued, so the trains were packed.
Maguy remembers that at the Danish-German border, the “Prince of Denmark” joined the train and spent the train ride through the night with Maguy and her colleagues. Helm mentions that on 25 April 1945, twenty white buses with 934 women were met at the German-Danish border by members of the Danish royal family. Maguy’s “Prince of Denmark” probably refers to Prince Frederick, later King Frederick IX, who ruled from 1947 to 1972.
While waiting for the ferries that would transport her and her colleagues to Sweden, Maguy – always a “take charge” woman – went up to the Prince and thanked him for his having brought them to safety and asked how she and her fellow French women could show their gratitude. He suggested that when they got into international waters, they should sing La Marseillaise loud enough for him to hear. Which they did gloriously. Singing France’s national anthem had been a form of resistance during the occupation.
The Allies never got behind Bernadotte’s rescue efforts. General Eisenhower had urged prisoners at Ravensbrück and other camps to “stay-put,” awaiting the arrival of Allied forces and prepare themselves for an orderly repatriation after the German surrender. Eisenhower was aware of the post-surrender chaos that would result from the release of a million camp inmates. Meanwhile the gas ovens at Ravensbrück’s satellite Youth Camp were operational and women were getting bullets in the heads to destroy evidence of crimes committed.
Himmler more-or-less hid this liberation of prisoners from Hitler. Hitler had sent out an order that the releases from Ravensbrück and other camps should cease and all remaining inmates shot or gassed. Or marched to camps deeper inside Germany. The result was those deadly marches in the last few days of the war. But Maguy Katz was safe in Sweden.
One final story. When the Ravensbrück women got to Sweden, they were interned in a makeshift camp. Sensing the irony of this ‘liberation,’ Maguy prevailed upon Swedish authorities to leave the barbed-wire gate open.
Her repatriation to France must have been very soon after her arrival in Sweden. She returned to a Paris, largely intact, spared from Hitler’s order to destroy the city.
Of the many stories she told me, I thought least plausible was that after his La Marseillaise request, Prince Frederick cut off five gold buttons from his military uniform and gave them to Maguy as a personal gift. I once asked her to bring to Gainesville some of her memorabilia from the war years. On her last return to Gainesville, she invited me over for some scotch; she had something to show me. There in her shaking hands were the five gold buttons.