FGCU's Holocaust exhibit tells little-known story of Sweden's White Buses and the women saved

Pamela McCabe
Fort Myers News-Press
Walton Sun

An American girl who boldly stitched “USA” onto the patch of her prison uniform after she was snatched up by the Nazis. A 6-year-old boy who dressed like a girl to avoid being separated from his sister. And countless women who took up other “little acts of rebellion," like snapping clandestine photos of horrific medical experiments, to show what life and death were like inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

These stories of courage, hope and defiance are among those you’ll come to learn at a newly opened Holocaust exhibit at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Wilson G. Bradshaw Library in south Fort Myers.

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For the past 10 months, a six-person team of library staff and students has been researching and cultivating a show dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi-era camps. At the center of their research is the little-known White Bus Rescue, a mission led by the Swedish Red Cross that brought about 15,500 people to freedom in 1945.

Although it is “one of the largest rescues” conducted during World War II, little information of the White Bus mission crossed the Atlantic, explained Melissa VandeBurgt, the head of archives, special collections and digital initiatives at the library.

She points to Sweden being neutral during the war as the main reason most Americans are unfamiliar with the White Buses and the rescue mission volunteers were able to pull off in the span of 54 days.

“I don’t think a lot of Americans know the story because they don’t play the hero in the story,” VandeBurgt said.

But thanks to the work of FGCU’s archive staff, that work is now front and center in a display featuring artifacts that have never been seen before in the United States. And this show, which runs through May 1, is the only chance people will have to see the entire collection on display in the U.S.

Called “To Life: The Liberation of Ravensbrück,” the exhibit tells of the brave and courageous volunteers who risked their lives to drive these white buses, painted with a large red cross on the top, through war-torn Germany to rescue people from concentration camps.

Most of the rescues were tied to Ravensbrück, an all-female camp that was about 60 miles from Berlin in northern Germany. Of the 130,000 women and girls imprisoned here, only 15,000 lived to see their freedom.

“We’re all given these statistics about the Holocaust, but they are numbers. And numbers are kinda hard to process — that each one of those numbers is a human,” VandeBurgt said.

That’s why she directed her team at the library — a mix of undergraduate and graduate students as well as alumni — to “make it personal.”

“They each picked a particular woman and then they researched her,” VandeBurgt said. “So it became very personal and they knew her, and then it just seemed like the only way to fully understand would be to walk in their footsteps.”

In October, the team traveled to Germany and Sweden to do just that by meeting with experts from museums and universities as well as survivors and their families. They toured the Ravensbrück Memorial Site and traced the path taken of the survivors to Malmö Harbor, Sweden.

The trip cost $13,000 and was covered by the Seidler Fund and the FGCU College of Arts & Sciences.

The items they brought back — artifacts like journals, letters, pictures, drawings, poems and clothing — are on loan for the semester-long exhibit. The timing of the show lines up perfectly with the liberation mission, which ran from February to May.


Upon walking into the first room of the exhibit, guests will learn of the White Bus mission, including how it evolved into such a widespread rescue effort.

In the beginning, volunteers were told they could only rescue people whose names made the transport list, which was reserved for Norwegian and Swedish prisoners only. This meant they would have to leave people behind, and a Nazi soldier had to be on the bus.

“Imagine you have a list of names and you go to a concentration camp and there are all these people starving and dying and being tortured and you only get to take some,” VandeBurgt said.

The emotional and “brutal” nature of the job made many of the volunteers drop out. But that all changed when the Swedish Red Cross was given the all-clear that they could rescue anybody.

With that news, the community of Malmö, Sweden, gathered over one night to paint the buses white with the bright red cross on the roof — a feeble attempt to make the bus stand out as bombs rained down around them, VandeBurgt said.

After gathering up women and children, the vans drove back toward Sweden, catching a ferry to arrive safely in Malmö. The survivors were then put up in a castle to recuperate.

In the second room of the exhibit, an entire wall of antique-looking paper spells out the names of the people rescued. Some of the names are circled in red, and their stories, photos and items are highlighted in the exhibit.

‘It’s impactful because you get what 15,000 people look like,” VandeBurgt said. “It’s a huge number.”

Nearby walls are adorned with large-scale photos taken from the 2015 documentary, “Every Face Has A Name,” which director Magnus Gertten gave FGCU permission to play as part of the exhibit.

The photos are screen grabs taken from the 16mm film the Sweden media shot on April 28, 1945, of the women and children first stepping into freedom in Malmö. The hopeful, yet haunted, faces stare down from the walls.

The photographs show the faces of people like Bernard Kempler, a young boy who dressed like a girl, and his sister Anita Kempler Lobel.

Unaccompanied children were often looked after or even adopted by “camp mothers.” One of these women was Trien de Haan-Zwagerman, also photographed. She spent three years at Ravensbrück after she was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda.

Special display cases show artifacts ranging from journals and drawings to poems, memory books and letters — some containing secret codes.

The prisoners would use a special invisible ink, made of human urine, which helped them share the atrocities of the in-camp medical experiments, explained Adrian Sanchez, 25, an archival assistant and FGCU alum.

The victims of these experiments were cruelly called “rabbits” because they could only “hop around,” he said.

“The Nazis cut their legs open and put shrapnel in them,” he said. The goal was to find new medicines for battle wounds and to test resistance to antibiotics.

One of the women to endure this torture is Elsie Ragusin Azzinaro, a 98-year-old survivor who now lives in Edgewater, Florida. She, like other survivors and their families, plan to view the exhibit this spring.

Originally from New York City, Azzinaro is the young lady who was falsely accused of being a spy alongside her father while they were visiting her grandparents in Italy.

Her father died in Auschwitz and she was then transported to Ravensbrück, where she was used as part of the horrific medical experiments. "In a brave act of defiance," she stitched “USA” on the red, triangle-shaped patch she wore on her uniform, the display explains.

That patch, on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is in a glass case near her picture.

Another artifact is the gray-and-blue-striped prison uniform worn by Apolonia Byrska, a political prisoner who was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. When the White Buses arrived, she was ill in the camp infirmary, but escaped out a window.

The item is on loan from the Polish Research Institute at Lund University Library.

The display only includes one item that is Nazi-specific.

“We didn’t really want to give them anything else other than this identification poster because their goal was to take identity away, where the goal of this show was to give them back their identity,” said Bailey Rodgers, 23, a graduate level archive student.

And that was key in planning, researching and designing the exhibit.The standout message that she and her peers wanted to show was that even the smallest actions can make an impact on someone's life.

“We always like to say it’s little acts of rebellion,” Rodgers added. “And that’s what we want people to do … We wanted people to walk away with this idea: if there’s one small thing I can do, maybe I can help.”

“Sometimes the largest act of resistance is just an act of compassion,” added VandeBurgt.

That is something the public can see for themselves at FGCU's library, 10501 FGCU Blvd. South, Fort Myers.

The free exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through May 1.

A free, public reception is planned from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4. Because of limited space, only 25 people are allowed in at a time. Reserve a spot by emailing libarchives@fgcu.edu or call Bailey Rodgers at 239-745-4472.

Connect with this reporter: pmccabe@news-press.com

This story originally published to news-press.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.