Remembering the first ever U.N. envoy, Folke Bernadotte

The evening ostensibly was dedicated to the white buses with which the Swedish diplomat rescued thousands of Nazi concentration camp inmates.

October 9, 2018 22:45
2 minute read.
Folke Bernadotte

Folke Bernadotte at the inauguration of Hedvig Eleonora's scout cottage in 1943. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When Swedish Ambassador Magnus Hellgren invited historians Prof. Dov Levitan of Bar-Ilan University and Prof. Yehuda Bauer, the academic adviser to Yad Vashem, to attend an evening at the Swedish residence to discuss the legacy of Count Folke Bernadotte, he did not expect to hear broad differences of opinion.

Levitan was one of the speakers at the event on Monday night, and Bauer was in the audience, but he did not hesitate to voice his disagreement with some of the things that Levitan said.

Although it was inevitable that the assassination of Bernadotte on September 17, 1948 would be part of the evening’s discussions, the evening ostensibly was dedicated to the white buses with which the Swedish diplomat rescued thousands of Nazi concentration camp inmates.

According to Sven Erik Soder, the director-general of the Folke Bernadotte Academy, a Swedish government agency which works on peace, security and human rights issues, the white buses introduced by Bernadotte and painted white so that the allied forces would not shoot at them, still impact Swedes and non-Swedes even today.

When Bernadotte was assassinated by the Lehi, the person assassinated with him was a French colonel named André Sérot, a member of the UN Forces, and whose Jewish wife Berthe Grunfelder had been arrested by the Gestapo in June 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. She was rescued by Bernadotte in 1945 and had been transported out of Germany on a white bus.

Following a terrorist attack on a synagogue in Gothenburg last year when three Molotov cocktails were thrown at the building, Soder went to inspect the damage and to offer his sympathies. In the course of his conversation with the congregation’s president, it was revealed that the president’s mother had come to Sweden on one of the white buses.

Commenting on the rise of antisemitism in the world, Soder admitted that human rights activists in Sweden also have to be alert.

Soder declared the white buses operation to be the largest and most successful on-the-ground rescue operation in Nazi Germany.

When Bernadotte began negotiating with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the most powerful man in Germany after Hitler, the situation was very difficult, and it was certainly not clear after the first meeting that Bernadotte would be able to take prisoners out of Germany. He also faced a lot of criticism for “negotiating with the devil,” said Soder.

Pausing for a moment, Soder quoted former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had said on more than one occasion that one does not negotiate with friends to make peace – one negotiates with enemies.

Moving on to Bernadotte’s mission in the Middle East, which was to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians, even though he had zero experience or knowledge of the Middle East, Soder said that he had accepted the mission because he felt he had to respond to the serious nature of the conflict.

Soder credited Bernadotte with being the father of shuttle diplomacy and peace missions, and was certain that Bernadotte’s integrity and humanitarian values had led to the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention (the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.)

Even though Bernadotte had spent only four months in the Middle East, during that period, he had initiated UN Truce Supervision Organization, negotiated one cease-fire, and inspired the creation of UNRWA.

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