Swedish Red Cross

The humanitarian aid to Greece has been the biggest one during World War II. The international public opinion, shocked by the terrible famine in Greece in winter 1941-1942, forced the Allies to allow food supply to the country. Sweden’s neutral position in the war was crucial in initiating negotiations, organizing logistics in delivering relief and in establishing a neutral commission in Greece to oversee the distribution of relief. After complex and slow negotiations, a commission using the name of the International Red Cross consisting of eight Swedish and seven Swiss delegates was established. The chairman of the commission should be a Swede. During that time 29 Swedes in total came to Greece and participated in providing humanitarian aid.

Photographer unknown. Kerstin Nordendahls arkiv, TAM-Arkiv, Sweden

During the Balkan Wars the Swedish Red Cross set up field hospitals in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. In 1913 Kerstin Nordendahl and seven other Swedish nurses arrived to Greece to work in the temporary clinic set up at the Villa Alatini in Thessaloniki. They also worked out of tents in a nearby park. Kerstin Nordendahl recorded her impressions in a diary and also made a photo album. Overwhelmed by the steady stream of wounded soldiers and the poor hygiene in the temporary hospital she remarks that “we do nothing else but making plaster casts”.

“I thought I had seen the most ghastly things in life. I have seen executions where the condemned screamed in agony, [...] but never have I seen anything that shocked me as much as what I saw in Athens during the summer months of 1941; children dying of starvation, without understanding why. Like Dante in the Inferno, I walked from children’s clinics, to orphanages and to soup kitchens. Everywhere I saw starving children. In the clinics, mothers were waiting with their hungry and sick children. The babies tried to suckle their mothers’ breasts that were unable to produce any milk. One orphanage had 1,200 children. Those that were still able to, screamed continuously with hunger. The rest were apathetic, unable to utter a word”.
- Gunnar Cederschiöld, Swedish journalist

Red Cross Delegates departing for Greece- January 1944. From left to right: Arvid Wikerstål (pastor); Stig Wikander (professor); Karl Borg (engineer); Einar Gjerstad (professor); Prince Carl, Chairman of the Swedish Red Cross; Jean Lieberg (customs official); Hans Ehrenstråle (university student) and Dag Bergman (Bachelor of Law)

The Swedish Red Cross team in Athens. From left to right:
First row: Martin Nordenström, Hans Ehrenstråle, Elsa Segerdahl-Persson, Stig Wikander, Erik Danielsson
Second row: Jean Lieberg, Karl William Borg, Axel W. Persson, Dag Bergman, Gottfrid Walldén
Third row: ?, Einar Gjerstad, Christian Callmer, ?, Arvid Wikerstål

Dimitri Papadimos archive, Courtesy of ELIA/MIET Photographic Archive

The Swedish vessel Virginia, marked with the word Sverige (Sweden) and the Red Cross emblem in bold red, in the port of Piraeus 1945 delivering aid from the United States and Canada.

Photo by N. Havarias; from M.G. Tsangaris and A.X. Xanthakis, Chios: 100 Years of Photography 1850-1950

The Red Cross vessel Wiril was bombed by British planes in Chios harbor in February 1944 as a result of miscommunication. It sailed from Samos without proper clearance and the British believed the ship to be carrying weapons to the Germans and attacked. 16 people were killed; among them the young delegate Nils Erik Nilsson who was due to marry a girl from Chios the following day. The Swedish vessel Virginia, marked with the word Sverige (Sweden) and the Red Cross emblem in bold red, in the port of Piraeus 1945 delivering aid from the United States and Canada.

Photograph from: Mats Lieberg, Thessaloniki 1944 – Photographic Document by Jean Lieberg (Thessaloniki, 1999)

Mr Zannas (top row middle), head of the Red Cross in Greece and Jean Lieberg (top right) and Miss Zannas and Mrs Zannas (front row).

One of the Red Coss delegates, a former customs official, Jean Lieberg, who was stationed in Thessaloniki during 1944, recalls that he was very honored by the appointment to Greece, but before arriving in the country had only a very vague idea what the work entailed. ‘I thought I would drive a van and hand out bread to hungry hordes’, he said. He was astonished to find out that he was to handle a food distribution organization the size of a government department.

Photograph from: Mats Lieberg, Thessaloniki 1944 – Photographic Document by Jean Lieberg (Thessaloniki, 1999)

A caique with Red Cross insignia used for the local distribution of supplies, Thessaloniki, 1944.

In the Peloponnese, the work of the Red Cross delegates was very different from that in the cities, due in great measure to continuing fighting between the occupiers and the resistance guerrillas. Hans Ehrenstråle, 32 years old, taking up his post in Patras in early 1944, received instructions from his superiors that his first priority was to help the mountain community of Kalavryta, isolated in sheer misery after its destruction in late 1943 and the shooting of some 500 of its male inhabitants by the Germans in reprisal for guerrilla activity. After the massacre the village was cut off and was in great need of supplies. This would be only the first of many burnt and destroyed villages he would have to try to reach with food, clothing and medicine. Many times it was not possible to use cars to travel, and he, the other Swedish delegate Arvid Wikerstål and their assistants had to walk or use donkeys.

Left: A Red Cross nurse, Sister Lenio, traveling by donkey on her way to Souli. Middle: Hans Ehrenstråle, a university student from Lund. Right: Arvid Wikerstål, a pastor from Lund.

In Tripolis, Professor Axel W. Persson, in peacetime an archaeologist, worked together with his wife Elsa Segerdahl, a medical doctor and one of the two female delegates of the Swedish Red Cross. Persson had been instrumental in selecting the delegates for the Swedish Red Cross. Many of them were academics, without any previous experience in relief work, but recruited primarily because of their knowledge of Greek and familiarity with the country. Classicists and archaeologists were naturally one of the groups that were targeted. With many years experience of excavations and a passion for Greece and its people, he and his wife worked tirelessly in the distribution of food, in soup-kitchens and children’s welfare. The couple were profoundly committed to the Red Cross mission and would remain for two years in Tripolis.

Another archaeologist, Einar Gjerstad, found that his ability to classify systematically ancient sherds could be applied to huge shipments of clothes and shoes. With his expertise and the subsequent help of the bone specialist Nils Gejvall, people were equipped with perfectly matched shoes in the right size.

Axel W. Persson and his team. Persson, front left, with his wife Elsa Segerdahl, front right.
Martin Nordenström leaving for Greece, saying goodbye to his daughter.

Martin Nordenström, an officer in the reserve and a physical education teacher, was stationed in the Cyclades for almost three years. During his mission he had been exposed to danger many times, but ironically it was on his last journey from Piraeus to Syros that the overloaded passenger ship he was travelling on capsized outside Hydra and killed him and a hundred others.

Gottfrid Walldén and his wife-to-be Alex on Syntagma Square during the Occupation
Romance in wartime- Sture Linnér and his Greek wife Clio. Linnér a 28-year-old student of classics from the University of Uppsala, was the youngest of the Swedish Red Cross delegates

For many of the delegates the time spent in Greece shaped the rest of their lives in different ways. Both Sture Linnér and Hans Ehrenstråle would be offered positions in the newly established United Nations. Several of them married, or planned to marry, Greek women. One such was Dag Bergman (the brother of the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman) who married the daughter of Anastasios Adossidis, who had facilitated the use by the Red Cross delegates of the American School in Athens. Gottfrid Walldén also married a Greek woman and settled in Athens. Both Bergman and Walldén are buried in the First Cemetery in Athens.

The headquarters of the Swedish Red Cross at Marasleion School.
Photographer unknown. Axel Walldén archive.

The renaming in 1945 of Odos Souidias (Sweden Street). To the right stands Gottfrid Walldén, who worked for the Swedish Red Cross delegation as a financial officer. He was originally a bank employee from a small town in Sweden and had joined the Swedish team in Greece in 1942. He is characteristic of the majority of the Swedes working for the Red Cross. Without any background in humanitarian work he had decided to accept the invitation and challenge of coming to Greece to help ameliorate the effects of the famine.

Odos Souidias, located in the Kolonaki district of central Athens, had originally been called Spefsipou but was renamed in the late 1940s in recognition of the humanitarian work of the Swedish Red Cross in Greece during the Second World War. The headquarters of the Swedish Red Cross in Greece in the 1940s had been established at the Marasleion School and from1942 until the end of the war in 1945 the buildings of the American School of Classical Studies were also occupied by the staff of the Swedish Red Cross Commission.

Archival research/curation: Marie Mauzy