The Wartime Rescue You’ve Never Heard About, Told by the 100-year-old Jewish Woman Who Led It

In March 1941, a young Swedish nurse called Ilse Ganz Koppel helped escort 60 Jewish children from Stockholm to Mandatory Palestine. Now she is sharing her story for the first time

Ilse Ganz Koppel in her apartment in a retirement community outside of Jerusalem, July 2019.
Emil Salman

On a cold morning in March 1941, when it was still very much winter in Sweden and Hitler was gaining ground across Europe, a 22-year-old nurse named Ilse Ganz Koppel boarded a train in her hometown of Stockholm together with 60 Jewish refugee children. Along with three other adult chaperones, they set out over land and sea toward British Mandatory Palestine.

“Everybody was engaged to help. You don’t know what it is to have a Nazi regime around you,” says Ganz Koppel, who at the age of 100 has decided to publicly share her account of the dangerous rescue mission that took 16 nerve-fraying days and covered some 3,500 miles (5,630 kilometers).

Ganz Koppel grew up in a prominent Jewish family in the Swedish capital, part of a 7,000-strong community. Many, including Ganz Koppel’s parents, were involved in refugee aid and relief work for their fellow European Jews. She says her father supported her taking on the mission. Most of the community stayed in Sweden, hoping the country’s neutrality would keep them safe despite fears of a possible German invasion.

She recalls that the children, who had arrived in Stockholm through Copenhagen from Germany, Poland, Austria and what was then Czechoslovakia, were sent by parents desperately hoping this would be their way to safety. Their route first took them to Haparanda in the northern reaches of Sweden, then to Helsinki and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), and then southward to Odessa. From there, they crossed the Black Sea by boat, stopping in a Bulgarian port before sailing to Istanbul. They then took a train through Syria and Lebanon. When they finally disembarked in Beirut, cars were waiting to take them to kibbutzim inside the areas of Jewish settlement in Mandate Palestine.

Standing under 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, with snow-white hair, Ganz Koppel is remarkably agile for 100. She walks briskly despite her slight frame. Speaking from her apartment in a retirement community outside of Jerusalem, she can recall some of the memories with especially sharp detail. In each new country, she says, their group had to disembark and apply for travel visas in order to pass through it. She recalls the Finns being “very unfriendly” to the children, making them empty out the contents of their backpacks onto a big table at the customs office for inspection. She says it was painful watching them pull out “the very dear things from their parents, including photos and personal things … they had their whole lives in their bags.”

There was also a close call in Bulgaria. Ganz Koppel says that when they reached the port (she cannot remember the name of the city), she and the other chaperones noticed Nazi soldiers patrolling the docks. They quickly told the children to stay inside the boat so they would not be seen. She remembers too how relieved she was when their boat was not inspected by the Nazis and they were able to continue on to Istanbul.

A young Ilse Ganz Koppel (date and location of picture unknown).
Emil Salman

She remembers the youths — in her memory, they were mostly in their early teens but there were younger children as well — as being strikingly stoic, with no tears and an understanding of how dire the situation was. “They knew exactly what they were doing,” she says.

“The children were unbelievable, nice, thankful and grown-up. And they were [just] children, and they helped each other,” she recounts.

As for herself, she reflects, “I had the responsibility for these kids — I could not be scared.”

Intensities of life

Just before commencing the trip, Ganz Koppel married Hans Schuman, one of the three other adults accompanying the youngsters. She did not know him before the fake marriage, but needed to share his resident status in Mandatory Palestine in order to legally travel there. She recalls that the two other adults were doctors.

After accompanying the children on the arduous journey, Ganz Koppel could no longer get back to Sweden, as she had initially planned. Many borders had since closed because of the war and she ended up staying here. Already a specialist in X-ray technology, she would go on to help establish the X-ray department at Afula’s Haemek Hospital and later worked at Tel Hashomer Hospital (now Sheba Medical Center).

A portrait of members of the Ganz Koppel family, including Ilse on the left.
Emil Salman

The intensities of life quickly took over, she says. She lost contact with Schuman after the trip ended, went on to marry twice and was widowed both times. She has no children but does have stepchildren and step-grandchildren from her second marriage. She didn’t stay in touch with the children she brought over, who today would be in their 80s and 90s. She hopes this article might help connect her to some of them before she dies.

Ganz Koppel says the person who raised the funds and helped arrange this rescue mission was Eva Warburg, a member of Stockholm’s Jewish community and also a family friend. In fact, Warburg is known for overseeing the efforts to bring hundreds of European Jewish children to the Jewish community in pre-state Israel.

Warburg’s work was part of a wider undertaking of the Youth Aliyah organization to bring over Jewish children and teenagers in the Mandate period. Historian Orna Keren-Carmel, a specialist in Scandinavian history at the Hebrew University, says the trip Ganz Koppel describes would almost certainly have been part of these Youth Aliyah endeavors, which brought several hundred Jewish youths out of Europe, including through Denmark and Sweden. Even though by 1941 Denmark had been conquered by the Nazis, the occupation was unique for most of its duration in that it allowed free passage — even for Jews — through the country into neighboring neutral Sweden.

Keren-Carmel, whose doctoral thesis is on the rescue of Danish Jewry during World War II, is not familiar with the specific journey Ganz Koppel describes. But she and other historians say there were several such missions. The Jewish refugee children would usually first spend time on farms in Denmark, undergoing agricultural training to prepare themselves for new lives on kibbutzim. “This solved two problems: It saved Jewish youth from their home countries; and prepared them for farming work until they got visas to come to the Yishuv,” she says, using the term for the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine.

She says the trip led by Ganz Koppel in 1941 would have been one of the last chances to get out of Europe. Soon after, successive borders stated to close, making such a journey impossible.

The historian adds: “These initiatives show there were people then who understood what was happening and how critical it was to get the youth out, and that even in these last moments that it was possible, so people were able to save lives. They managed to take action.”

A portrait shot of the Ganz Koppel family (date unknown), with Ilse on the right.
Emil Salman

The Swedish connection

The Youth Aliyah’s Stockholm branch, led by Warburg, operated out of her parents’ home, says Pontus Rudberg, a historian and expert in Swedish Jewish history who is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

German-born Warburg was the daughter of Fritz Warburg, one of the heirs to M. M. Warburg & Co., the famous Hamburg bank. She left Germany for Sweden in 1938; after that November’s Kristallnacht, she immediately became involved in the relief efforts of Stockholm’s Jewish community.

After the Night of Broken Glass, Rudberg says that Jewish community leaders persuaded the Swedish government — which had been highly restrictive toward admitting Jewish refugees into the country — to create a quota for 500 Jewish refugee children. Most of them arrived in 1939. Warburg arranged for a collective home for some of these children in the Swedish countryside, where they were educated and taught life skills in preparation for their resettlement in Mandatory Palestine.

One group of 50 children arrived from the Baltic states in March 1940, on specially chartered planes. From Stockholm they were taken to Copenhagen, then Amsterdam, and then by train to Marseille. From there, they journeyed to Mandate Palestine by boat. Another group traveled through Finland, Russia, Turkey and Syria to reach Palestine. All of these groups escaped thanks to the efforts of Eva Warburg.

“The difficulties in obtaining visas to travel through these countries were enormous,” Rudberg says.

The children Ganz Koppel led out of Europe would have been either part of this quota or been allowed to temporarily pass through Sweden.

Undated black and white file photo showing Sweden's envoy to Nazi-occupied Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being sent to concentration camps.
AP

Complicated neutrality

Both Rudberg and Keren-Carmel acknowledge that Sweden’s role in World War II was complicated.

Like the other Scandinavian countries it declared itself neutral at the outbreak of the war, but unlike the others managed to hold onto this status — although it did give Germany some concessions in order to stay out of the war. After Norway and Denmark were invaded in April 1940, Sweden let the Nazis transport their troops on its railways and through its territorial waters. It also sold its much sought-after iron ore to Germany. But at the same time, it helped the Allies through intelligence-sharing and espionage. And once the threat of a German invasion passed, it started to cooperate even more with the Allies and participate in humanitarian efforts.

“This was, of course, partly opportunistic, as they had given concessions to the Germans and they needed goodwill from the Western Allies. But the public opinion in Sweden toward Germany had gradually shifted with the German invasion of the Scandinavian neighboring countries and increasing knowledge about German brutality,” Rudberg explained in an email.

The deportation of Norwegian Jews in November 1942 is considered the definitive turning point, because people in Sweden saw them as fellow Scandinavians. The deportation deeply upset the Swedes.

Toward the end of the war, Sweden also assisted with the rescue efforts in Budapest spearheaded by Raoul Wallenberg, the brave young Swedish diplomat who is believed to have saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being sent to concentration camps. And in 1945, Sweden helped rescue some 15,000 prisoners from Nazi concentration camps and brought them back to Sweden to recover as part of the so-called White Buses operation.

By 1945, there were some 200,000 war refugees in Sweden, Keren-Carmel says.

She was moved to hear the account of Ganz Koppel’s journey, which comes to light 78 years after the events themselves.

“People have these stories. But if they don’t share them, their stories vanish,” Keren-Carmel says. She encourages others who have not shared their accounts to do so through the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

“We are dealing with something so massive: the Holocaust and World War II,” she says. “As long as people are alive, new stories will come out that people should know about.”