The Angel of Lübeck

    “Above my head, a free country’s free blue-yellow flag fluttered in the wind that blew from the sea.”

Faces flicker past in the Swedish newsreel film “The Testimony”, from May 1945. Tired, exhausted and emaciated former concentration camp prisoners arrive in Malmö after being rescued by the White Buses. Malmö is described as the port of hope. But in the crowd there is one person who stands out, a woman with a Red Cross armband being embraced by what appears to be her family. It is the Swede, Countess Majlis von Eickstedt-Peterswaldt, being embraced by her sister, mother and father.

Maja Lisa Lüning, which was her name when she was born in 1919, daughter of Fritz Lüning “Police in the City”, had travelled to Germany to fulfil her dreams of an international film career just before the war. At a gala evening she meets Vivigenz von Eickstedt-Peterswaldt and falls instantly in love and a few months later they get married. The film career is sidelined and instead she takes responsibility for the Hohenholz family estate. Furthermore, she has to do it alone after Vivigenz is called up for military service in the German army.

Church Record of the birth Maja Lisa Lüning

Fairly soon she is drawn into the anti-Nazi circles that grew up in the German upper class. However, passive resistance and secret political discussions at home soon turn into action when a close relative of Majlis is arrested by the Gestapo.

Majlis wakes up in a hotel room, bathed in sweat after a night filled with nightmares. Her husband’s aunt Dolly von Kurowsky, who was arrested by the Gestapo and initially interned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, had now been moved to a correctional facility in Cottbus. Majlis tormented herself throughout the night at the Cottbus railway hotel, about 150 kilometres southeast of Berlin, following a journey through raging war, bomb attacks, explosions, screams and the Gestapo’s constant attentions. During the day, she would finally be able to meet Dolly.

Folke Bernadotte in Lübeck 1945. Photo: Bertil Fröderberg

The destruction of Germany in the latter part of World War II is total and people flee from the repeated bombing of the cities. When the Swedish old age home in Berlin is destroyed by the bombing, Majlis von Eickstedt-Peterswaldt offers a sanctuary for the Swedish old people on the Hohenholz estate. In the face of a constant struggle against local representatives of the Nazi party, the Gestapo and the SS, she succeeds in keeping the operation running. When the Russian Allied troops approach from the east, the situation becomes unsustainable and the family estate must be abandoned. Hohenholz is quickly taken over by the SS, who set up a frontline hospital on the estate. Most of the old people are sent home to Sweden, but Majlis von Eickstedt-Peterswaldt now starts to work instead with the Church of Sweden and Reverend Hellqvist in Lübeck to provide primarily Swedish and other Scandinavian refugees with food, shelter and exit visas. Lists are sent back and forth to local police authorities and sometimes she has to travel to Berlin to have names approved. She makes several journeys by train and car through a Germany in the chaos of all-out war, sometimes interrupted by the need to flee to an air-raid shelter when the bombings become too intense. One trip is to Berlin to meet the Swedish Reverend Erik Perwe. Another trip is back to the Hohenholz estate with one of the White Buses, together with Red Cross drivers Thoor and Larsson, to try to take the equipment and food still in her ownership. It is during this trip that she comes into contact for the first time with the huge streams of refugees moving west in Germany. Once back in Lübeck, Majlis von Eickstedt-Peterswaldt now initiates an operation that should almost be considered by the German authorities as fraud. She begins to add names of non-Scandinavian and Jewish refugees to the lists and plays out different authorities against other.

On Monday 23 April, Folke Bernadotte gives the order that all activities in Lübeck should be evacuated. Now the entire Red Cross detachment is relocated to Lübeck, with Major Frykman and Dr Hans Arnoldsson in command, and on 27 April, Majlis is offered the opportunity to travel home to Sweden. The plan is that she will travel on the Swedish ship Lillie Matthiessen, which carried the supplies and refugee transport to and from Lübeck throughout the White Buses operation. However, one last spanner in the works holds up the Angel of Lübeck, which she was now given as a nickname, from returning home. A name on a list is not correct and she has to leave the ship to visit the local police bureau again to resolve the situation. The ship Lillie Matthiessen leaves Lübeck without Majlis von Eickstedt-Peterswaldt, and instead she has to take the last buses travelling via Flensburg towards Denmark. The last thing we can read in Majlis von Eickstedt-Peterswald’s memoirs “Bridge of Dark Water” (1945) is when she is on the ferry from Copenhagen to Malmö: “Above my head, a free country’s free blue-yellow flag fluttered in the wind that came from the sea”. Later that day, Majlis meets with her family in the port of hope in Malmö.

Search the Swedish church records at Swedish National Archives