Elsa Brändström

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Elsa Brändström with daughter Brita, ca. 1932/33. Photographer: Genja Jonas, Dresden.

Elsa Brändström (b. 26 March 1888 in St. Petersburg; d. 4 March 1948 Cambridge, Massachusetts) was a Swedish nurse and philanthropist. She was known around the world as the "Angel of Siberia" (German: Engel von Sibirien) for her service in World War One.


Brändström (right) and von Heidenstam with thankful German POWS in Siberia, 1916. The Imperial German soldier in front had lost both legs.
Ethel von Heidenstam: Elsa Brändström's loyal companion and aide, ca. 1915
Elsa Brändström in 1929
Elsa Brändström in the children's home “Neusorge” taking care of the orphans, just as she had promised the dying German soldiers in Siberia
Vienna's Arne Carlsson park, monument honouring Elsa Brandstrom
Monument in Linz honouring Elsa Brandstrom

Elsa Brändström was born in 1888 in Saint Petersburg, the daughter of the Military Attaché at the Swedish Embassy, Edvard Brändström, and his wife Anna Wilhelmina Eschelsson. In 1891, when Elsa was three years old, Edvard Brändström and his family returned to Sweden. In 1906, Brändström, now a General, became the Swedish Ambassador at the court of Tsar Nicholas II and returned to St Petersburg.


Elsa spent her childhood in Linköping in Sweden. From 1906 to 1908, she studied at the Anna Sandström Teachers Training College in Stockholm but returned to St. Petersburg in 1908. Her mother died in 1913. Elsa was in St. Petersburg at the outbreak of World War I and volunteered for a position as a nurse in the Imperial Russian army.

World War I

In 1915, Elsa Brändström went to Siberia together with her friend and helper Ethel von Heidenstam for the Swedish Red Cross, to introduce basic medical treatment for the German and Austrian POWs, who were treated barbarically by the Russians. Up to 80 percent of the POWs died of cold, hunger and diseases. As Elsa Brändström visited the first camp and witnessed the inhuman situation, she decided to dedicate her life to these Germanic soldiers. The men from Germany and Austria, so many close to death with Typhoid fever, looked upon the tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired nurse and benefactress as an angel. She was known as the "Angel of Siberia" from there on forth, even to the communist Russians.

Back in St. Petersburg, she began the establishment of a Swedish Aid organization. Her work was severely hindered by the outburst of the October Revolution in the year 1917. The Russian authorities withdrew her work permit in 1918, but, nevertheless, she did not give up. Between 1919 and 1920, she made several trips to Siberia until she was arrested in Omsk and even committed to death for spying,[1] later the sentence was revoked and Brändström was interned in 1920. After her release, she returned Sweden (via Stettin with the ship MS Lisboa, where the German government gave here an official public reception) and organized fund-raising for the former POWs and their families, afterwards she emigrated to Germany.


In 1922 her book, Among POWs in Russia and Siberia 1914-1920, was published. From then onwards she looked after former POWs in a rehabilitation sanatorium for home coming German soldiers in Marienborn-Schmeckwitz. She bought a mill named “Schreibermühle“ close to Lychen (Uckermark) and used it as resocialization centre for former POWs. Schreibermühle had extensive lands including fields, forest and meadows on which potatoes and other crops could be grown. This was most useful at that time because the German Mark was an unstable currency and lost value from day to day. In 1923, she undertook a six month tour in the USA, giving lectures to raise money for a new home for children of deceased and traumatized German and Austrian POW’s. On her trip she raised US$100,00 and travelled to 65 towns. In January 1924, she founded a children's home “Neusorge” (Mittweida) which had room for more than 200 orphans and children in need. In Siberia she had promised many German soldiers, who were dying, that she would care for their children, which she did with all her heart.

In 1929 she married her great love Heinrich Gottlob Robert Ulich, a German Professor of Pedagogy. Afterwards, she moved together with him to Dresden. In 1931, she sold the “Schreibermühle“ and donated her other home, Neusorge, to the Welfare Centre in Leipzig. She founded the “Elsa-Brändström-Foundation-for Women” (the foundation awarded scholarships to children from Neusorge). On 3 January 1932, her daughter Brita was born in Dresden.

In 1933, Robert Ulich accepted a lectureship at Harvard University and in consequence the family moved to the USA. Here Elsa gave aid to newly arrived German and Austrian refugees. In 1939, she opened the “Window-Shop”, a restaurant which gave work opportunities for refugees in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

World War II

At the end of World War II, she started to raise funds for starving and shelterless women and children in need in Germany, and as a result, the organizations CARE International (Cooperative for American Relief in Europe) and CRALOG (Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany) were established. Massive funds were collected from Americans and especially from German Americans, who accounted for >25% of the US population.[2] She undertook a final lecture tour in Europe on behalf of the “Save the Children Fund”.


Elsa could not undertake her last planned journey to Germany because of illness. She died in 1948 in Cambridge, Massachusetts of bone cancer and was buried in Sweden. Because of her commitment to POWs, Elsa Brändström became famous as a “patron saint” for soldiers. In Germany and Austria, many streets, schools and institutions are named after her.

"The war has brought about many heroines in various nations, but in my opinion, never again someone, who is more worthy of being honoured than Elsa Brändström." – General Alfred Knox, British Military Attaché in Russia. [3]


Her daughter Brita stayed with her husband and children in the USA, Elsa Brändström-Ulich's husband Robert returned to Germany, where he died in 1977 in Stuttgart.

Honours and memory

Among countless medals, awards and honours, Brändström was awarded the Silber Badge of the German Empire (German: Silberplakette des Deutschen Reiches) and the Golden Seraphim Medal (Swedish: Serafimermedaljen). Elsa Brändström was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize "Heroine of Peace" five times: in 1922, twice in 1923, 1928 and 1929. [4]

In Memory of Elsa Brändström

A moving ceremony in Vienna's Arne Karlsson park on September 16, 1965, preceded the official opening of the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross. In the presence of Austrian civilian and military authorities, members of the Swedish colony, leaders of the Austrian Red Cross and many delegates to the XXth International Conference, a monument to Elsa Brandstrom was unveiled. This monument, by the sculptor Robert Ullmann, stands as a testimony of gratitude to the famous Swedish nurse's work for German-Austrian prisoners during the First World War. After a musical rendering by the band and an address of welcome by the architect Mr. Hans ]aksch, Professor Hans Weiland described the life and work of she who was called " The Angel from Siberia". He himself had been one of the prisoners whom she had tended, comforted and saved.

As the monument was unveiled, a girl student declared, in the name of the youth of today, that she would be guided by her noble example, that the great values of charity and dedication to service for one's neighbour will remain alive. Then Dr. Hans Lauda, President of the Austrian Red Cross, gave an address in which he underlined one of Elsa Brandstrom's most cherished wishes: that men would learn to know and help one another more and more.

She knew the value of the ties established among men and she desired their extension among the nations. It was in love for one's neighbour that she perceived salvation for future humanity. " Is it not moving ", asked the speaker, "that after forty years and more, the men to whom this woman brought help have never forgotten her? Whoever has not known captivity, never existed for year after year without news of his mother, his wife or his children, cannot appreciate what Elsa Brandstrom did for German-Austrian prisoners of war in distant lands and what she did towards their repatriation ".

She had, in fact, brought their mortality rate down to 18 % from the 80 % which it had reached before her activities began. It will be recalled that with the proceeds of her book Bland Krigsfångar i Ryssland och Sibirien (With Prisoners of War in Russia and Siberia) she founded a rehabilitation centre for seriously wounded repatriated soldiers and converted property into a home for children.

Other speakers, were Mgr. May and Count Carl Gustav Bielke, the Swedish charge d'affaires, who thanked the Association of Former Austrian Prisoners of War for having perpetuated his compatriots' name, and Dr. Gluck who, on behalf of the Mayor of Vienna, expressed the city's gratitude.

After a song followed by a minute's silence, the crowd listened to the Swedish and Austrian anthems. Former prisoners from Germany and Austria thronged around the monument to gaze upon the likeness of she who had alleviated their distress in their darkest hour. [5]


  • Elsa Brändström: Bland Krigsfångar i Ryssland och Sibirien 1914–1920, Norstedt, Stockholm (1921).
  • Elsa Brändström: Unter Kriegsgefangenen in Rußland und Sibirien – 1914–1920, Leipzig, Koehler & Amelang (1927)
  • Hanna Lieker-Wentzlau (Hg.) und Elsa Brändström: Elsa Brändström-Dank – Das Ehrenbuch nordischer und deutscher Schwesternhilfe für die Kriegsgefangenen in Sibirien, Becker/Säeman/Heliand


  • C. Mabel Rickmers: Among prisoners of war in Russia and Siberia (with a preface by Nathan Soderblom), Mutchinson and Co. Ltd. (1926), ASIN B000WQLF8I
  • Edwin Erich Dwinger: Die deutsche Passion (dedicated to Elsa Brändström, the "Angel of Siberia" - original title: "Siberian Trilogy"), 1929 to 1932
  • Panke-Kochinke & Schaidhammer-Placke: Frontschwestern und Friedensengel: Kriegskrankenpflege im Ersten und Zweiten Weltkrieg. Ein Quellen- und Fotoband, Mabuse (2002), ISBN 978-3933050915
  • Norgard Kohlhagen: Elsa Brändström. Die Frau, die man Engel nannte. Eine Biographie, Quell, Stuttgart (1992), ISBN 978-3791819839
  • Magdalena Padberg: Das Leben der Elsa Brändström: ein Hilfswerk in drei Erdteilen, Herder, Freiburg (1989), ISBN 978-3451086410
  • Margareta Schickedanz: Deutsche Frau und deutsche Not im Weltkrieg, B.G. Teubner (1938)
  • Leopold Ehrenstein: Der Fall der Festung Przemysl. Der sibirische Engel Elsa Brandström. Bearbeitet von Emil Portisch, Bratislava 1937.
  • Elfriede von Plugk-Hartung: Frontschwestern Ein deutsches Ehrenbuch, Bernhard & Graefe (1936)
  • Charlotte von Hadeln: Deutsche Frauen - Deutsche Treue 1914-1933, Tradtions-Verlag Kolk & Co. (1935)
  • Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt: [6] Elsa Brändström, 1933 (language: Swedish)
  • Anne -Marie. Wenzel: Deutsche Kraft in Fesseln. Fünf Jahre deutscher Schwesterndienst in Sibirien (1916-1927), Ernte-Verlag (1931)
  • Gräfin Anna Revertera: Als österreichische Rotekreuzschwester in Rußland: Tagebuch, Süddeutsche Monatshefte (1923)
  • Magdalene von Walsleben (Freifrau von Steinaecker): Die deutsche Schwester in Sibirien: Aufzeichnungen von einer Reise durch die sibirischen Gefangenenlager vom Ural bis Wladiwostok, Furche, Berlin (1919) [7]
  • Alexander von Schlieben: Heldinnen vom Roten Kreuz: Lazaretterzählungen, Ellersiek (1916)
  • Ludwig Detter: Eine Deutsche Heldin: Erlebnisse Einer Roten Kreuz Schwester – Nach Aufzeichnungen von Hertha Immensee, P. List (1916) ISBN 978-1168579317
  • Ilse Franke: Deutsche Treue: Kriegslieder einer deutschen Frau – Unsern deutschen und österreichischen Helden gewidmet Hesse & Becker, 1915 Digital reading
  • Rudolf Voemel: Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue! Ein Wort des Trostes an unsere deutschen Frauen und Jungfrauen, Verlag des Westdeutschen Jünglingsbundes (1914) Digital reading

External links


  1. Harry Graf Kessler, Tagebücher 1918 bis 1937 (actually he wrote, she was formally committed to death twice by the Soviet authorities) Editor: Wolfgang Pfeiffer-Belli. Frankfurt am Main (1982)
  2. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 58 million Americans (ca. 20%) claimed to be solely or partially of German descent.
  3. Citation from his memoirs, With the Russian Army: 1914-1917.
  4. Heroine of Peace
  6. Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt was a friend and schoolmate of Elsa Brändström.
  7. Magdalene Philippine Caroline Auguste Erika Wilhelmine Freifrau von Steinaecker (née von Walsleben; 1880–?)