Elsa Brändström

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Elsa Brandström
Elsa Brandström in 1929.
Born(1888-03-26)26 March 1888
Died4 March 1948(1948-03-04) (aged 59)
Occupation(s)Nurse, philanthropist
Heinrich Gottlob Robert Ulich
(m. 1929)

Elsa Brändström (26 March 1888 – 4 March 1948) was a Swedish nurse and philanthropist. She was known as the "Angel of Siberia" (German: Engel von Sibirien).

Life and commitment[edit]

Elsa Brändström was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She was the daughter of the Military Attaché at the Swedish Embassy, Edvard Brändström (1850–1921) and his wife Anna Wilhelmina Eschelsson (1855–1913). In 1891, when she was three years old, the family returned to Sweden. In 1906, Brändström, now a general, became the Swedish Ambassador at the court of Tsar Nicholas II and returned to Saint Petersburg.

Elsa spent her childhood in Linköping in Sweden. From 1906 to 1908, she studied at Anna Sandström Teachers Training College (Anna Sandströms högre lärarinneseminarium) 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.[1]

World War I[edit]

In 1915, Brändström went to Siberia together with her friend and nurse Ethel von Heidenstam (1881–1970) for the Swedish Red Cross, to introduce basic medical treatment for the German and Austrian POWs. Up to 80 percent of the POWs died of cold, hunger and diseases. As Brändström visited the first camp and witnessed the inhumane situation, she decided to dedicate her life to these soldiers. For the dedication with which she looked after men from Germany and Austria, many close to death with Typhoid fever, she became known as the Angel of Siberia.[2][3]

Back in St. Petersburg, she founded a Swedish Aid organisation but her work was severely hindered by the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik coup. In 1918, the new Soviet Russian authorities withdrew her work permit, but she did not give up and made several trips to Siberia until being arrested in Omsk in 1920. Accused of being a spy, Brändström was initially sentenced to death by the Soviet authorities.[4] The sentence was eventually revoked and she was interned in 1920. After her release, she returned to Sweden via Stettin on the ship MS Lisboa, where the German government gave her an official public reception. Upon returning to Sweden Brändström organised fund-raising for former POWs and their families. Afterwards she emigrated to Germany.[5]


In 1922, her book Bland krigsfångar i Ryssland och Sibirien was published. It was later translated and published as Among prisoners of war in Russia & Siberia (London: Hutchinson. 1929). From then onwards she looked after former POWs in a rehabilitation sanatorium for homecoming German soldiers at Marienborn-Schmeckwitz in Saxony. She bought a mill named Schreibermühle close to Lychen in Uckermark and used it as re-socialization 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.[6]

In 1923, she undertook a six-month tour in the United States, giving lectures to raise money for a new home for children of deceased and traumatised German and Austrian POWs. On her trip she raised US$100,000 and traveled to 65 towns. At a stop at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, Brändström wore clothing of the Swedish Red Cross and "spoke about her thrilling experiences in Russia and Siberia during and after the war."[7]

In January 1924, she founded a children's home, Neusorge, in 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.

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, which 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 United States. Here Brandström 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.[8]

World War II[edit]

At the end of World War II, she started to raise funds for starving and shelterless women and children in need in Germany through the organisations CARE International (Co-operative for American Relief in Europe) and CRALOG (Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany). Sizable funds were collected from Americans and especially from German Americans, who accounted for over 25% of the American population.[9] She undertook a final lecture tour in Europe on behalf of the "Save the Children Fund".

Elsa Brändström as depicted on a German postage stamp issued in 1951
Monument to Elsa Brändström at Arne-Karlsson-Park in Vienna


Brändström could not undertake her last planned journey to Germany because of illness. She died in 1948 of bone cancer in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 59. While her daughter Brita stayed with her husband and children in the U.S., her husband Robert returned to Germany, where he died in 1977 at Stuttgart.

Honours and memory[edit]

Because of her commitment to POWs, 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.[10]

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). She was awarded the Illis quorum in 1920.[11] Brändström was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize "Heroine of Peace" five times: in 1922, twice in 1923, 1928 and 1929.[12]

In memory of Brändström[edit]

A ceremony at Arne-Karlsson-Park in Vienna on 16 September 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 conference delegates, a monument to Elsa Brändström 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.[13]


  • 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 (ed.) and Elsa Brändström: Elsa Brändström-Dank – Das Ehrenbuch nordischer und deutscher Schwesternhilfe für die Kriegsgefangenen in Sibirien, Becker/Säeman/Heliand


  1. ^ "Anna Sandströms högre lärarinneseminarium, Stockholm". Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikon. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  2. ^ James M. Kaplan. "The Angel of Siberia". Nordstjernan. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  3. ^ "Ethel Mabyn Thornton (von Heidenstam)". skagerlind.net. Archived from the original on 1 December 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  4. ^ Harry Graf Kessler, Tagebücher 1918 bis 1937. (actually he wrote, she was formally condemned to death twice by the Soviet authorities) Editor: Wolfgang Pfeiffer-Belli. Frankfurt am Main (1982)
  5. ^ Lena Radauer (October 2014). "Brändström, Elsa". International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  6. ^ "Among prisoners of war in Russia & Siberia / by Elsa Brändström ; translated from the German by C. Mabel Rickmers ; with a preface by Nathan Söderblom". HathiTrust digital library. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  7. ^ "Students Appreciate Impressive Message of Elsa Brandstrom". Gustavian Weekly. College and Lutheran Church Archives, Gustavus Adolphus College. 10 April 1923. p. 4. Archived from the original on 2 May 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  8. ^ "The Unknown Elsa Brandstrom-Ulich". Vestkusten, Number 8, 25 April 1985. Archived from the original on 9 December 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  9. ^ In the 1990 United States Census, 58 million Americans (ca. 20%) claimed to be solely or partially of German descent.
  10. ^ Citation from his memoirs, With the Russian Army: 1914–1917.
  11. ^ Wieselgren, O. "Elsa Brändström". Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon (in Swedish). Archived from the original on 24 January 2022. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  12. ^ "Heroine of Peace".
  13. ^ In Memory of Elsa Brandstrom Archived 10 April 2018 at the Wayback Machine(International Review of the Red Cross, 5th Year, No. 56, November 1965, pp. 613–614

Further reading[edit]

  • C. Mabel Rickmers: Among prisoners of war in Russia and Siberia (with a preface by Nathan Soderblom), Mutchinson and Co. Ltd. (1926), ASIN B000WQLF8I
  • 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)[1]
  • 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, Bernard & Graefe (1936)
  • Charlotte von Hadeln: Deutsche Frauen – Deutsche Treue 1914–1933, Traditions-Verlag Kolk & Co. (1935)
  • Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt:[2] 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)[3] Digital reading
  • 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
  • Jost Meyen: "Elsa Brändström und die Kriegsgefangenen. Die sibirische Tragödie 1914 – 1921", Neuenburg 2021. ISBN 9783754320907
  • Elsa Brändström at Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikon

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Schickedanz über die auf tragischste Weise verschollene (verschleppte, vergewaltigte und ermordete?) Schwester Erika von Passow: „Wenn je eine deutsche Schwester von deutschen Soldaten von ganzem Herzen geliebt und verehrt wurde, dann war es Schwester Erika von Passow. Sie war in ihrem ganzen Wesen von so wundervoller fürsorglicher Zartheit (...)"
  2. ^ Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt war eine Jugend- und Schulfreundin von Elsa Brändström, die eine lebenslange Freundschaft verband. Sie war gleichfalls in der Kriegsgefangenbetreuung aktiv. Das erste Buch sollte auf Deutsch erscheinen, was 1933 aus politischen Gründen nicht mehr möglich war.
  3. ^ Magdalene Philippine Caroline Auguste Erika Wilhelmine Freifrau von Steinaecker (geborene von Walsleben; 1880–?)