Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
A curious thing happened during the liberation of European cities 71 years ago. Among the massacres, the vengeance and the rejoicing, citizens rushed to save documents from burning buildings. There’s footage of it in the British newsreel of the liberation of Belgium posted on the website of the city of Brussels [http://www.brussels.be/artdet.cfm/5562].
Whenever the German occupation authorities retreated, they either took their files with them or burned them. There may have been some bureaucratic desire for tidy record keeping at work when officials loaded their files onto trucks, of course. But they burned them because they knew that those files documented an array of crimes: the deportation of men, women and children to concentration and extermination camps; the massacre of resisters; the torture of prisoners; the taking of hostages; the theft of art and other property as well as other, more petty, corruption. Burning the meticulous records was meant to cover up the crimes and was, in part, successful at doing so.
But not entirely successful, because not all the records were burnt. Some were overlooked at the bonfire. Others were snatched from it by civilians. I have read half charred documents at the Archives nationales of France. The newsreel of the liberation of Belgium shows citizens of all ages in a long line passing documents from one to another to save them from the flames. Why do that when other citizens were chasing down collaborators or kissing Allied soldiers?
There are two reasons that I can think of, both of which confirm the power of the written word and demonstrate a belief in the principle that the pen is mightier than the sword.
In the first case, even after four or five years of Nazi occupation and perversion of the law, those men and women still believed in the rule of law. And they believed that the Allied armies would restore it. They expected the perpetrators to be put on trial in a court of law that would require evidence. It must have seemed obvious at the time that if the Gestapo was burning something, it was evidence against them.
In the second case, the men and women who rushed to rescue papers from the flames wanted history to bear witness to what had happened to them. They each knew part of the story, and maybe they had their suspicions as well. But the documents would tell the details. The documents, for example, would give the names of all the prisoners, even those who had disappeared.
Whether the civilians guarding the documents were intent on condemning every member of the occupation army to the death sentence, or establishing the history of their community, or any other cause, they were upholding the civilized standards that the Nazis had tried to destroy. They were themselves acting as liberators of their own culture and standards from those of the Nazis.
The next major city on the Dutch-Paris line to be liberated after Brussels was Maastricht. Dutch-Paris did not actually have a station in Maastricht, but they had working associations with Dutch resisters there, and a couple of Dutch-Paris guides went back and forth over the Dutch border there to escort aviators into Belgium or bring news and documents across.
Allied Bombers targeted the strategically situated bridges in the city in late August 1944, and German troops destroyed those bridges over the Maas when they retreated. But otherwise the city escaped ruinous battle.
My father was there as a boy of six. He remembers the long funeral cortege for the victims of the bombing, which his family maintained was a navigational mistake on the part of the Allies. He also remembers the first American GIs to appear in his neighborhood. One of them gave him Read the rest of this entry »
This week of the end of August and beginning of September 2015 marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Belgium by British forces, culminating in the liberation of Brussels on September 3.
It had been a difficult spring and summer in Occupied Brussels. German soldiers had been increasingly jumpy and suspicious, especially after the Normandy Landings in early June. Even before then, German police had been rounding men up off the streets of the capital to send to the factories and mines of the Third Reich as forced labor. In fact, Dutch-Paris lost two of its best couriers that way, one in March and one in June. They were both arrested on the street, essentially for being men in their early twenties; imprisoned without much formality; loaded onto trains with thousands of other unfortunates, and put to work until the end of the war in extremely difficult circumstances.
By July Dutch-Paris had adjusted to the randomly dangerous Read the rest of this entry »
In the last post I mentioned the escape and evasion reports of Allied aviators who crashed in occupied territory, evaded arrest and made their way back to England. Such men did not just hitch a ride back to their base and report for duty. First they answered a whole lot of questions about what happened to their aircraft, what happened to them in occupied territory and what they saw while they were there. The answers were compiled into the escape and evasion reports.
The American reports are divided into sections according to the type of information they contain. The first section was meant for the men who designed the planes and trained the crews. It discusses the aircraft’s performance and what the crew did to, say, keep the motors going long enough to reach occupied territory. German civilians were understandably unfriendly to the airmen who were bombing their homes around the clock.
There is another section intended for the strategists in which the evaders report any likely bombing targets such as military installations that they saw, the result of any bombing that they saw and civilian opinion about the bombing. The evaders were also asked to report any rumors that they heard, especially rumors about the course of the war.
The rest of the report was meant Read the rest of this entry »
Because Dutch-Paris helped more than 120 Allied aviators evade capture after their aircraft had crashed in the Netherlands, Belgium or France, I’ve read dozens of escape and evasion reports describing these men’s journeys back to England. They always begin with complete and detailed descriptions of the men’s last mission: the weather, the bombing run, the trouble with the plane, the procedures they followed to land or evacuate the aircraft, injuries to the crew, civilians or German troops on the ground when they landed.
Naturally, I’ve focused of the parts of the reports that describe the aviators’ experiences with the Dutch-Paris line. When I read the first part of the reports about the bombing run and the crash, the images in my mind’s eye came from Hollywood movies. I’m sure you know what I mean: handsome young men in their fleece lined bomber jackets, steely eyed with determination, stoic or sarcastic in the face of disaster.
I really had no idea how uncomfortable, cramped and Read the rest of this entry »
If you read the story about the two friendly Miliciens in the last post, you may be wondering if Weidner also wrote a character testimonial for the older of the two paramilitary collaborators after the war. He did not.
Weidner gained the friendship of the younger man by discussing the Bible with him. He cultivated the older man’s good will by signing over his car to him. Weidner had stored his personal automobile in a garage in Toulouse early in the occupation in 1940. When the Miliciens found a receipt from the garage, Weidner signed the Chevrolet over to the older man with all the formalities. He figured that it was a small investment in their liberty and, in any case, the Milice could simply take the car if they wanted it.
Even so, Weidner might have helped the older man if he had survived the war. After Weidner and his colleague escaped from the Milice prison, Weidner sent a letter from Switzerland to the Milice chief to thank him for his “correct” attitude (ie not torturing him) and to take full blame for the escape. The chief nevertheless blamed the older man for the loss of the prestigious prisoners. After all, the Germans had put a price on Weidner’s head. In punishment, the chief had the older Milicien deported to the concentration camps. The vast majority of prisoners in the concentration camps (not the extermination camps) were resisters, political prisoners, hostages or others whom the Nazis wanted to be rid of for ideological reasons, but the Germans did send collaborators whom they’d tired of or black marketeers who had gone too far to the camps as well.
This man was sent as a prisoner to Buchenwald. Other French prisoners there recognized him as a Milicien. They held a kangaroo court and hanged him for his actions against French resisters. There is very little doubt that he committed the crimes of which he was accused. If he had stayed in France and been arrested at the liberation, he would surely have been sentenced to death with the other Miliciens from Toulouse. He also probably would have benefited from the legal appeal process and the cooling of the passions of the war and not been executed.
So Weidner did not have a chance to write a character testimonial for this Milicien. He had received the rough justice of combatants in a civil war who have no recourse to formal legality or even prisons to remove a man from the opportunity of doing further harm. Whether that counts as vengeance or justice is another discussion.
We tend to think of the Second World War as a simple moral equation of good vs. evil, white vs. black. It’s not too hard to make a case for that on the macro level of Hitler and the SS vs the Allied democracies and the Resistance. But the closer you get to individual stories on the micro level, the murkier it gets. Even collaborators, the villains who sided with the Nazi occupiers against their countrymen, could have a few redeeming moments. John Weidner thought so even though he risked his life many times to oppose the fundamental ideology of collaborators and their Nazi masters.
In May 1944, Weidner and two of his resistance colleagues were arrested by the worst of the French collabos, the paramilitary Milice. From the start, Weidner admitted that they were resisters, but he emphasized that they were Dutch, carried no weapons and had not done anything against France. His attitude impressed the Milice chief enough that the Dutchmen were spared the torture that caused the screams that they heard from other prisoners.
One of the Dutch-Paris men escaped the first day. Weidner and his other colleague spent a little over a week in a cell waiting for the Milice chief to consult with his superiors. During that time they cultivated the friendship of two of the Miliciens. When the younger of the two asked Weidner about the small New Testament in his pocket and admitted to admiring people who read the Bible, Weidner seized the opening. He was himself a devoted reader of the Bible and had plenty to say.
When the friendly Miliciens heard that Weidner and his companion would be turned over to the Germans, they improved the conditions for their escape without actually opening the door for them.
At the Liberation the Miliciens from Toulouse who had been captured were tried for their crimes against other Frenchmen and sentenced to death. Weidner believed that the younger Milicien, who was 22 years old in 1944, was a potentially good man who had been led astray. In fact, the young man had thought that by joining the Milice he was helping to save the world from Bolshevism. That was, indeed, the standard and fairly successful propaganda lure to recruit non-Germans to fight for the Third Reich.
At the request of the young man’s parents, Weidner wrote a letter to the judge that detailed the ways in which he had acted decently towards the Dutch resisters. He also sent an Adventist pastor to visit the former Milicien in prison. Weidner’s letter must have had some effect because the judge commuted the sentence to hard labor for life. The man was later released for health reasons and amnestied in the general amnesty.
At the same time, Weidner’s own sister and many of his friends and resistance colleagues died in the concentration camps. Why spend his time helping a paramilitary collaborator? Because Weidner considered each individual as a human being, not as a label. That’s why he joined the resistance in the first place.
The last post described how the Germans found more than they expected when they arrested a woman involved in Dutch-Paris. At least in the case of Dutch-Paris, however, it happened more often that the Germans never realized that they had arrested someone important.
In March and June 1944, for example, German police arrested two young Dutch-Paris couriers on the streets of Brussels, locked them up and deported them to the Third Reich as forced laborers with trainloads of other men whose identity cards had appeared suspicious. Neither of these men was ever questioned. The only thing that mattered was that they looked healthy enough to work in a factory, even though one had a pronounced limp. The Germans never discovered that the men were Jewish, let alone Read the rest of this entry »
Following on the last two posts about resisters belonging to more than one network, here’s another story from Dutch-Paris. This one did not turn out so well.
There was a middle-aged widow in Paris, we’ll call her Anne, who opened her apartment to downed Allied aviators as part of Dutch-Paris. Some of these men stayed there for a few hours but others lived with her for weeks while she nursed them over an ailment so that they could continue their clandestine journey to Spain.
She was arrested in the big Dutch-Paris round up in late February 1944 and, like her colleagues, interrogated roughly. There was no Read the rest of this entry »
In the last post I mentioned that different resistance groups sometimes crossed in a single person. This was especially true among what is sometimes called the humanitarian resistance, ie resisters who offered aid to fugitives and prisoners. The nature of that illegal work meant that a lot of people had to be involved to provide money, false documents, shelter, food, medical care etc etc. It also meant that the word got out that so-and-so was willing to help.
John Weidner certainly had such a reputation in Annecy, near the Swiss border, in late 1942. In fact, he got to be so well known that the French and German police had several talks with him about it. Finally, in September 1943, he was too well known and Read the rest of this entry »