Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
The question of getting money across borders during the occupation that Weidner solved with postage stamps in the last blog post bedeviled other Dutch-Paris resisters and, indeed, the whole line. They came up with a number of arrangements that added up to a private, clandestine banking system that stretched from the Netherlands through Belgium and France to Switzerland.
These things started on a small scale between family members. For example, a Dutchman whom we’ll call Joseph lived and worked in Brussels, Belgium, while his father, a retired colonel, lived in Maastricht, the Netherlands. When family friends decided to leave the Netherlands illegally because they were Jews, the Colonel offered his son’s help. Because Jews were not allowed to take themselves or any currency out of the country, the Jewish family gave the Colonel a certain sum in Dutch guilders. When they arrived in Brussels, Joseph took the equivalent amount in Belgian francs out of his own bank account to give to the fugitives. Of course they made this exchange at the legal, official exchange rate, which was the most favorable one for the fugitives but was unavailable to most civilians. Joseph and his father held themselves to the highest ethical standards while breaking the law, a common enough paradox for resisters.
Being an insurance agent with seven children at home, Joseph soon Read the rest of this entry »
The restrictions and shortages of living under German occupation during the Second World War brought out an impressive creativity among otherwise ordinary and law-abiding citizens. In fact, the whole story of how Dutch-Paris operated an escape line and rescued so many people could be seen as an exercise in creativity, but here’s a smaller, more personal example.
The leader of Dutch-Paris, John Henry Weidner, was living in Paris when the war started. His parents and youngest sister were living in the Netherlands. Now, Papa Weidner was a retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor who taught and translated Greek and Latin. He had a limited income. His son, on the other hand, was doing well selling textiles, at least early in the war.
John Weidner wanted to send money to his parents and sister in the Netherlands. But how? Doing so legally involved a great deal of paperwork and considerable taxes and fees. Even getting a postcard to his parents legally took time and a certain amount of double entendre to get it past the censor.
So Weidner sent his father Read the rest of this entry »
The last post discussed why the vast majority of people who were “patriots in their hearts,” and so disposed towards the resistance, did not join it. Many surely feared the consequences if they were caught, which could reasonably be expected to include torture and deportation to the concentration camps. Others who may have been willing to risk the physical consequences nonetheless might never have had the opportunity or the skills to join.
It should be mentioned that women faced additional obstacles to joining the resistance. Many had family obligations that kept them homebound, of course. And just keeping a home going took much more time and effort during the war because of all the rationing and standing in line.
Some women also encountered straight forward chauvinism. There was one young Dutch-Paris leader in Brussels who refused to let women Read the rest of this entry »
The leader of Dutch-Paris, John Henry Weidner, wrote shortly after the war that for every 50 Dutch expatriates in France and Belgium during the war whom he knew to be patriots in their hearts, only one resisted. The other 49 did not collaborate. They probably even sympathized with the resistance and maybe turned a blind eye here and there in favor of resistance activity. But they did not commit themselves to acting against the occupying forces.
Why did so few patriots join the resistance? Most obviously, resisting meant risking your life. The 50 expatriates to whom Weidner referred were not soldiers. They were men and women of every age and station, and they had good reason to fear torture and/or execution at the hands of the Gestapo and their ilk if they were captured as resisters.
Some might have been willing to risk themselves but had responsibilities and obligations that they were not willing to risk. The decision to resist becomes much more complicated when you have young children or elderly parents relying on you, or if Read the rest of this entry »
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.