15th Apr

One of the most dangerous and most exposed jobs in the Resistance was that of courier. Because the German and collaborationist authorities were not as immediately suspicious of women as they were of men, the job of carrying incriminating documents or escorting incriminating fugitives was often given to young women. Just about anything could go wrong on a mission.

Here’s the story of one trip taken by a young Corsican woman living in Paris during the war. She gave up a good secretarial job to work for Dutch-Paris full time. On this particular day in early 1944, Marie-France as she called herself, took the light rail from the center of Paris to a farm owned by a Dutch farmer about 30km southwest of the city. She took the 1:30 train back to Paris with eight Allied aviators. The air raid claxon rang when they got to the Gare Montparnasse, so they had to wait to take the metro. As soon as the all clear sounded, she led her group through the underground tunnels of the metro to the platform they needed.

Standing on the metro platform, she counted her flock. There were only seven aviators. Perhaps she had Read the rest of this entry »

1st Apr

In honor of the 70th anniversary of the “Great Escape” on March 24, I’ll tell you Dutch-Paris’s part of the story. If you’ve seen the old movie, you know that the “Great Escape” happened when several dozen Allied POW’s tunneled out of a maximum security fortress in Sagan. Only three of those men made it to freedom.

One of the three was a Dutchman named Bram van der Stok who had been shot down on an RAF mission in April 1942. After he got through the tunnel, he made straight for home in the Netherlands. Not long after, he headed south towards Spain and eventually England.

Like so many evading aviators, van der Stok crossed into Belgium by Maastricht and came into the care of Dutch-Paris in Brussels. The line had been devastated by arrests in late February and early March, but was still functioning in a much reduced capacity. One of the leaders, whom we’ll call Moen, escorted van der Stok to Paris on his own personal winding route that involved various trams and climbing along the outside of a pedestrian fence between Belgium and France. In Paris, Moen passed the aviator to an unidentified woman. She took him to Toulouse on the night train and passed him back to Moen.

Van der Stok spent about a couple of weeks in Moen’s personal safe house in Toulouse while Moen arranged passage for him over the Pyrenees. He travelled with two other Dutchmen, a priest who played an important role in the Dutch social Resistance and a Dutch secret agent from the Bureau Inlichtingdienst. The priest and the secret agent had made their own way to Switzerland, where they came into the care of Dutch-Paris.

Moen paid for these three to cross into Spain with a very reliable French line that was nonetheless having difficulties of its own. The Dutchmen took a train to a small town south of Toulouse to stay in a hotel that was mostly full of Germans. The next day French partisans armed with sten guns drove them into the foothills. They settled into a rat infested farm house with a number of other evaders including several Jews, a Russian officer and more airmen. A couple days later the convoy started out on their trek across the Pyrenees, guarded by more armed partisans. Unlike so many other evaders, they enjoyed beautiful weather in the mountains and made the trip without incident in only three days.

Van der Stok arrived in Spain on June 19, 1944, almost three months after the “Great Escape” and just over two years after being shot down.  Once in Spain, the British authorities claimed van der Stok and whisked him off to England, or in what counted for whisking during the war, which meant a few days.

18th Mar

Sierk Plantinga, a retired archivist from the Dutch Nationaal Archief, has sent me a welcome correction to my last two posts (18 February and 4 March, 2014) about finding refugees in the archives. No one knows more about the archives about Dutch people in France during WWII than he does.

Sierk tells me, and I believe him, that as long as the family in question made contact with the Dutch authorities in southern France, Switzerland or Portugal or with the Swiss authorities, you have a good chance of finding them in the archives. There might not be much information, but the names should at least appear on a list with a relevant date.

To look for such Dutch refugees, start at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague (www.gahetna.nl). Look in five places.

(1) The archives of the Dutch consulates (later called the Offices néerlandaises, later called the Bureau d’administration des Néerlandais) in Vichy France. The inventories are all on the website (Vichy inventory 2.05.101; Toulouse inventory 2.05.100; Montauban inventory 2.02.97 and Nice, for which most documents have been destroyed). You will find the correspondence between the consulates and the Dutch refugees in southern France who asked for help. For instance, there is a list of all Dutch citizens who applied for a new Dutch passport at the Office Neerlandais in Vichy in 1942, something they needed to apply for visas to get out of Europe.

(2) The files of the Dutch Office for Refugees in Lisbon run by Baron van Harinxma (inventory 2.05.161). This will include documents about Dutch refugees in Spain and Portugal.

(3) The postwar Bureau Invordering (inventory 2.04.77). This office administered the repayment of loans that made by the government-in-exile to Dutch refugees while they were in Switzerland. These files contain the records of the refugee administration of the Dutch Legation in Bern with such interesting items as lists of how much refugees spent on what: socks, raincoats, trips to the dentist etc etc.

(4) The files of the wartime Dutch military attaché in Bern, who was Read the rest of this entry »

4th Mar

In the last post we talked about the probability of finding documents about a family’s legal journey out of Occupied Europe in government archives. The chances are slim to none. But in the other and far more likely scenario that the family in question travelled from The Netherlands to Portugal illegally, the chances of finding traces of that journey in the archives are even slimmer.

If the family made the journey on their own, finding and paying passeurs as they traveled southward, there is no reason to think there would ever have been any documents about their border crossings. The kind of passeur whom you found in a café in a border town did not keep written accounts. If, however, the family found the help of a Resistance group, there may be some sort of documents.

The problem for the reader who wrote to me, however, is that he knows his family’s name but not the names of anyone who helped them. If the family used a false name, which would have only been prudent, the people who helped them would never have known the family’s name and therefore never written it down. If, however, the family had shared their real name with their helpers, then there may be documents somewhere.

They would likely be in one of the archives dedicated to the war. But such archives, like all archives, have to operate within the limits of the papers that they preserve. Archives dedicated to the Holocaust organize Read the rest of this entry »

18th Feb

A reader wrote to me about his attempts to reconstruct his family’s flight from Occupied Europe. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s somewhat like looking for a needle that may or may not be in a haystack. Something the reader said made me think that it might be useful to return to the subject of archives, specifically what is, and is not, in archives.

The reader presumed that he should be able to find records of border crossings during the war. I, on the other hand, would be very surprised to find any such thing. I’ll tell you why in two scenarios, starting with the least likely.

Suppose that the family in question left Occupied Europe legally. That would have required a formidable number of exit and entrance visas, travel passes etc etc. At the time, in 1942, the journey would have generated a fair amount of paperwork in a fair number of bureaucratic offices across western Europe. The family would have taken this sheaf of documents and boarded a train. At every border, customs agents and border guards on both sides would have inspected the documents, possibly made telephone calls to their superiors to verify the documents, stamped them, and waved the bearers onward. None of those officials would have made a record of the family’s passing unless they arrested the family. Remember that this happened long before computers when every record had to be written or typed by hand. No one had the time to write down the particulars of entire trainloads of passengers.

If they did arrest the family, Read the rest of this entry »

4th Feb

How did a man who grew up in Oakland, California, come to be driving American aviators around the Pyrenees in 1944?

This man, whom we’ll call Frisco because that’s what the aviators called him, was born in California in 1912, presumably to French immigrants. When he was 16 the family returned to their farm in the Pyrenees, near the northern end of the Luchonnais valley, south of Toulouse and east of Lourdes. The way the American aviators told the story, Frisco fought in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and then married a French girl. The French sources don’t mention any Republican sympathies, but they wouldn’t. They do confirm that he married a French woman in 1937. The couple had one daughter.

Anyone who volunteered on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War would have been an obvious recruit for the Resistance. But even without that qualification, Frisco had something that would have been completely irresistible to Read the rest of this entry »

21st Jan

Weather Delays in the Pyrenees

Dutch-Paris did occasionally have to suspend its escapes into Switzerland or Spain due to severe weather in the mountains that made travel impossible. It had to be absolutely impossible, though, because delaying escapes meant having to hide and feed the evaders somewhere in occupied territory.

As long as there was a chance of getting through, the evaders made the attempt. They did so even though few of them had what we would consider to be adequate winter gear. Even if it was possible to get decent mountain boots (which was by no means certain), it was dangerous to wear them Read the rest of this entry »

7th Jan

As I’m writing the snow is falling down faster than we can keep the walkways shoveled, and the schools have been closed for the next three days due to dangerously cold temperatures. The last winters of the war and the first winters of the peace were also remarkably cold. But unless you stick to straightforward facts like the temperature, our cold now is nothing like the wartime cold.

My neighbors have snug houses with central heating and electric lighting. Our closets are full of parkas, boots, hats and mittens. Our cupboards are full of food. Few people in western Europe could have said the same in the mid-1940’s.

Most houses were heated with coal, which was rationed. Firewood, and even trees, were scarce in cities. Many people had to shut off whole rooms of their homes and huddle together in the one room that they had a hope of heating. In many places electricity was also rationed. It came on and off, sometimes on a rotating schedule of one or two hours per day and sometime Read the rest of this entry »

23rd Dec

A number of readers have asked me about their relatives who were involved in Dutch escape lines during the war. So in this season when we think about our families, I offer to everyone the advice I’ve given to them.

First, please remember that I do not use anyone’s true name in this blog except John Henry Weidner’s. Every other name is a pseudonym (schuilnaam, nom de guerre). The stories in this blog are all true, but you cannot know that any one story is about your relative.

Second, it’s not easy to find traces of resisters in the archives. The good news is that 10 years ago it was well nigh impossible. Now you at least have a chance because of changes in archival laws and the establishment of new archives.

Third, the records are uneven, to say the least. There simply are no records for some people. This might be because they died during the war or because they refused to ever fill out any forms after the war. Ironically, there are almost no files on JH Weidner because he was so well known as a famous resister in 1944-1946. Some files have one sheet of paper with, say, a name and birth date. Other files have years’ of correspondence and gendarmerie reports. I once spent months getting permission to see a particular file, flew to France, took a train, rented a car, found an archive in the middle of nowhere and only then discovered Read the rest of this entry »

9th Dec

Although the German army did its best to lock down Occupied Europe and control the movements of the population, there was a surprising amount of room for maneuver for those with the character to find it. Take, for instance, the story of a young Dutchman we’ll call Bob.

When the Germans started rounding up Jews like himself in June 1942, the eighteen-year-old Bob left the Netherlands with a friend. The two of them made their own way across the border into Belgium, across Belgium and into France, across the Demarcation Line and to Lyon. There they looked for help at the Dutch consulate, and met John Henry Weidner. The consulate helped them with identification documents, ration coupons and the like while they waited for three more friends,.

The three friends, a couple and a bachelor who were almost old enough to be the young men’s parents, arrived in Lyon within a couple of weeks. They all negotiated clandestine passage to Switzerland with a Read the rest of this entry »

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