17th Dec

Capture at the Porte de Pantin

Seventy-four years ago, on December 16, 1943, 16 Allied aviators fell into a Gestapo trap at the Porte de Pantin in Paris. The men had bailed out of their fighter planes or crash landed their bombers across northern France. The engine of one British Typhoon had simply cut out, forcing the pilot to land in a tree. Local people had gathered these men up, sheltered them, and passed them on to whatever contact they could find in the resistance. Those local resisters had passed them on to a group in Livry-Gargan (outside Paris) that had connections to the famous Pat O’Leary escape line.

Unfortunately a traitor infiltrated the Pat O’Leary line, causing arrests that cut the group in Livry-Gargan off from the route to Spain. In December 1943, they found a new connection to Spain and arranged to pass the 31 aviators hiding in their town to a new escape line at the busy Porte de Pantin in Paris.

The aviators traveled from their hiding places to Paris in two trucks. The drivers were supposed to park if they saw a particular car parked in front of the Church of Sainte Claire with a Nazi flag in its window. They saw the car but no flag. The leader of the French resistance group, the town grocer, had a bad feeling that the whole scheme for the rendezvous sounded too easy. So he got out of his car and started walking toward three men standing near the church. Something about one of them made him think that he was a Gestapo agent. The grocer asked the men for directions as a ruse and Read the rest of this entry »

3rd Dec

The Afterlife of an Alias

As I discussed in my last post, resisters sometimes got lost in the confusion of war because their aliases worked so well. There were also cases in which a resister accomplished so much and became so well-known by his or her wartime pseudonym that the false name became part of the resister’s postwar identity.

For example, several Frenchmen hyphenated their last names, adding their resistance name to their family name. The dashing First World War veteran and partisan leader Henri Petit, who harassed the Germans during the Second World War under the name Romans, changed his name to Henri Romans-Petit after the war. It was undoubtedly easier than trying to get everyone to remember that “Romans” was not really the name of the famous hero. In other cases, Frenchmen with political ambitions attached Read the rest of this entry »

19th Nov

The common practice of using aliases or noms de guerre in the resistance worked very well. In at least two cases of Dutch-Paris resisters, the Germans never cracked the resisters pseudonym, even in the concentration camps. Not that there was anything good about being deported to a concentration camp. But in these cases the men were simply sent there without undergoing the torture that the German police would have used to get more information if they had known who they had arrested. So the alias protected them even after their arrests.

Sometimes, however, the alias could work almost too well. Take the example of a French woman known in the resistance as Madame Vassias. Mme Vassias was the secretary of the Polish officer who ran the escape line between Paris and Spain that also took Dutchmen for the forgotten Dutch escape Line X (see previous post). When the Pole and his Dutch counterpart were arrested in November 1943, Mme Vassias took over leadership of that escape line. She was arrested in February 1944 because a personal friend of hers who belonged to a French resistance group gave away her address under torture.

Several Dutchmen knew Mme Vassias because they either Read the rest of this entry »

5th Nov

Here’s another story connected to the forgotten Dutch escape line I described in the last post. It involves a German Jewish family who had the foresight to leave Germany while they could. They relocated to Amsterdam until the war made that city unsafe as well. They moved again, this time to a flat above a café in Brussels. The family’s two sons, who were in their early 20’s, could not get jobs because they were in hiding. But they did illegal work for the forgotten escape Line X. Clues in the few available documents also suggest that they were involved in hiding Jews with the Comité (that later joined Dutch-Paris).

In October 1943 a Dutch woman living in Brussels gave Line X a mission. She actually belonged to the famous Comet Line and had radio access to London. Dutch rescuers and helpers in Brussels did not care very much about who belonged to what line. They worked together as resisters to help the people who needed help. At this particular time this Dutch woman needed a way to get an agent from the Dutch Intelligence Services (Bureau Inlichtingen) to Spain. For some reason that she took to her grave in the concentration camps, she did not send the Dutch secret agent through the Comet Line. Instead, she decided that the Brothers R. should escort him from Brussels to Spain along Line X’s route because they spoke French and Spanish.

So the brothers took the secret agent to Paris. From there the three of them took the Polish officer’s route over the Pyrenees into Spain. They were among the last Engelandvaarders to make it safely through that escape line before it collapsed with the arrests of the Pole and the banker in November. The three travelers made it to England soon after arriving in Spain. The secret agent parachuted back into the Netherlands in 1944. The Brothers R. also reported for war work.

Like so many other resisters, the brothers did not talk much about their illegal work in Brussels after the war. In fact, the family knew they were Engelandvaarders, but they thought that the brothers had traveled to Spain via Dutch-Paris. They did not know about Line X or that the brothers had resisted as part of an escape line before they became Engelandvaarders.

22nd Oct

As I mentioned in the last post, Dutch-Paris was far from the only escape line operating in Europe during the Second World War, but only a few enjoy postwar fame. Here’s an example of one that I came across repeatedly in my research but has been all but forgotten.

If this line has a name, I never saw it. So we’ll call it Line X. Line X was based in Brussels around a group of young Dutch expatriates and led by a young banker who worked for a local branch of a Dutch bank. Round about 1942 other young Dutchmen started asking the banker to help them escape to England. He opened his home to Engelandvaarders and gathered together some other young Dutchmen to get these Engelandvaarders out of occupied territory.

The banker had plenty of connections in the Netherlands and Belgium, but not Read the rest of this entry »

8th Oct

There were Many Escape Lines

I made the perhaps rash prediction in my last blog that no one will have questions about the title of the American edition of my book, The Escape Line (coming out with Oxford in June 2018). There may not be questions but someone will surely object that Dutch-Paris was not the only escape line and not the most famous escape line either. Both are true.

All sorts of escape lines operated across Europe during the Second World War. Some took Jews to safety, some took soldiers and aviators, some took civilians. Some worked in a strictly local area to get people across a particular border in a particular place while others, like Dutch-Paris, covered entire countries. Some had funding from the Allied militaries or from international organizations or governments in exile while others received no outside money at all.

Something many people do not know is that the escape lines started long before Read the rest of this entry »

24th Sep

Why Ordinary Heroes?

A reader asked me why the Dutch edition of the book is called Gewone Helden (Ordinary Heroes) when everyone involved with Dutch-Paris was far from ordinary. In fact, she said, they were extraordinarily courageous and selfless. It goes without saying that she is correct. I’ll share my explanation below in case anyone else was wondering the same thing.

“Of course, by definition every hero is extraordinary. What I think is so impressive about the men and women of Dutch-Paris is that they were very ordinary people before the war. They were students or businessmen or housewives or shopkeepers. They were all respectable people living respectable lives. During the war, most ordinary people kept living their respectable lives as best they could. They did not break the law in order to help a stranger. They did not risk trouble for themselves and their families. The men and women of Dutch-Paris, on the other hand, started out as ordinary but refused to accept what “ordinary” meant during the occupation. They refused to look the other way. They rescued the persecuted. After the war they went back to their ordinary, respectable lives. Almost all of them made nothing out of their wartime heroism after the war. And so they were both ordinary people and great heroes. They are an inspiration to all of us.”

No one will have any questions about the title of the American edition of the book because it will be called The Escape Line. Oxford University Press will publish it in June 2018.

5th Sep

It goes without saying that if you were playing the dangerous double game of acting like a collaborator while working for the resistance, you needed to plan ahead to limit the damage if anyone in your group was arrested. Commander Lecatre, from earlier posts, had plans for such a contingency and issued orders on what to do in case of his arrest.

The Gestapo, and perhaps their French colleagues, arrested Commandant Lecatre and his daughter on the morning of 23 May 1943 at their home. A neighbor immediately warned Lecatre’s second in command. The lieutenant immediately gathered up all the incriminating documents from the commandant’s office, such as maps and lists of men taken over the border, and hid them under the rafters on the 3rd floor, as they had decided ahead of time.

The lieutenant then sent a warning to the man in charge of that day’s patrol on the border and signed a furlough for another officer so he could disappear without Read the rest of this entry »

22nd Aug

Timothy Snyder’s last lesson in On Tyranny is:

“Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

You may think that courage should be left to the professionals like trained military special forces, but notice that he says “be as courageous as you can.” No one expects a middle-aged housewife to take on enemy soldiers ninja-style. But she doesn’t need to. What Dutch-Paris illustrates so clearly is that the kind of courage needed to defend our freedom belongs to men and women of every age and every occupation. The line was made up of businessmen, teachers, students, clergy, widows, café owners, secretaries, bankers, engineers, insurance agents, salesmen and farmers. Not one of them carried a gun. They were sensible enough to be afraid, but they overcame that fear. Each did what his or her circumstances and personal resources allowed. Together, being as courageous as they could be in defense of the human rights that they believed in, the 330 men and women of Dutch-Paris rescued 3,000 other human beings from the Nazis. Each one was as courageous as he or she could be, and that was enough.

8th Aug

Continuing with the ways in which the history of Dutch-Paris illustrates Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, we come to Snyder’s lessons 15 and 16.

Lesson 15 is “Contribute to good causes. Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life.”

Dutch-Paris was an organization that believed in the dignity of the individual human being qua human being. It just so happened that in the context of the time, namely the Second World War, the authorities in power did not believe in human rights. The Nazis and their collaborators believed that people who came from certain ethnic groups were far superior than other people from other ethnic groups. They took that ideology to the extreme of genocide. In that context, expressing the view that all men are created equal meant disagreeing with rather violent authorities. That is why Dutch-Paris was an illegal organization, otherwise known as part of the resistance.  It is also why the men and women of Dutch-Paris who were caught were deported to the concentration camps. Fourteen of them died for being active in an organization that expressed their own view of human rights.

Lesson 16 is “Learn from peers in other countries.”

If the men and women of Dutch-Paris had not only learned from their peers in other countries but also banded together with them to cooperate in the rescue of fugitives, there would not have been a Dutch-Paris. The line began as separate groups of resisters in Lyon, Brussels and Paris who then joined together to form a network that stretched across western Europe from the Netherlands to Spain and to Switzerland. They were able to do far more to defend human rights and defeat the occupation authorities when they worked together across international borders than they ever could have had they restricted themselves to their home regions.


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