Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Although Dutch-Paris had dependable routes between Brussels, Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and Geneva, Weidner and his top lieutenants did not travel on them. Instead they had their own ways of getting from one place to another. Weidner travelled on the false papers of a businessman, allowing him to take the fastest trains between one city and another. His courier Moen, on the other hand, tacked across France on local trains and climbed along the outside of a bridge stuffed with barbed wire to cross from France to Belgium.
Nor did they stay with other Dutch-Paris resisters in any of the cities they visited. Instead they had their own safe houses, the addresses of which they did not share with anyone.
The leaders made appointments with their colleagues and showed up when Read the rest of this entry »
Almost 70 years ago, on 5 February 1945, Russian soldiers liberated John Weidner’s younger sister Gabrielle from a sub-camp of the notorious women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück.
On that day, Gabrielle was in what passed as the infirmary, although there was no medicine, no heat, barely any blankets. The only thing that made it an infirmary was that all the prisoners crammed into the building were deathly ill. German guards had already marched the healthier prisoners away toward the west in shoeless, coatless journeys that few would survive. Some of the stronger women in the infirmary crept out to find food despite their well founded fears that the remaining German guards would shoot them on sight.
The prisoners woke up on 5 February to see Russians outside the windows. The Russians did the best they could for the women by making them warm and feeding them. The fighting moved passed them. Gabrielle and some of the other women held a prayer service of thanksgiving. Gabrielle died ten days after her liberation on 15 February 1945 from Read the rest of this entry »
Dutch-Paris had an elaborate system for smuggling Jews, resisters and other people who needed to get out of the Nazis’ grasp from France to Switzerland. They had a chain of safe houses, many sources of false documents, donors willing to fund the effort and helpers willing to put themselves at risk to escort the fugitives. The sticking point in the escape line was always the Swiss authorities. The men and women of Dutch-Paris broke many laws in occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but in Switzerland they obeyed the law. Their protégés had to have official permission to stay in Switzerland from the Swiss authorities, or they had to return to France.
As a rule, Dutch-Paris did not take anyone over the Swiss border unless they had made arrangements for that person to stay there. This was neither easy nor obvious, but they found ways. On a few occasions, however, the Swiss refused to accept Dutch-Paris fugitives. In June 1943, for example, the courier Moen brought a young Jewish girl Read the rest of this entry »
I read that the reason books and movies about World War II are so popular is that it was the last time that the moral issues were clear cut, black and white, good vs. evil. In the broad strokes of events, that’s certainly true. But like all generalizations it crumbles with individual exceptions. There is no doubt that epically bad people committed atrocious crimes during the war or that heroically good people fought against them. But the lines are not always so clear cut, especially among young men from the occupied countries.
It was a difficult time to be a young man of military age. The Nazis wanted all able-bodied men working or fighting for the Third Reich. They had some compelling propaganda about saving the world from Bolshevism that convinced some young men to do so willingly. But everyone else had to find a creative way to stay out of German uniform or German factories. Some did not succeed despite hating everything the Nazis stood for.
Take, for example, a young Frenchman who helped Dutch-Paris guide Jewish refugees to the Swiss border. This young man, we’ll call him François, came from the northeastern region of France known as Alsace. It’s a border region that has been fought over by the French and Germans for centuries. In 1940 Hitler declared Read the rest of this entry »
In the last two posts I’ve described the hard choices that two young men made during the war. In both cases, they did what they felt they had to do to protect their families. Here’s another example of a choice that looks compromising from the outside but was actually an act of self-sacrifice to protect the young man’s family.
This story involves a young Dutch resister who had a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. We’ll call him Henk. Henk was a university student when he wasn’t busy searching out hiding places for Jews or sneaking over the border between the Netherlands and Belgium on Dutch-Paris business. In the spring of 1943, however, the German occupation authorities decided that the Dutch university students were causing them an undue amount of difficulties and would be better utilized as factory workers in the Third Reich. They decreed that students had to either sign a loyalty oath or report for labor duty.
The great majority of students, more than 80%, Read the rest of this entry »
In the last post I described a young Alsatian man who was both a resister and a collaborator. He was far from the only young man from the occupied countries who made a choice that the world considers to be evil out of concern for his family rather than ideological commitment or personal depravity.
Here’s another example. Consider a young Dutchman whom we’ll call Ton. He was one of the oldest of 10 children, the son of a nurseryman. Inevitably, he received an official notice to report for labor duty in the Third Reich. This was unwelcome news. Ton would likely be assigned to work in a factory, where conditions were harsh. German factories were also the regular target of the fleets of bombers that flew over the family’s home on their way from their bases in England to their targets in Germany.
Ton’s father offered to arrange a hiding place for him with an acquaintance in the city of The Hague. His family, however, would have to provide food for him, which meant making the long trip into the city at least once a week. Ton did not think that the family could manage this extra burden along with running the nursery without his help. So he Read the rest of this entry »
If your father or grandfather crossed the Pyrenees illegally during the war, could you recreate his route? You could probably figure out the general path from the documents, but unless he himself made the effort to figure out where he’d been in the dark and wrote it down, you are unlikely to be able to determine exactly where he walked.
The documents will provide the broadest outlines of a route. Many men reported the names of the last French train station they went through and the first Spanish village they arrived at. The documents will also reveal which passeur took the man over the mountains. Dutch-Paris hired three regular passeurs plus a few others when the first three were busy. The passeurs relied on networks of local men and women to assist their convoys during the two to three day trek, so they tended to stay within the neighborhood of their networks. They even repeated a trail if the previous convoy had traveled along it safely. So you have a good chance of figuring out the broad outlines of the route.
Very few documents, however, give much detail. Most American, Australian, Canadian or New Zealand airmen really did not know where they were. Navigators who had a professional habit of paying attention to their routes and men who made their living outdoors, such as farmers, tended to give the most detailed reports. They may even have given estimated heights for some hills or distances across water meadows. Engelandvaarders were more likely to have noticed or asked for the names of the villages and hamlets they passed through because, as Europeans, they could read the landscape better than the others. But as they stumbled up and down steep inclines through the cold and the pitch black, many Engelandvaarders really didn’t care where they were as long as they got to Spain without the Germans capturing them.
What if one of the men in the convoy Read the rest of this entry »
As in Toulouse and Paris, Dutch-Paris used many hiding places in Brussels. These included the private homes of Dutch expatriates and a hotel not far from the main train station. The best remembered safe house, though, was a boarding house away from the city center on the rue Franklin.
In the fall of 1943 the resisters in Brussels decided to separate their “social work” from their “transport work.” Social work meant supporting fugitives in hiding, most of whom were Jews. Transport work meant passing Engelandvaarders and Allied airmen along the line.
Accordingly, the line rented the entire boarding house on the rue Franklin as a headquarters for the transport work. They set up an atelier there where one of the younger resisters forged the many documents that a young man of military age needed to travel in Occupied Europe. The resisters involved in the transport work, mostly university students, slept at the boarding house, as did some Engelandvaarders and most of the Allied airmen they helped. The Belgian landlady Read the rest of this entry »
In Paris, as in Toulouse, Dutch-Paris hid its fugitives at many addresses although one address has eclipsed the others in the memory of the line. In Paris the best remembered safe house was used for only a few weeks in early 1944 and mostly by downed Allied airmen.
If they reached England again, aviators remembered that Parisian hiding place as a “dungeon with rats,” a school or a hospital. It was, in fact, an electrical room in the basement of one of the buildings of the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) near the Sorbonne. Although students and faculty at the ENS belonged to the Resistance, the institution itself had no connections to Dutch-Paris. That particularly building played a role in Dutch-Paris because of its concierge and its neighbor.
The building sits next door to Read the rest of this entry »
The Panier Fleuri was a small inn on the outskirts of Toulouse that has enjoyed a modicum of postwar fame as the place where Dutch-Paris hid evaders before they left for the Pyrenees. Over the years, it’s been confused with other places, perhaps because it had name for people to remember (see previous post).
This is the brief history of the Panier Fleuri and Dutch-Paris.
Dutch-Paris actually inherited the Panier Fleuri as a safe house when Weidner and his colleagues set up a base in Toulouse in November 1943. Before that, Weidner had been arranging for Engelandvaarders to travel between Geneva and Toulouse, where they passed into the care of the acting Dutch consul. The official Dutch consul had already disappeared into the concentration camps by that time. His replacement was a refugee with good intentions. This refugee-consul seems to have established the Panier Fleuri as a safe house, probably in August 1943. We don’t know how he recruited the owners because his secretary burned all his papers when he went into hiding and he himself died of a heart attack at the end of the war.
When Weidner’s colleagues arrived in November 1943, they found the Panier Fleuri dangerously overcrowded Read the rest of this entry »