14th Oct

No matter how obsessive an historian is about her research, no matter how many archives she visits or how many thousands of documents she reads, some details will be lost or confused. That’s an obvious thing to say about something that happened in, say, the 1700’s, but it is also true for events that happened in living memory.

Take, for example, the question of where Dutch-Paris hid Engelandvaarders in Toulouse while they waited to leave for their treks over the Pyrenees into Spain. A number of people who know something about escape lines and contemporary books that mention Dutch-Paris say that Dutch-Paris hid its protégés in a brothel on the outskirts of Toulouse that was called the Panier Fleuri.

That seemed reasonable enough when I started out on my research, but it confused me because that wasn’t exactly what the documents were saying. It’s very clear that Dutch-Paris did hide some Engelandvaarders in the Panier Fleuri, but only before 31 December 1943. Dutch-Paris never used that hiding place after 7 January 1944 because they knew it was no longer safe. Also, there’s nothing in the documents to suggest that the Panier Fleuri was a brothel. It might have been, but I doubt it. Dutch-Paris women as well as men worked at the Panier Fleuri. John Weidner was not the sort to ask, let alone require, a respectable woman to enter a brothel.

So where did Dutch-Paris hide Engelandvaarders in Toulouse in 1944? The documents mention a handful of hotels by name, but mostly refer to a rickety sounding room or apartment on the top floor of a building where some of the men thought one of the passeurs lived. No address appears in the documents because the men who wrote them did not know the address or because they kept it quiet to keep the safe house safe.

I now think that that the upstairs or attic room was the brothel because Read the rest of this entry »

30th Sep

An historian can find unexpected treasures in an archive. Usually that means a paper trail leading to an unknown event or unsuspected person. But sometimes the unexpected thing involves the actual physical document.

For example, when I was looking for German reports on the arrests of Dutch-Paris agents in the French Archives nationales in Paris, I found a report from the German Security Services (Sicherheitspolizei und SD) in France dated February 1943. Strictly speaking, the report was useless to me because neither it nor any of the other documents in the box mentioned Dutch-Paris.

But as an historian, that report intrigued me because it was typed on the back of cut up maps. And not just any maps, but extremely detailed maps showing every elevation line and every outbuilding, all carefully labeled in German. Not maps of France or Belgium or any occupied territory, but of England. Presumably they had been meant for the German invasion of Great Britain Read the rest of this entry »

16th Sep

In the last post I described how a teacher at the Seventh-day Adventist seminary in Collonges-sous-Salève used to ride his bicycle across the Franco-Swiss border to attend graduate class in Geneva. He often carried messages and documents across the border with him, usually without any trouble at all.

There was one day, though, that he almost found himself in a lot of trouble. As he was waiting in line at the border to show his special pass and cross, one of the usual customs guards came over to talk to him. The guard asked him in a low voice if he had anything with him. Our man showed the guard a packet of envelopes. The friendly guard shook his head, whispered “pauvre monsieur” (poor man) and Read the rest of this entry »

2nd Sep

Here’s a reason to stay in school, even pursue a graduate degree, that you may not have thought about before.

One of the links in the Dutch-Paris chain over the Franco-Swiss border was a group of resisters at the Seventh-day Adventist seminary above the village of Collonges-sous-Salève. Collonges sits right on the French side of the border. The seminary sits above it on the mountainside. I’m told you can see Geneva from the seminary on a clear day, but I was there on a foggy day so I can’t vouch for that. Geographically speaking, Collonges and the other villages on the French side of the border belong with Geneva in Switzerland rather than the nearest French city. Geneva is much closer than Annecy or Lyon.  Besides there aren’t any mountains between the border and the Geneva although there are plenty between the border and the rest of France.

So when the teachers at the seminary wanted to get their graduate degree, or the children needed a serious high school, it made sense for them to go to Geneva. In fact, they could ride their bicycles, although the ascent up the mountain to the seminary at the end of the return trip would not be for the weak or unfit. It was also possible Read the rest of this entry »

5th Aug

The rue Yankee

During the war the grocer in a small town outside Paris organized most of the other notables of the village into an escape line for Allied aviators. They gathered up survivors of USAAF or RAF crashes from across northern France and sent them on to Spain through another escape line. German counter-espionage agents rolled up that other line in late 1943, which caused a certain back up of aviators in the town.

At Christmas 1943, the villagers were hiding 29 Allied aviators, mostly in homes up and down two streets. In fact, there were so many Americans in those two streets that the locals called them the “rue Yankee” and the “rue Américain.” Obviously the resisters were eager to get rid of these guests because the consequences for helping Allied airmen were dire indeed. They tried another line, but it turned out to be a German trap that caught half the men. The French resisters sent the other half to Spain via Dutch-Paris.

You might ask yourself, especially if you’re an historian who has researched this period, how I know that the locals called those two streets “rue Yankee” and “rue Américan.” It’s not the sort of detail that usually shows up in the sort of bureaucratic records that make up official archives. It’s possible that one of the aviators mentioned it in his escape and evasion report, if he spoke enough French to catch on and was especially chatty, but no one did. It is the kind of thing that might show up in a memoir or oral history interview if someone had researched that resistance group in that town. As far as I know, no one has.

So how do I know? I know because an elderly friend of mine told me. He lives in Tasmania; I live in the United States. So we’ve never met, but we do correspond by email because this gentleman was one of the Dutch Engelandvaarders who traveled from Paris to Spain with the help of Dutch-Paris. He’s written a fascinating memoir about his trek, although this detail is not in it. He happened to remember it these many, many years later when something jogged his memory.

And how does this Dutchman who was never in that small French town know what the French villagers called those streets under their breaths during the war? He knows because he spent a grueling three nights walking across the Pyrenees and then a few, more restful days in Spain with some of the 29 Americans who had hidden in that French town for a couple of months. One of the American aviators told him about it. Fortunately our Dutchman spoke English, because the American didn’t speak Dutch.

That’s what you call research serendipity. It is also a long delayed example of how Dutch-Paris gathered its own intelligence. Someone told someone else something interesting, like that the German police did not inspect the documents of passengers on the Paris-Toulouse train on Thursday nights. The second someone told a third someone. And somewhere along the line, the resisters in Dutch-Paris found out what they needed to know to get 16 Allied airmen out of a little town to the northeast of Paris and all the way to Spain.

22nd Jul

Bad Luck Arrests

The greatest number of Dutch-Paris agents to be arrested were arrested because the Abwehr, a Wehrmacht counter-espionage unit, was very successful at eliminating escape lines. They got their hands on a Dutch-Paris courier because collaborationist French police suspected her of black marketeering. They tortured a long list of names and addresses out of the courier and systematically arrested them all. They tortured those resisters to find more of their colleagues.

But a fair number of Dutch-Paris agents were arrested because of bad luck. Pierre from the previous two posts, for example, just happened to walk past a couple of German policemen who were looking for any excuse to arrest able bodied men to deport as laborers on a day when he had a faulty false ID.

A Dutch pastor in Brussels who belonged to Dutch-Paris was arrested because the wrong person overheard Read the rest of this entry »

19th Jul

In the spring of 1944, not too many weeks before the Allies landed in Normandy, a Dutch secret agent and a Dutch priest left the Netherlands. The priest played a leading role in the Dutch social resistance that supported people hiding from the occupation authorities. The secret agent had parachuted into the country on a mission from the Dutch government-in-exile in London. The duo intended to make their way through Belgium and France to Switzerland and then get to London from there.

It hardly needs to be said that they were not traveling legally or under their true identities. But it is a little surprising that two individuals with such strong connections to the underground didn’t have a better plan of how to get across occupied Belgium and France. They effectively made it up as they went until they made contact with Dutch-Paris in Switzerland.

Dutch-Paris provided all necessary false documents for its travelers. The secret agent and the priest, however, had to find their own false papers every time they crossed a border between countries or even between different occupation zones within the same country. This was an expensive way to get false documents, not to mention a risky one. They themselves had no way of knowing whether the false documents the man in the café sold them would stand up under scrutiny or not. For all they knew, the false documents could have been Read the rest of this entry »

8th Jul

Why was the Resister Arrested?

Every arrest of a Dutch-Paris resister or a person whom they helped posed a threat to the entire line. Everyone knew that the Gestapo and their colleagues tortured arrested resisters. No one expected anyone to hold out forever. So it was vitally important for Dutch-Paris to know exactly why someone had been arrested. If the German police suspected someone of being a resister, the situation was bad. Everyone else needed to take precautions. But if the local police suspected someone of being a black market smuggler, for example, things were not nearly as dire. Arrested black marketeers were treated differently than resisters and could even sometimes be bought out of jail.

The arrest of Pierre from the previous post caused his colleagues in Dutch-Paris some anxiety. Plain clothes German policemen arrested him because the numbers on his false ID were wrong, but let his companion, another Dutch-Paris courier, go free. Pierre’s companion could not identify what unit the policemen belonged to. If they were Gestapo looking for resisters Read the rest of this entry »

24th Jun

Couriers Lost as Slave Laborers

Almost 70 years ago today, Dutch-Paris lost a courier through one of the common accidents of the Second World War. He was not arrested for his substantial resistance activities, or even suspected of them. But he was a young man on the streets of Brussels in the summer of 1944, which was enough to put anyone in danger.

It was June 1944, a few weeks after the Normandy Landings. Our man, whom we’ll call Pierre, and another Dutch-Paris courier were looking for a way to get to Paris. They had been told that all train traffic had been stopped at one station and were walking to another station to inquire about a train to Paris. On the big plaza outside the station two German agents in plain clothes stopped the young men and demanded to see their identification papers. The other courier still had his legitimate ID from the University of Leuven. The Germans accepted it. Pierre, however, had false documents prepared for him in Switzerland. One of the numbers Read the rest of this entry »

10th Jun

Dutch Refugees in Geneva

During the Second World War the Dutch colony in Geneva grew substantially with the influx of refugees who arrived from the Netherlands through various routes, including Dutch-Paris. After the Swiss authorities allowed them into the country, the Dutch embassy in Bern took responsibility for them. It organized refugee camps in hotels for families, for example, and made regular loans so that Dutch citizens would meet the Swiss requirements for financial independence. Although this has been a subject of controversy in recent years, during the war the embassy received a number of complaints that Dutch refugees had better accommodations and more spending money than refugees from other nations.

Dutch refugees in and around Geneva had a lot of time on their hands because the Swiss did not allow refugees to hold any job that might be taken away from a Swiss citizen. This didn’t stop a number of them from finding jobs under the table, Read the rest of this entry »

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