Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Around this time of year in 1943, the oversight committee of the Brussels branch of Dutch-Paris (the Comitétot Steun van Nederlandse Oorlogsslachtoffers in België) started getting worried about security. They felt that the escape line for pilots and Engelandvaarders should be completely separated from the “social work” that supported about four hundred people hiding in various corners of Belgium. They recruited a man in his 40’s who had worked as the head cashier for a very large hotel whom we’ll call De Smet after his nom de guerre. His mission was to reduce costs and increase security.
Fortunately for a good many people, he effected that separation in a café on 25 February 1944. Three days later the German authorities raided the escape line’s HQ, arrested ten American airmen and almost as many members of Dutch-Paris and confiscated the line’s books, lists and document-forging utensils. They did not find any information pertaining to the group’s “social work”.
That was too close a call for De Smet, who designed a new system based on the idea of one of the university students then running the daily operations. She herself went into hiding before it could be implemented, but the butcher from Amsterdam who took over the job put it into force. No one was arrested during his tenure during the dangerously chaotic last months of the occupation of Belgium in the summer of 1944.
And so we have a well-placed civil servant, an inspector from the Ministry of Finances, who took responsibility for forty hidden families under the alias of “Number Five.” All of his “clients,” as they called them, had a code name that began with the numeral 5.
It was a businesslike, efficient and secure system but it was not without its prejudices. The fact is that Number Five did not actually do the physical work of delivering money, documents and food to, or running the errands of, forty families. It was far too dangerous for a 39 year-old man to venture onto the streets of Brussels where he might well be rounded up as a hostage or slave laborer or otherwise mishandled on the suspicion of being a non-German man of military age.
His wife, the mother of their two young children, ran all over town under the assumed name of “Madame Helene.” The reports don’t explain why she had a name rather than a number. Perhaps neither she nor the people she was helping liked to think of women as numbers. Perhaps the men running Dutch-Paris shared the German’s opinion of women as essentially non-threatening. It was that prejudice that enabled women to make up the living communications network that allowed the Resistance to function. You would think that resisters, of all people, would know better than to underestimate women.
Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they gave her a name because they appreciated how exposed she was and didn’t want her connected to the forty families beginning with “5” if she was caught. Neither De Smet nor Number Five considered the matter important or interesting enough to explain it in his report, but I wish they had.