I’ve had the honor to spend an afternoon with an Engelandvaarder, one of those approximately 1,700 Dutchmen and 48 women who made the arduous journey to England during the Occupation. A few of them traveled via Dutch-Paris; although this particular gentleman did not. Let’s call him Mr. Brooks after his nom de guerre because I have neither asked for nor received permission to use his name on this blog.

As a student during the war, Mr. Brooks “did a few things” for the Resistance including unscrambling radios so that people in the Netherlands could hear Queen Wilhelmina’s broadcasts from London. When the Germans found his trail, he and a friend decided it’d be best to leave town. They had a few addresses in Antwerp and Paris and of a certain farmhouse on the Demarcation Line that divided Occupied France from Vichy France.

When they got to the Demarcation Line, they convinced a gendarme on the north side that their papers authorized them to be there looking for work. Apparently the French policeman was equally unable to read Dutch or German. Then they simply waded and swam across the river. They’d almost convinced the gendarme on the south side of the same tale when his supervisor pedaled up on his bicycle and arrested them. They escaped from the village jail with a pair of nail clippers but ended up working on a farm under the orders of a French prefect. That wasn’t quite what they had in mind, so they went back to the prefecture, distracted the prefect while they stole back their papers, and went on their way to the south of France to be near the Spanish border, which lies along the peaks of the Pyrennees.

It’s a thrilling adventure, but what interests me the most about it is that it undermines my image of Occupied Europe. The Nazis moved people around by the millions in what are literally staggering feats of population transfers. Most notoriously they moved millions of Jews towards their deaths in central Europe. But they also moved millions of people from eastern Europe into Germany and western Europe as labor – not usually of the voluntary sort – and in the reverse direction moved millions of western Europeans to the east to work and fight. And that doesn’t even include all the soldiers moving about. Or the refugees who left their homes because of aerial bombardment or fighting.

The usual picture of Occupied Europe is of people trapped in their homes by repressive regimes or being forcibly moved to some place worse by an even more repressive occupation authority. Occasionally a heroic Resister dashes across the screen.

Yet here we have two young Dutchmen wading across the Demarcation Line in France with nothing more formidable than two policemen on bicycles to stop them. There were 60,000 Dutch nationals in France and Belgium during the war, the majority of them counting as what we would now call “illegal aliens”. There was clearly a need for a Dutch escape line that specialized in helping Dutch people through Belgium and France. I wonder how many people, like Mr Brooks, made it through without the help of Dutch-Paris or any other Resistance network.