In August 1945, the Dutch ambassador in Paris received a letter from a man in The Hague who was looking for his son. The 21 year-old had left the Netherlands on 2 March 1942 intending to leave Occupied Europe to fight the Japanese (he had been born in the Netherlands Indies). He wrote his parents a letter on 19 March 1942 from the prison in Besançon, France, saying that he had been caught near the Swiss border and sentenced to death.

But since then his parents hadn’t received any official notice of his death or his personal effects – a compass, a watch and a silver pen. But they had heard rumors that there had been an escape attempt by the five young Dutchmen condemned to die in Besançon and only one had been killed. They couldn’t stop hoping for a miracle.

The embassy launched an investigation. The vice-consul in Lyon had heard about the executions because in March 1942 he had gotten four young Dutchmen out of the prison in Macon. They had heard about the fate of their countrymen and were very afraid that they would also be shot. He gave the names of two of the four, who would be able to tell the parents what they knew.

The consul asked the French police, who confirmed that five Dutch subjects were executed by the Germans at the citadel in Besançon on 19 March 1942. They gave the names but were ignorant of the reasons for the execution.

The Dutch consul in Dijon tracked down the Dutch woman who had acted as interpreter for the German Feldkommandatur in Besançon. She had gotten permission to visit the political prisoners who weren’t receiving food packages because they weren’t allowed to communicate with their families. The five young men had admitted that they were planning to join the Allied armies when they were arrested trying to cross the Demarcation Line in France and had therefore been categorized as political prisoners.

The interpreter took them food and did their laundry for them. She had all but arranged for the five to be reclassified as prisoners of war when an extraordinary order came from the Militärbefehlshaber in Paris ordering that they be executed immediately. They were shot that same day at 6:00 pm. Their effects were given to the French Red Cross to forward to the next of kin.

Obviously, young men who tell the Germans that they’re breaking the law in order to join the Allied armies have a lot more pride than sense. And, obviously, if they had stooped to lying they would have had a much better chance of living to fight another day. The young men who had been rescued from the prison in Macon did lie about their intentions and they did join the Allies. One of them even flew on a bomber that bombed Germany.

A less obvious lesson comes from the interpreter. On the surface she was a collaborator because she worked for the Germans. And she must have done a good enough job for them or they wouldn’t have given her permission to visit imprisoned Dutchmen. But she was lying to them, because while she was working for the Germans she was hiding many of her countrymen in her own home and helping them to cross the Demarcation Line illegally and get to Switzerland. The consul in Dijon rather thought that she deserved official recognition for her patriotic service.

Her story reminds us not to judge by appearances and that the hand of compassion will use whatever talents and opportunities are available.