Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
It’s 1942 in Amsterdam and the Gestapo is after you. Perhaps you’ve done something particular to annoy them, like printing an illegal newspaper or bailing out of an American or RAF bomber. Maybe, because you’re a young man of military age, the occupation authorities think you should go work in Germany – essentially as slave labor – but you think you’d rather walk across the Pyrennees to join the Allied armies. Or maybe, because three of your grandparents are Jewish, you are in real danger of being rounded up, sealed into a cattle car and “sent east” to your death.
To really and truly be safe from the Gestapo, you need to get to Switzerland or Spain. Not an easy undertaking, especially if you’re taking your grandparents and small children with you or if you’re an English-speaking airman. You need to cross the border to Belgium illegally then get Belgian IDs, ration cards, transit passes and money. Then you need to illegally cross the border into the Occupied Zone of France and obtain a whole new set of false documents. A little further south you’ll need to smuggle yourself over the Demarcation Line into Vichy France, which requires another set of false documents. All of this in a time when food is rationed and hotel registers are regularly checked by the Nazis.
If you don’t mind sitting out the rest of the war in a refugee camp, you can head east to Switzerland, but you’ll have to have your name officially inscribed as an authorized refugee before you get to the camp or the Swiss will return you to France. If you need to get to London, you’ll need to obtain another set of papers for the “forbidden zone” in the foothills of the Pyrennees, dodge German patrols while hiking over the mountains, and then take your chances in the Spanish refugee camps.
It’s not a prospect for the faint-hearted, but the Gestapo has ways of encouraging people in what would be considered as acts of reckless heroism in peaceful times. It’s clear to even the most self-sufficient that one needs help on this journey. But where to find it? No one is advertising all-expense paid tours to Spain in 1942. It’s a matter of whispers and rumors. There are definitely “passeurs” out there who promise to get people where they want to go. But many of them are asking a steep price and not all of them can be trusted.
Your best chance is to fall in with one of the escape lines that act as underground railroads out of Occupied Europe. They have escorts who will get you from one safe house to another, sources for false documents and ways of finding food, clothing and medical aid. They can even get you registered with the Swiss or let the Dutch Embassy in Madrid know to look for you in a Spanish camp. There are several such escape lines, all of them staffed by men and women with exemplary moral courage.
You’d be lucky to come across the Dutch-Paris Escape Line. While some of the lines “specialize” in, say, Allied airmen, Dutch-Paris takes anyone who’s in danger no matter how old or young, male or female. Indeed, over the course of the Second World War, Dutch-Paris rescued approximately one thousand people, the vast majority of them civilians.
This blog will be about my own journey through memories and archives to write a history of the Dutch-Paris Escape Line.