There’s a lot of dull reading involved in historical research, and at the beginning of a project it’s difficult to tell if the letter of complaint about delayed trams is worth noting down or not. After all, it tells you how the trams were functioning, but is that going to be important? It will be if it turns out that “your” people used those trams.

As the research goes on, the outlines of the story begin to emerge and the documents start fitting together. In the case of Dutch-Paris, where the records are scattered over more than a dozen archives in four languages, the documents tend to flow along several paths, only rarely confirming each other directly.

But I had a moment of eerie congruence when I was speaking to the widow of a passeur who lived on the Franco-Swiss border. She was telling me about her husband’s near catastrophes. One day, she said, her husband went to talk to a police inspector in the nearby town but the neighbor lady…. shivers ran down my arms … the neighbor lady said run away, they’ve just shot him right here.

I knew this story.*  I had read a whole dossier of gendarmerie reports about the incident several months earlier at the regional archive three hours away by train. In 1945 the gendarmes interviewed that neighbor lady. She said that shortly after the Germans took the inspector away a young man came to the house but she warned him to go away. She didn’t know who he was.

Was the inspector A… C…? I asked.


And then I had the sad privilege of telling the rest of the story. The inspector hadn’t died of the gunshot on the border but in the concentration camps. His wife, however, had survived imprisonment and moved to the south of France with their two young daughters after the war.

That’s a rare moment for an historian, when living testimony confirms and links written documents. Because there are two sets of records on the inspector. There’s John Weidner’s Dutch-Paris list in which he names the inspector, and there are the gendarmerie and army reports that put the inspector in some rather high level intelligence work but don’t mention any rescue work. But now I know how he fit into Dutch-Paris and with whom he worked. One little piece of the puzzle fit snuggly into place.

* For the story see the post of 20 April 2010 on this blog, “Who Arrested the Inspector?”