Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Here’s an interesting question that came up during the proof reading for the Dutch translation of the book.
Before the days of commercial air travel and cheap long distance phone calls, let alone the internet, travel took time and involved a lot more surprises than it does today. You might set out for a foreign city without knowing where you would stay or exactly when you would be there. But how could the people back home contact you if you did not have an address? The post offices had a device for this situation called “poste restante.” The person back home addressed the envelope to a name, a city and “poste restante”. The traveler went to that particular post office in the city and asked if there was any mail for him or her. It worked quite well if no one was in a hurry.
Paris being the gigantic city that it is, you could address “poste restante” mail to train stations as well as post offices. This was, of course, very convenient because even if you were just passing through Paris, you could pick up your mail.
During the war, one of Dutch-Paris’s leaders told his comrades that they could send him messages addressed to “Mr van den Hove uit [from] Bending” poste restante at the Gare St Lazare. Mr van den Hove was obviously a false name. But the copy editor wanted to know about the town of Bending. Where was it? Was it spelled correctly? Because there is no Bending in the Netherlands, Belgium or France.
I can think of two reasons why our Mr van den Hove gave a false home town. First, it greatly reduced the possibility that an authentic Mr van den Hove would get our man’s mail by mistake. Second, it protected the real van den Hove’s from the Gestapo’s suspicion.
Say, for example, that the French or German censors started reading all the post restante mail. They read other mail, so that’s entirely plausible. Then, less plausibly but still possibly, one of those censors saw something in Mr van den Hove’s mail that aroused suspicions. The censor would report it to the police authorities. The police might visit all the Mr van den Hove’s in the town. Those men would be either completely innocent or innocent of Dutch-Paris activities but not of other resistance work. The police might torture the real van den Hoves for something they knew nothing about. Or they might discover the man’s other resistance work, leading to unfortunate consequences to the man, his family, his colleagues.
So the double layer of falsity, both the name and the town, protected our man, his resistance colleagues and any authentic van den Hoves. I can only assume that the letters inside the envelopes were also coded to appear utterly mundane. I can say that “Mr van den Hove from Bending” never had any troubles with the postal censors or police authorities. The documents do not record his opinion of the poste restante system in general.