One of the more intriguing mysteries about escape lines is how the fugitives and the helpers found each other. After all, you could hardly look up “clandestine border crossing” in the yellow pages and make a reservation. There were a few places where Dutch-Paris helpers found fugitives and offered to help: the Dutch consulate in Lyon, the French prison in Annecy. For the most part, though, it was a matter of knowing someone who knew someone and hoping the someones all along the line were honest.

I read an article today with the best explanation I’ve ever seen of how it actually worked.* The article was written by Eugène van der Heijden, who, along with his family and some friends, helped many, many people to escape from the Occupied Netherlands. Van der Heijden was a young school teacher living on the Dutch/Belgian border in Hilvarenbeek.

In the early summer of 1942, when it was already clear that bad things happened to Jews “in the east” but the systematic deportations from the Netherlands hadn’t started yet, there weren’t any escape lines. In fact, the normal Dutch social and commercial traffic from north to south and east to west had been broken by the occupation. People who lived in the urban conglomerations of the Randstad stayed there, and people who lived in the villages along the border stayed there. Information stopped flowing from one area to another, which meant that the Jews in the Randstad didn’t have information about safe places to cross the border or safe people to ask for help.

There was, however, one professional group that continued to have contacts in both the cities and the border: the marechaussees, a sort of national police along the lines of the French gendarmerie. They generally came from the Randstad, where they maintained their family and social ties, but they lived along the border. Furthermore, they were constantly moved to different posts along the border, as were customs agents. This meant that they knew an awful lot of people along the border and a million ways to get across it. They were, essentially, information bridges between the city and the border.

In fact, that’s how the school teacher and some young marechausees started smuggling people, mostly Jews, across the Dutch/Belgian border. A Jewish couple in Amsterdam had a friend in Brussels and another in Lyon. But how to get into Belgium? They had a maid, who had a friend, who had a friend, who knew a marechausee (cousin? schoolfriend? hockey teammate?). Soon enough the Jewish couple were spending the night in the van der Heijden home. The next day the marechausees took them over the border in ease and security. They asked the marechaussees if they’d be willing to help some of their friends still in Amsterdam. Naturally, they answered.

So a few days later a letter with a Brussels phone number came across the border illegally. Eugène went to Brussels, called the number, waited in a café as instructed and was given his first alias. After that there was a steady stream of fugitives to help until the Germans got them in November 1943.

*Van der Heijden, Eugène. “Oorlogsherinneringen. Jean Weidner en de geboorte van de Dutch-Parisline” Escape, no 81, June 1994, pp 26-30.