In the last post we talked about the probability of finding documents about a family’s legal journey out of Occupied Europe in government archives. The chances are slim to none. But in the other and far more likely scenario that the family in question travelled from The Netherlands to Portugal illegally, the chances of finding traces of that journey in the archives are even slimmer.

If the family made the journey on their own, finding and paying passeurs as they traveled southward, there is no reason to think there would ever have been any documents about their border crossings. The kind of passeur whom you found in a café in a border town did not keep written accounts. If, however, the family found the help of a Resistance group, there may be some sort of documents.

The problem for the reader who wrote to me, however, is that he knows his family’s name but not the names of anyone who helped them. If the family used a false name, which would have only been prudent, the people who helped them would never have known the family’s name and therefore never written it down. If, however, the family had shared their real name with their helpers, then there may be documents somewhere.

They would likely be in one of the archives dedicated to the war. But such archives, like all archives, have to operate within the limits of the papers that they preserve. Archives dedicated to the Holocaust organize their collections in part according to the names of the victims but they can only do so if the documents allow it. If they have the wartime diary of a Jew, for example, it should be cataloged under the author’s name. Some archives have databases of the names of Jews that appear in the SS documents in their collections. A family that successfully escaped the Holocaust, however, is likely to have fallen through the cracks of such collections unless one of them wrote a memoir and gave it to an archive.

Other archives dedicated to the war tend to have been instituted immediately after the war to at least in part reconstruct the history of the Resistance. That means that the documents they hold are cataloged under the names of resisters or their groups. If you do not know the name of a person or group who helped someone, you are very unlikely to find that someone in the archives. Even if you know the name of a helper, it’s uncertain whether there will be any relevant information in the documents. Resisters who died during the war, say in a concentration camp, never wrote a report or filled out a form about who they helped. Many but not all resisters who survived the war did write reports and fill out forms, but they are very uneven. Some go on and on with the detail but many do not. Some resisters remembered names; others did not.

Dutch-Paris happens to have left an unusually large footprint in the archives because of the determination of John Weidner and his top lieutenants to make sure that every man, woman and child who had been part of the group received the help or benefits to which he or she was entitled after the war. So after the war they generated a great deal of paperwork that was duly filed with the appropriate bureaucracies in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, the UK and the USA. Because it had to do with the war most of it was kept and filed in archives and most of it is now available. But there is nothing near a complete list of names of Jewish families whom they helped. For one thing, most of the resisters did not ask the people they were helping for names, nor did most of the people they helped did not offer names. It was safer for everyone that way. For another thing, no one asked for any such list when all these reports were written in 1945 and 1946.

So even if the reader’s family had gone through Brussels, Paris, Lyon, Annecy and Geneva along the route that Dutch-Paris took families to safety, I would most likely be unable to say for certain whether Dutch-Paris helped this particular family. I could only guess that they did if one of them had left behind letters or a diary that described or named individual helpers or places that I recognize as belonging to Dutch-Paris.

It’s best, therefore, in cases like this one to start with private, family sources such as letters or memoirs or even a name or a place and work outward to the increasingly public archives. The more general and public an archive, such as a national archive, the less likely you are to find traces of ordinary people.