17th Sep

The last post showed photos of some of the places that Dutch-Paris used in Lyon, France. Dutch-Paris was hardly the only Resistance group operating in Lyon; they weren’t even the only Dutch resisters in the city. But the circle of people willing to risk themselves in the humanitarian resistance was small enough that the Dutch engaged in rescuing Jews and other persecuted people in Lyon knew about each other and cooperated even if they did not all belong to the same group.

Humanitarian efforts among the Dutch in Lyon centered on the Dutch consulate there, which was a natural destination for fugitives who had made their own way into Vichy France. Weidner met many of the people whom Dutch-Paris escorted to Switzerland through the consulate. But Weidner was not the only Dutch expatriate living in the Lyonnais who Read the rest of this entry »

3rd Sep

Dutch-Paris Sites in Lyon

Before Dutch-Paris existed, John Weidner started his Resistance work by helping Dutch Jews who made their own way to Lyon. Weidner and a French friend owned a textile shop there on the rue du Griffon. He himself had to abandon that shop in September 1943 when the Gestapo came calling for him there. But Dutch Jews were using it for shelter as late as February 1944. It was a small shop on a narrow street running uphill from the large plaza in front of the grand mairie (city hall). Today it looks like this and lies just around the corner from a police station.


Being a bachelor whose parents and sisters lived in different occupation zones, Weidner lived in a hotel on the rue Sainte Catherine, a short walk from his shop. Weidner traveled extensively for the import/export branch of the business, so he probably wasn’t home very often. He used both the hotel and his usual business travel to build and run Dutch-Paris. This is what the front of the hotel looks like today.


Many of the Dutch Jews whom Weidner and his colleagues helped did not know Weidner before they arrived in Lyon. Instead, they went to the Dutch consulate or its refugee assistance office in this solid building on the rue de la Bourse. The consulate offered money, legal assistance and help navigating the requirements of French law and bureaucracy. Occasionally the staff sent people to Weidner with the hint that he could get people into Switzerland, which, of course, he could.




All of these buildings and the lodgings of the most active member s of Dutch-Paris in Lyon lay in the Presqu’île neighborhood of the city between the rivers Saône and Rhône. This was mostly just coincidence, but it did make running a clandestine organization easier at a time when ordinary people used public transportation or their feet to get around and curfews made being on the streets at night dangerous. Fortunately for our resisters, many of the trains they used ran in and out of the small gare du Perrache at the tip of the Presqu’île. It’s not such a long walk from that station to any of the Dutch-Paris places, but it would have been an almost impossibly long walk from the gare du Lyon that today’s travelers use, especially after curfew.


The Presqu'ile of Lyon from across the Saone

20th Aug

In the last post I said that two categories of government agencies started collecting the history of the Resistance immediately after the war. The first were those bureaucracies charged with distributing pensions, medical benefits and the like to resisters. Before disbursing any money, however, they first established each resister’s bona fides. Those files are a treasure trove of information about how the Resistance functioned, but the bureaucracies kept them to themselves until very recently.

The second category of government agency that was gathering information about the Resistance was officially sponsored historical institutes dedicated to the war. Of course, they were interested in many aspects of the war in their own country, but the Resistance loomed large in their investigations, especially in the early years. In France the Comité d’Histoire du deuxième Guerre mondiale (CH2GM, Committee for the History of the Second World War) had correspondents in every department. These correspondents had privileged access to archives to answer questions posed in Paris and many of their reports remained inaccessible until recently.
In the Netherlands the Rijks Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie (Royal Institute for War Documentation) now the NIOD instituut voor oorlogs-, holocaust- en genocidestudies (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies), sent investigators to carry out interviews and gather documents to figure out what had happened during the war. Its director, Lou de Jong, wrote a multi-volume history of the war in the Netherlands based on those investigations. It has become a national depository for non-governmental documents about the war such as diaries and family photographs.

If you add these two war-specific sources of documentation – the pension paying bureaucracies and the historical institutes – to the garden variety government archives that house Read the rest of this entry »

6th Aug

Although resisters did not, as a rule, keep records during the war, various government agencies rushed to create files on them immediately after the war. These agencies fell into two groups: those interested in organizing information for the sake of dispensing money and those interested in figuring out what went on during the war.

The first group includes the American and British air forces, the French army and the Belgian and Dutch ministries of social affairs. The Americans and British wanted to thank civilians who had helped their men evade the enemy. But they only wanted to award medals, food packages, widow’s pensions and the like to those who actually did help, so they required enough documentation to support any such claim. In 1944 the French army already included a huge bureaucracy that administered veterans’ benefits for the First World War, so they folded resisters into that. Again, they were only willing to pay pensions to bona fide resisters and so required proof of resistance. The Dutch and Belgians entrusted benefits for resisters to Read the rest of this entry »

23rd Jul

In the previous post I talked about how cigarettes were used to buy things on the black market and bribes during the war. Although it looks like some Dutch-Paris couriers may have used cigarettes for petty bribery, for the most part Dutch-Paris relied on cash for both the black market and bribes.

Dutch-Paris, of course, could not remain aloof from the black market in food because they had to feed fugitives who did not legitimately figure in the rationing scheme. In Paris they had connections to certain Dutch farmers who had moved to France before the war. These men sold them food, either to feed people hiding in Paris or to make up food bundles to take on clandestine trips over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Being patriotic, the Dutch farmers did not charge the full black market prices for this food. For the most part, however, Dutch-Paris paid huge sums to restaurants selling black market meals.

Similarly with bribes, Dutch-Paris tended to use cash whenever possible. For instance, in April 1944 a new courier crawled under the barbed wire from Switzerland to France with Jean Weidner. The new guy forgot to look both ways before stepping onto the road and walked right into Read the rest of this entry »

9th Jul

The Cost of Cigarettes

One of the items to show up on the expense reports of two of the Dutch-Paris couriers is “cigarettes.” For example, on 30 June 1944 a couriers spent 1,000 French francs on ten packets of cigarettes. On first glance, it’s hardly surprising that anyone smoked during the Second World War, let alone men traveling through occupied territory with false documents and carrying microfilms full of military intelligence.

But they did not submit the costs of their daily newspaper or the shoe shines that were essential to their disguises as legitimate businessmen. So why would the Dutch government-in-exile effectively accept paying for these men’s cigarettes? And why do cigarettes figure on only two of the courier’s expense reports? Furthermore, why do cigarettes only appear in late 1943/early 1944 and the summer of 1944? Did these men stop smoking for a while as they patched up the network after many of their colleagues had been arrested over the course of several weeks? It seems unlikely.

There must be something more to these cigarettes. One possible explanation is that they bought the cigarettes for the men they were escorting. So the cigarettes from January 1944 were smoked not by the resisters but by Allied aviators being smuggled across western Europe by the resisters. But they did not buy cigarettes during every convoy of airmen, let alone every convoy of Engelandvaarders.

Another avenue of explanation lies in the fact that Europeans used cigarettes like currency during the war, and especially at its end. The price of cigarettes fluctuated over time and locale, but they were accepted everywhere, unlike currency. You could only buy things with Belgian francs in Belgium, but you could buy things with cigarettes anywhere. In fact, people lost so much confidence in the wartime currencies, that there were places where traders accepted nothing but cigarettes (although the economy never got that grim in western Europe).

This might explain why the cigarette purchases appear only intermittently. Better quality cigarettes had greater trading power but were harder to come by. Perhaps the couriers bought the good cigarettes when they had the opportunity, which was at only certain times.

If the couriers bought the cigarettes as a form of currency, then there are several ways they may have used them. They might have given them to the men they were sending over the Pyrenees as a form of pocket money for them to use after they left Dutch-Paris’s care and made their way into Spain. Or they might have given them to families in hiding to use for bartering.

Or the couriers might have used the cigarettes as a convenient form of bribery to grease the many palms that inspected their false documents, sold them train tickets or black market meals or hotel rooms, or let them out the back doors of train stations or cafés. Cigarettes could also be used as discreet thank yous for the myriad people who helped Dutch-Paris through their jobs, by providing information, shelter or rationed goods.

Say you happened to be walking along the French side of the Swiss border with some mud on your knees from crawling under the barbed wire and a gendarme asked you for your papers, what would you do? If your false documents were good, as Dutch-Paris documents were, it could go two ways. If you acted nervous, the gendarme might get suspicious and take you in for questioning. But if you remained calm, maybe lit up a cigarette and offered one to the gendarme like a copain, commented on the weather and acted like you understood that the man was only doing his duty but you regretted that he had to waste his time like this because there was nothing suspicious about you, chances were good the gendarme would let you go. The Dutch-Paris couriers were masters at cultivating such friendly encounters. They even chatted to German officers in trains about morale at home in the Third Reich.

After the war no one concerned thought that the cigarettes needed any explanation or perhaps that they were important enough to explain. I suspect that they used the cigarettes that they charged on their government expense reports to buy some thing or some one’s good will. If they smoked any cigarettes themselves, they undoubtedly paid for them with their own money.

25th Jun

The Couriers’ Expense Reports

Money was as critical for Resistance as it is for almost everything else. But for the most part resisters did not keep careful accounts of it. Most resisters did not have the time or the means or a safe way to keep accounts. After all, receipts and expense sheets could be used as incriminating evidence if the enemy captured them. Nor did most resisters have sufficient motivation to count the pennies. They were risking their lives for the greater good, not trying to turn a profit.

Dutch-Paris, however, did keep some accounts. It came naturally to the majority of its leaders who were businessmen. And after they started receiving financial support from the Dutch government-in-exile, they became accountable to the government for the expenditure of its funds. Furthermore, they had a safe place to keep some of the accounts in Switzerland. Unfortunately the accounts that were kept in France or Belgium were either burned or captured.

The accounts kept in Switzerland were mostly expense accounts submitted by the main Dutch-Paris couriers. They tell us many things. Obviously, they record prices. The price of a passeur over the Pyrenees. The price of a rucksack in Toulouse at the end of the war. How much money Dutch-Paris paid to a certain restaurant to feed fugitives. How much a train ticket between Paris and Annecy or Paris and Brussels cost.

The accounts also give us the chronological structure of the Dutch-Paris leadership. They record the date that a courier paid a passeur to take so many American airmen over the Pyrenees, and sometimes even provide the names of the aviators. From looking at his expense reports, I can tell you what city a certain courier was in for almost every day between October 1943 and September 1944. More than any other documents, they testify to that man’s dedication and almost incredible skill.

The more general overview accounts help to explain how much money Dutch-Paris distributed across France and Belgium to support Jews and others in hiding. They also help to explain how the resisters raised that money and how they exchanged Swiss francs for Belgian or French francs and transferred the cash across borders at a time of repressive currency controls.

The financial records do not explain Dutch-Paris, but they provide details not found in other documents and give them a necessary structure.

11th Jun

The Eleventh Man

Like detectives, historians try never to rely on only one witness to an event. Everyone sees things from their own perspective, and very few people ever have all the information. So we look for as many documents as possible and piece together the story as best we can. In the case of Dutch-Paris, the documents are scattered across dozens of archives, in large part because the witnesses came from many lands. Here’s an example.

When the Germans raided a Dutch-Paris safe house in Brussels in February 1944, they captured ten Allied airmen. But there had been an eleventh military fugitive in the boarding house the night before. Why wasn’t he lined up along the garden wall with the others?

The Americans thought the eleventh man was a traitor or a German agent pretending to be a Pole. They distrusted him, possibly because he went on a lot of walks. The fact that he wasn’t captured with them confirmed their suspicions. This is an entirely plausible scenario and fits into the limited information available to the Americans. German agents certainly did infiltrate escape lines, although they usually took them all the way to England rather than betraying them in Brussels. I learned about the American explanation for the arrests from the navigator of a B-17 who was there and generously shared his recollections with me via email.

In the British archives, however, I found a report filed in May 1945 by a New Zealander who flew for the RAF and described his capture after his return from a POW camp. According to him, the eleventh man was Read the rest of this entry »

28th May

A German reader, a relative of one of the Dutch-Paris station chiefs, asked me an interesting question about the last post. You may remember the story of a young Dutchman we’ll call Ad who lived in France. He started out by allowing the rain to ruin shipments of linen destined for a factory that worked for the Germans. By the end of the war he was leading a sabotage squad for the local Resistance network.

The reader asked what happened to Ad’s father while he was running about blowing up coal trains and if Ad’s family was in danger because of his activities. The answer is yes: a resister did put his or her family in danger. The Nazis practiced a policy of family responsibility and did punish fathers, mothers and siblings if they could not catch the individual they wanted. They enforced that policy much more often and more extensively in eastern Europe than in western Europe, but they did enforce it.

For example, when a Dutch-Paris man escaped arrest in the Pyrenees, German troops Read the rest of this entry »

14th May

Strategic Incompetence

Many resisters started out small. They did what they could to harass the enemy with the opportunities available to them. As the war went on, their opportunities may have increased and they may have came into contact with like-minded people. Perhaps they even crossed paths with a Resistance group.

Take the story of a young Dutchman (b. 1918) who had been living with his family in France since 1935. When the war started he was working for his father’s linen manufacturing business. He soon figured out that one of his father’s business associates, a Belgian with whom he had been friends since the First World War, was an economic collaborator. The man was helping the German war effort for profit rather than politics. So our Dutchman, whom we’ll call Ad, started sabotaging the shipments of linen to the his father’s friend’s factory.

He didn’t cover the wagons so the linen was destroyed en route to Belgium. He wrote the manifests incorrectly and weighed the linen incorrectly. And he let the wagons sit empty at the train stations, saying that there was no gas for tractors to bring linen to station. All that gave the Germans Read the rest of this entry »


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