Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
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.
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 »
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 »
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 »
In the last post I mentioned that the Armée Secrète (Secret Army) around St-Gaudens, France, policed passages over the Pyrenees in their region. This is how they did it.
In March 1943 it came to the attention of the captain of the local AS that the number of fugitives trying to walk to Spain was increasing and that some of them were being scandalously exploited. Passeurs were charging Jews 20,000 to 50,000 francs per person. They charged young French men intending to join de Gaulle’s Free French army in North Africa 4-6,000 francs per person in convoys formed by guides. Some of the guides abandoned their clients in the mountain wilderness. Some even robbed their Jewish clients and delivered them to the Germans.
The AS took the matter in hand by creating their own network of passeurs and enforcing set rates on others. Furthermore, any free lance passeurs in the region would have been well aware that they would have to answer to the AS for any robberies or fatalities in the mountains.
The AS recruited forest rangers (gardes forestières), road workers (cantonniers) and shepherds into an intelligence network that would watch the movements of the Germans guarding the border. Station masters in the foothills received evaders and sheltered them until it was time to assemble the convoys. Men who lived high in the mountains served as guides. Most of them worked as volunteers, paid only to reimburse the costs of feeding and perhaps clothing the clients.
The AS did, however, also need to engage professional passeurs, which meant men who intended to earn a living from the job during the war. The AS set a wage scheme for such professionals that reflected Read the rest of this entry »
On the night of 5 November 1943, maquisards of the Armée Secrète (Secret Army) rescued a sick companion from the hospital in St-Gaudens, France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. They left 100 francs wrapped around a note saying “thanks for taking care of him. Don’t tell until 7:30 or 8:00am.” The director of the hospital called the gendarmes at 7:00 am. The gendarmes called the Germans. They also noted that the sick man’s fiancée had been seen eating dinner at a restaurant in town the night before but had also disappeared.
Five weeks later the captain commanding the AS arrived at the same hospital in dire need of medical care. The director of the hospital refused to take responsibility for the captain but did provide the care he needed. Somehow or other, his maquisards spirited him out of his hospital room despite the three Feldgendarmes (German military police) and five French gendarmes guarding him.
These stories aren’t about Dutch-Paris, but they tell us something about the atmosphere in which Dutch-Paris operated. Dutch-Paris sent aviators and Engelandvaarders over the Pyrenees into Spain in the region controlled by that unit of the AS. They relied on the AS to police the clandestine trade in passages and to keep a sort of order in the region.
If the AS had acted rashly, it would have brought Read the rest of this entry »
Finding food posed a constant problem for just about everyone in Europe during the Second World War, even more so for resisters who helped fugitives. Even if the fugitive had forged or stolen ration cards, the helper could not simply stand in line at the usual store and hand over more than the usual ration cards. People would notice. Unwelcome questions would be asked. No, the helper would have to stand in the usual line for the family’s usual rations and then go to another neighborhood to stand in another line for the “guest’s” rations.
Few people, however, found the official rations to be sufficient or even reliable. Most people had to resort to one form or another of the grey market that ranged from the wholly mercenary and very expensive black market of trade between strangers to the lightest of grey markets in which friends sold food to friends for below cost. Obviously, personal connections made all the difference in the world to what appeared on the dinner table.
Dutch-Paris constantly faced this problem as they funneled hundreds of people, some of whom were young men in a hungry stage of life, through the occupied territories. In many places they had to resort to paying for black market meals at restaurants. But one member of the network in Paris had a different solution.
This was a Catholic brother who had the responsibility of feeding his monastery in Paris. We’ll call him Brother T. The brothers of this monastery, who came from different nations in Europe including Germany, often had visitors, some of whom did not arrive with legal documents or ration tickets. Before he ever got involved with Dutch-Paris, any number of Dutch men knocked on the door because they had run away from labor assignments in France or were trying to get to Spain. Brother T managed to feed them all because of the friendships he made with some Dutch families who farmed 30 km or so south of Paris.
Early in the war, Brother T. attended a monthly Dutch get together in Paris that included a Mass in Dutch followed by coffee. At the coffee he met a couple who had 16 children and a farm south of Paris with pigs, chickens, rabbits and two cows. The farmer invited the brother to visit the farm to buy food at cost. Brother T did just that, taking the freshly slaughtered meat wrapped up in tea towels under his habit on the light rail system back to Paris. He took the bloody tea towels back to the family to be washed, which could not have been easy when soap was so scarce. The children of the family loved to escort him to and from the station because he had so many jokes. Occasionally, he brought clothes for them.
The clothes caught the attention of a neighboring farmer for whom some of the K children worked. This Farmer J had been too afraid to make any illegal sales of food to Brother T before, but now began to do so. Farmer J was the brother-in-law of the son of another Dutch farmer who lived about 15km away. Brother T made friends with this Farmer B as well. Farmer B not only picked Brother T up at the station in his cart and sold him food, he agreed to hide 17 young Dutch fugitives on his farm (not all at the same time) when Brother T needed to get the young men out of Paris before sending them south to Spain.
When a horse had to be slaughtered because of an accident, Farmer B gave it to Brother T. The brother carried 350 kg of fresh and salted horsemeat back to Paris on the train 40 kg at a time in suitcases without ever being caught by the food inspectors who haunted the entrances to Paris looking for people doing exactly what he was doing. But a laborer on the farm denounced the illegal slaughter of meat to the authorities. Farmer B chose to pay 43,000 francs in fines rather than tell the inspectors that the meat had gone to feed the RAF. He knew that by this time Brother T and Dutch-Paris were feeding not just Dutchmen on the run from the labor draft but Allied aviators trying to get back to their airbases in England after crashing during bombing runs.
Brother T had two things in his favor when searching for food. First, his status as a religious inclined devout people to help him. It was extremely difficult for Dutch men and women raised in the Catholic milieu of the time to say no to a nun, a priest or a brother. Second, Brother T had a charming personality that repaid the farmers in other ways. He arranged a marriage with a Dutch nurse for Farmer B’s son. He told and brought warm sweaters for the children (probably second hand, but everyone wore second hand at the time). And he brought joy to them with his jokes, so much so that some of them remained devoted to him for decades. Both these characteristics allowed Brother T to establish the sort of relationships he needed to feed fugitives during the war.
As I remarked in the previous post, Dutch-Paris relied on trains and trams to get around western Europe. The smaller and more local a train was, the less likely it was to be controlled.
Of course those smaller milk trains were ridden by the locals day in and day out as they went to work or into the city to have their ration cards renewed or make a purchase. The regulars on those trains knew when an outsider appeared and would have had a good eye for strangers coming from foreign lands or the big city. The local trains would have been more dangerous than the main lines if the regulars had chosen to report strangers. But they never did in the hundreds of train trips that Dutch-Paris made (or, as far as I know, that fugitives on their own or with other resistance lines made).
In fact, more than one Engelandvaarder has commented on the complicity of the regular passengers of trains in the Pyrenees who smiled indulgently at the thin disguise of eleven Dutchmen pretending to be a football (soccer) team. It’s impossible to know how many minor acts of Resistance happened on trains when ordinary people looked the other way, kept silent or created diversions for the benefit of strangers they suspected were resisters or fugitives.
Such helping acts came not just from passengers but also from men and women who worked on the railways, known as cheminots. Indeed, the cheminots had their own Resistance network. Dutch-Paris didn’t have any known connection to that group, but it did benefit from the help of several cheminots. For instance, a Dutchman who worked out of the Gare du Nord in Paris started out helping a Dutch diplomat get to The Hague in 1940 by disguising him as a dishwasher in the dining car. He escorted fugitives out of the Gare du Nord through doors the Germans did not watch. He undoubtedly provided critical information about the timing of trains and their surveillance. He died in the concentration camps for helping Allied aviators evade capture.
Further south, Dutch-Paris fugitives spent time hiding under the protection of station masters in the Luchon valley at the foothills of the Pyrenees. Those station masters belonged to a local group that attached warning signals to the morse code sent between the Gare Matabiau in Toulouse and the smaller stations in the region. Another cheminot based in Foix took high-ranking evaders out of the country by dressing them up as cheminots and hiding them in plain sight in his locomotive.
The trains, then, were not just the only means of long-distance travel available to most people during the war. They were also constantly shifting communities of complicity as passengers and cheminots made sometimes very small moves, even acts of omission such as not speaking up, that protected the resisters and fugitives among them.
From the perspective of the twenty-first century, especially in America, we tend to forget how important the railways were during the Second World War. We remember them in the horrific image of cattle cars rolling toward Auschwitz or as targets for bombing runs. But we forget that everyone relied on them every day.
By the end of the war only the Germans, the police, doctors and collaborators had legal access to gasoline. If you’re remembering films of resisters hanging off the sides of vehicles waving sub-machine guns, that was at the Liberation. During the Occupation, ordinary people either walked, got on a bicycle, hitched a horse up to a cart, found a bus running on a wood conversion engine, or took a train or a tram.
There were a lot more trains and trams running in western Europe in the early 1940’s than there are now, and many of them ran on steam, belching out grey smoke and scattering smut as they went. Belgian had an enviably dense network of public transportation. The Pyrenees had regular service on lines that have since been overgrown and even turned into roads for automobiles.
The slower a train went and the more local stops it made, the less likely it was to be controlled by anyone, let alone Germans. Or the inspectors might be looking for free-loaders riding without a ticket or for smugglers. That meant that resisters and other fugitives riding with a paid ticket and without any illegal butter in their pockets could pass inspection without any worries. The authorities did, however, control the main lines that ran between, say, Brussels and Paris or Geneva and Toulouse. But not every day and not every train. If you weren’t sure whether a particular train would be controlled, it was best to get on a crowded train in the middle because inspectors started at the ends. Obviously, the more people on the train, the more slowly the inspectors moved through it, giving the people in the middle time to hear about the controllers and take evasive action.
Dutch-Paris and other Resistance lines relied on these trains and trams just as much as everyone else. In fact, Dutch-Paris’ couriers and leaders purchased railway subscriptions that entitled them to discounts on their train tickets. After trips in France and Belgium, John Weidner reported on the state of the lines (increasingly broken due to sabotage and bombing) and morale among passengers (declining among Germans) to the Dutch military attaché in Switzerland.
Dutch-Paris used trams or local trains in Belgium to get fugitives from the Dutch border to Brussels. Then they found it simpler and safer to use the main line night train from Brussels to Paris. They used the main line night train again to move fugitives between Paris and Toulouse or the Alps and Toulouse. From Toulouse to the Pyrenees, they used local trains. The Gestapo tended to be regrettably zealous on the main line running east to west at the base of the Pyrenees, so it was best to take the slow train there.
More on trains in the next post….
Although, as an historian, I remain astounded by the vast amount of documentation about Dutch-Paris now available in various archives, a lay person could be forgiven for thinking that rather a lot of the details have been lost. For example, the details of how, exactly, the pastor recruited a café owner to act as a “post box” for the line, or even when, are missing from the existing documents. There are a number of reasons for such lapses.
1. The information was forgotten at the time because it was considered either too insignificant or too dangerous to remember, especially in written form. The pastor, for instance, never wrote down the café owner’s name for fear it would lead to an arrest. Then, under the weight of years of clandestine activity, he simply forgot how it happened in the first place.
2. The information was written down during the war, but the papers were either destroyed or captured. This happened with most lists of people helped by Dutch-Paris. For instance, when Klaus Barbie arrested the Dutch consul in Lyon, the consul’s secretary very understandably burned any compromising papers she could find. In Brussels, the German security services captured not only 10 aviators and 6 Dutch resisters but also all those resisters’ forgery supplies and what they always called their “archives.”
3. Immediately after the war, the people who knew the information didn’t write it down. For instance, in the mid-1940’s, the Americans and British did quite a bit of investigating in order to reward people who helped aviators during the war. Such people submitted reports to the British and Americans that described how they helped airmen. But no one asked them for reports about how they helped Jews, so they never wrote that down. Or if they did, the reports didn’t end up in an archive.
4. Some of the documents that were written during the war have been lost. The Gestapo, for instance, deliberately burned their own files. The personal papers of a Dutch-Paris leader in Brussels appear to have been misfiled by the archive to which they were confided and are effectively lost. Obviously, it’s impossible to say how much detail is in such “lost” archives, but there is undoubtedly some.
5. The people who knew the information did not survive the war in order to record it. Every member of Dutch-Paris who perished in the concentration camps took his or her resistance secrets to the grave. No one knew everything about the line, not even John Weidner. No one wanted to know more than necessary for fear of betraying others under torture.
There’s nothing surprising in the fact that many of the details of a complicated Resistance line such as Dutch-Paris have been lost. What is amazing is that so many can be reconstructed out of the archives. Perhaps we will never know how the pastor recruited the café owner, but we don’t really need to know that. It’s enough, and impressive enough, to know that that particular café owner did that particular job until she was arrested on such and such a date at such and such a place under such and such charges but that another café owner replaced her as the Dutch-Paris “post box” until the liberation.