18th Mar

Sierk Plantinga, a retired archivist from the Dutch Nationaal Archief, has sent me a welcome correction to my last two posts (18 February and 4 March, 2014) about finding refugees in the archives. No one knows more about the archives about Dutch people in France during WWII than he does.

Sierk tells me, and I believe him, that as long as the family in question made contact with the Dutch authorities in southern France, Switzerland or Portugal or with the Swiss authorities, you have a good chance of finding them in the archives. There might not be much information, but the names should at least appear on a list with a relevant date.

To look for such Dutch refugees, start at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague (www.gahetna.nl). Look in five places.

(1) The archives of the Dutch consulates (later called the Offices néerlandaises, later called the Bureau d’administration des Néerlandais) in Vichy France. The inventories are all on the website (Vichy inventory 2.05.101; Toulouse inventory 2.05.100; Montauban inventory 2.02.97 and Nice, for which most documents have been destroyed). You will find the correspondence between the consulates and the Dutch refugees in southern France who asked for help. For instance, there is a list of all Dutch citizens who applied for a new Dutch passport at the Office Neerlandais in Vichy in 1942, something they needed to apply for visas to get out of Europe.

(2) The files of the Dutch Office for Refugees in Lisbon run by Baron van Harinxma (inventory 2.05.161). This will include documents about Dutch refugees in Spain and Portugal.

(3) The postwar Bureau Invordering (inventory 2.04.77). This office administered the repayment of loans that made by the government-in-exile to Dutch refugees while they were in Switzerland. These files contain the records of the refugee administration of the Dutch Legation in Bern with such interesting items as lists of how much refugees spent on what: socks, raincoats, trips to the dentist etc etc.

(4) The files of the wartime Dutch military attaché in Bern, who was Read the rest of this entry »

4th Mar

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 Read the rest of this entry »

18th Feb

A reader wrote to me about his attempts to reconstruct his family’s flight from Occupied Europe. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s somewhat like looking for a needle that may or may not be in a haystack. Something the reader said made me think that it might be useful to return to the subject of archives, specifically what is, and is not, in archives.

The reader presumed that he should be able to find records of border crossings during the war. I, on the other hand, would be very surprised to find any such thing. I’ll tell you why in two scenarios, starting with the least likely.

Suppose that the family in question left Occupied Europe legally. That would have required a formidable number of exit and entrance visas, travel passes etc etc. At the time, in 1942, the journey would have generated a fair amount of paperwork in a fair number of bureaucratic offices across western Europe. The family would have taken this sheaf of documents and boarded a train. At every border, customs agents and border guards on both sides would have inspected the documents, possibly made telephone calls to their superiors to verify the documents, stamped them, and waved the bearers onward. None of those officials would have made a record of the family’s passing unless they arrested the family. Remember that this happened long before computers when every record had to be written or typed by hand. No one had the time to write down the particulars of entire trainloads of passengers.

If they did arrest the family, Read the rest of this entry »

4th Feb

How did a man who grew up in Oakland, California, come to be driving American aviators around the Pyrenees in 1944?

This man, whom we’ll call Frisco because that’s what the aviators called him, was born in California in 1912, presumably to French immigrants. When he was 16 the family returned to their farm in the Pyrenees, near the northern end of the Luchonnais valley, south of Toulouse and east of Lourdes. The way the American aviators told the story, Frisco fought in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and then married a French girl. The French sources don’t mention any Republican sympathies, but they wouldn’t. They do confirm that he married a French woman in 1937. The couple had one daughter.

Anyone who volunteered on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War would have been an obvious recruit for the Resistance. But even without that qualification, Frisco had something that would have been completely irresistible to Read the rest of this entry »

21st Jan

Weather Delays in the Pyrenees

Dutch-Paris did occasionally have to suspend its escapes into Switzerland or Spain due to severe weather in the mountains that made travel impossible. It had to be absolutely impossible, though, because delaying escapes meant having to hide and feed the evaders somewhere in occupied territory.

As long as there was a chance of getting through, the evaders made the attempt. They did so even though few of them had what we would consider to be adequate winter gear. Even if it was possible to get decent mountain boots (which was by no means certain), it was dangerous to wear them Read the rest of this entry »

7th Jan

As I’m writing the snow is falling down faster than we can keep the walkways shoveled, and the schools have been closed for the next three days due to dangerously cold temperatures. The last winters of the war and the first winters of the peace were also remarkably cold. But unless you stick to straightforward facts like the temperature, our cold now is nothing like the wartime cold.

My neighbors have snug houses with central heating and electric lighting. Our closets are full of parkas, boots, hats and mittens. Our cupboards are full of food. Few people in western Europe could have said the same in the mid-1940’s.

Most houses were heated with coal, which was rationed. Firewood, and even trees, were scarce in cities. Many people had to shut off whole rooms of their homes and huddle together in the one room that they had a hope of heating. In many places electricity was also rationed. It came on and off, sometimes on a rotating schedule of one or two hours per day and sometime Read the rest of this entry »

23rd Dec

A number of readers have asked me about their relatives who were involved in Dutch escape lines during the war. So in this season when we think about our families, I offer to everyone the advice I’ve given to them.

First, please remember that I do not use anyone’s true name in this blog except John Henry Weidner’s. Every other name is a pseudonym (schuilnaam, nom de guerre). The stories in this blog are all true, but you cannot know that any one story is about your relative.

Second, it’s not easy to find traces of resisters in the archives. The good news is that 10 years ago it was well nigh impossible. Now you at least have a chance because of changes in archival laws and the establishment of new archives.

Third, the records are uneven, to say the least. There simply are no records for some people. This might be because they died during the war or because they refused to ever fill out any forms after the war. Ironically, there are almost no files on JH Weidner because he was so well known as a famous resister in 1944-1946. Some files have one sheet of paper with, say, a name and birth date. Other files have years’ of correspondence and gendarmerie reports. I once spent months getting permission to see a particular file, flew to France, took a train, rented a car, found an archive in the middle of nowhere and only then discovered Read the rest of this entry »

9th Dec

Although the German army did its best to lock down Occupied Europe and control the movements of the population, there was a surprising amount of room for maneuver for those with the character to find it. Take, for instance, the story of a young Dutchman we’ll call Bob.

When the Germans started rounding up Jews like himself in June 1942, the eighteen-year-old Bob left the Netherlands with a friend. The two of them made their own way across the border into Belgium, across Belgium and into France, across the Demarcation Line and to Lyon. There they looked for help at the Dutch consulate, and met John Henry Weidner. The consulate helped them with identification documents, ration coupons and the like while they waited for three more friends,.

The three friends, a couple and a bachelor who were almost old enough to be the young men’s parents, arrived in Lyon within a couple of weeks. They all negotiated clandestine passage to Switzerland with a Read the rest of this entry »

25th Nov

A Long Trip to Switzerland

Although the German army did its best to lock down Occupied Europe and control the movements of the population, there was a surprising amount of room for maneuver for those with the character to find it. Take, for instance, the story of a young Dutchman we’ll call Bob.

When the Germans started rounding up Jews like himself in June 1942, the eighteen-year-old Bob left the Netherlands with a friend. The two of them made their own way across the border into Belgium, across Belgium and into France, across the Demarcation Line and to Lyon. There the Dutch consulate helped them with identification documents, ration coupons and the like while they waited for three more friends.

When the three friends, who were almost old enough to be their parents, arrived, they all negotiated clandestine passage to Switzerland with a professional passeur. The man charged an outrageous sum, but Read the rest of this entry »

11th Nov

It’s easy enough to imagine the agonizing dilemma of a Jewish family or a resister who needed to find a passeur to Spain or Switzerland. Obviously, their first choice would be to go with a resistance line like Dutch-Paris, if only they could find one. Failing that, they would have to pay a passeur and hope that they had entrusted themselves to an honest businessman rather than a criminal who intended to hand them over to the Germans or abandon them on a glacier.

But what we don’t often consider is the situation of a prospective passeur. Imagine that you know a good way into Switzerland or Spain and would really like to defy the Germans by helping their enemies escape. It’s possible that if you simply stay put fugitives will find you and ask for help. But maybe not. In that case, there are two problems.

The first problem is security. You could go to a café near the big train station and see if anyone needs help. But what if the people claiming to need help are really German agents provocateurs? Read the rest of this entry »


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