16th Apr

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 »

6th Apr

The Problem of Feeding Fugitives

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.

27th Mar

Safety Amongst the Other Passengers

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.

17th Mar

Local Trains were Safer

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….

7th Mar

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.

25th Feb

Fugitive Fakes own Death, Insanity

Here’s one of the more dramatic stories of how an Engelandvaarder came into contact with Dutch-Paris. It concerns a Dutch man, whom we’ll call Bruno, who was already married with small children when the war started. Fairly early on, in 1941, he got a message that the Gestapo was on his trail for his Resistance activities.

Bruno decided to leave the Netherlands in order to join the Dutch army in England. But first he faked his own drowning so that the Germans wouldn’t harass his wife and so that she would receive a pension from the widows’ and orphans’ fund. He did this with the help of a fisherman and a few trustworthy bureaucrats.

Before he left he had heard that any Dutchman arrested in France would be treated as a spy on Radio Oranje (the Dutch service of the BBC, listening to which was harshly punished by the Germans). So when he was arrested in southern France, Bruno pretended to be playing without a full deck.

He did it to hide the fact that he intended to join the Allied armies, but it led him to 14 months imprisonment. All those long months he feared that he might really go insane. He must have been only adequately convincing as a madman, though, because the French kept him at the Fortress of Montluc in Lyon for three months under suspicion of being an English or German [!] spy. They finally put him in an internment camp for politically unreliable foreigners. The Dutch consul in Lyon found him there and put him in contact with John Weidner. Bruno kept up his crazy masquerade because he was afraid that if the Germans ever found out he wanted to join the Allied military they would take reprisals against his family.

Again, he wasn’t wholly convincing although he lied enough that he felt he owed Weidner an apology for it after the war was over. Weidner got him to Spain with the help of the Dutch consuls in Perpignan and Toulouse before that route closed at the end of 1942.

The Dutch government-in-exile, however, decided that Bruno was much more useful to the Allied war effort in Curacao, where he could organize shipping in the West Indies, than as a soldier. He didn’t see his wife and children again until late 1945 when he was finally able to arrange berths for them on a ship coming from the Netherlands to Curacao.

15th Feb

There was a shortage of accurate information during the war, especially among resisters who by necessity used layers of false names and subterfuge to protect themselves. Rumors abounded in the Resistance, nowhere more so, I suspect, than in the prisons and concentration camps where resisters tried to figure out what went wrong.

In the case of Dutch-Paris, there was a young Dutchman living in Paris during the war whom we’ll call Tony. Tony acted as a liaison of sorts between Dutch-Paris and another Dutch escape line and was one of those charmed resisters who had a knack for just missing being arrested. That happened again in February 1944 when so many members of Dutch-Paris did not escape arrest.

After the survivors returned from the concentration camps, a small group insisted that Tony had betrayed them even after another individual confessed to having given everyone’s names under torture.

Why did these survivors insist that Tony had betrayed them? Was it just that they didn’t believe in the coincidence of Tony not being arrested when they were? Was it because the most influential member of that group had never liked Tony in the first place? It might have been partly for these reasons, but it was undoubtedly also because of what happened a few nights before the big round-up.

Around 10:30pm, which was very late in blacked-out, curfew-restricted Paris, a tall Dutch looking man calling himself Tony rang the doorbell of a woman we’ll call Micheline, who fed and lodged fugitives for Dutch-Paris. He asked for another member of the group by name, and when Micheline acted surprised, the stranger rattled off a few more names of Dutch-Paris members.

Upset by this encounter, Micheline told one of the people “Tony” had asked for about it the next day. She replied that, because he was tall, sounded Dutch, and knew people’s names, it must have been the Tony who worked with Dutch-Paris. After they had all been arrested (except Tony and some others) a few days later, Micheline saw the stranger from walking freely around Gestapo headquarters. From this she deduced that Tony had betrayed them. It’s unlikely that she kept her suspicions to herself during the long months in Fresnes prison and Ravensbruck concentration camp.

Micheline survived to return to an empty apartment in the summer of 1945. She told John Weidner her suspicions. Weidner was one of the people who escaped the round-up in February 1944 and had taken command of the Netherlands Security Service in France and Belgium in November 1944. He had made it his business to find out why his people had been arrested and was convinced that Tony was innocent. He introduced Tony to Micheline, who admitted that she had never seen him before. The stranger at her door was some other Tony, who undoubtedly knew the address and names because the courier had already given them under torture by that date.

The damage to Tony’s reputation was done, though. He was so upset at the accusations of treason that he volunteered for the Dutch military and spent the next few years in Indonesia.

5th Feb

Arrest and Plunder

It’s well known that the Germans plundered the Occupied Territories to support their war effort and their own home front. You think of occupying troops seizing the contents of an entire grain silo or shipping the entire production of a factory directly to Germany. And the theft of the great works of art to satisfy top Nazis is well known, as is the theft of the furnishings of Jewish homes after the arrests of the families who lived in them.

The extent and petty detail of such plundering, however, is less well known. The German security services routinely emptied out the homes of suspected resisters as soon as they arrested them, long before any potential trial or decision on their case would be made. Among the members of Dutch-Paris who survived the concentration camps, many returned to empty homes. The Germans even took the refrigerator out of one apartment in Paris. They took money and jewelry, of course, but also clothing, furniture, household linens, postage stamps and food.

When they arrested the Dutch consul in Lyon in February 1944, the Gestapo or their minions – none of the bystanders were asking too many questions at the time – confiscated 1,295 tins of sardines. The sardines had been purchased by the Dutch government in exile and sent to southern France via the Red Cross in Portugal. It had been done legally with all the requisite paperwork. Despite the barrage of official complaints, however, the German authorities in France refused to either return or pay for the sardines.

After all, those sardines meant a great deal to the Dutch families hiding in southern France who had little access to food, but they were hardly a Rembrandt or the wine cellar of a chateau. They were just a few more boxes of things meant to disappear into the “night and fog” along with the men and women who had owned them.

25th Jan

Advice from Successful Evaders

Allied aviators who bailed out over occupied territory and successfully returned to the UK had to answer a lot of questions when they got back to their bases. The engineers, for instance, wanted to know what had happened to their aircraft. Intelligence officers wanted to know about conditions on the ground in continental Europe. And a small unit, whose mission it was to assist POWs and evaders, wanted to know exactly how the evader had made it back home.

When asked what advice they would give to other evaders, some said to do everything your helpers told you to do out of respect for the danger the helpers were putting themselves into for your sake. Others said that helpers tended to get too fond of “their Americans” and want them to stay until the invasion (whenever that would be). These impatient aviators recommended moving on despite the helpers’ advice. They also advised against giving out the passport photos airmen sometimes carried as souvenirs because they might be needed for false documents later. (Although they might as well have given them away, most of the photos that airmen carried were the wrong size or the wrong degree of formality and therefore useless in false documents.)

Evaders also recommended traveling alone rather than in a group; avoiding travel at night when the curfew made anyone on the roads suspect, and jumping off moving trains from the right side of the train. Many of the evaders mentioned that German soldiers didn’t seem to see aviators very well. Time and again, Germans patrolled past airmen squatting behind a tree or lying behind three measly rows of beans without discovering them.

The top advice of all successful evaders, however, was not to give up your GI shoes or flying boots because you think they’re too conspicuous. Dye your boots black, they advised, because French shoes were too small and had soles made out of cardboard. French shoes were wholly inadequate to climbing the Pyrenees in any weather and made escape into Spain even more difficult than it already was. Dutch and Belgian shoes wouldn’t have been any better and may have been worse. None of the evaders put it quite this way, but to a man they all implied that it would have been better to have been caught by the Germans because you were wearing good boots than to have crossed the continent and the Pyrenees in wartime European shoes.

Of course the escape and evasion reports that I read were all written by men who had made it across the Pyrenees without their GI footwear, so their advice on the matter may have had more to do with frostbite and regret than safety.

15th Jan

Circumstances often played a capricious role in how an individual came to join the Resistance and where in the Resistance he or she ended up. Take, for example, the story of a young Dutchman (born 1918) whom we’ll call Bob.

Bob began the war as a student at the engineering school in Delft until the Germans closed it down in response to student protests. Bob spent that summer working in a mine then resumed his studies at the University of Amsterdam. In November 1942 he decided to leave for Spain because one of the Jewish friends he’d been helping was arrested. Unfortunately, the Feldgendarmerie (German military police) caught him at Turnhout (Belgium) and sent him to the prison in Haren (The Netherlands). After a month or so he avoided being sent to Germany as a laborer because of “outside interference.” That might mean that his father bribed someone, but the documents don’t say.

Bob returned to his studies in time for a razzia in Amsterdam during which the Grüne Polizei and NSB (German police and Dutch collaborators) arrested all the men between 18 and 30 that they could find. They found Bob Read the rest of this entry »

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