26th Sep

More Security Meant More Evasion

Now that we’ve got the Eurozone and you don’t even have to exchange money let alone show your passport when moving from one western European country to another, it’s easy to forget that the German Occupation didn’t introduce fortified borders in Europe. Certainly they created a few new ones such as the Demarcation Line in France, but for the most part they intensified the security along already existing borders by adding their own douaniers [customs agents] and troops to the local border authorities.

And if, for centuries, there had been guards and customs agents protecting those frontiers, there had also been people who had found ways to get past those guards and, especially, those customs agents.

There were, for instance, smugglers. Indeed whole families lived off the proceeds of smuggling for generations. Shortages meant that many amateurs joined the professional smugglers during the Second World War. Most, of course, were simply trying to feed their own families. But there were also men who had had to go underground and turned to smuggling as a way to support themselves and their families. Both sorts of smugglers tended to be “politically reliable”, meaning against the Occupation authorities.

There was also a wholly legitimate and legal category of individuals who crossed the border without the usual formalities: farmers who lived on the border and owned fields on both sides of it. The local border authorities knew these people on sight and really didn’t care if they strayed beyond their fields to attend services or have a beer in the “other” country.

The usefulness of both categories of experienced border-crossers didn’t escape resisters or fugitives. If smugglers could carry salt or cigarettes over the frontier without getting caught, then they could show people how to get over the frontier without being caught. Farmers who regularly crossed the border to tend their crops or go to church made ideal couriers to take messages, documents, money or mail to and fro.

So the Germans intensified the security along European frontiers; they made it more difficult and more dangerous to cross from one country to its neighbor. But they didn’t stop either the legal or illegal traffic across international borders. They made crossing borders more difficult and more dangerous, but they also made people more desperate and determined to do it.

In fact, there was probably far more illegal traffic across borders during the Occupation under the noses of the German douaniers and Feldgendarmerie [military police] than there had been before the war under the far more easy-going local border authorities.

16th Sep

Despite the impression you may have gotten from the movies, the Resistance involved a lot of mundane tasks that were far from exciting except for the ever present possibility of arrest, torture and deportation to the concentration camps.

Take, for instance, the problem of housing downed Allied aviators who were trying to get to Spain to get back to their bases in England. Although some brave families took the risk of hosting these men who rarely blended into the crowd and didn’t like to be quiet or cooped up, it wasn’t always possible to find enough homes to house them. This was especially a problem in Toulouse where the aviators gathered until there were 12 or more of them to make up a convoy over the Pyrenees. For a while in early 1944, Dutch-Paris rented a house for their aviator “clients”, as did a French evasion line with which Dutch-Paris worked called Françoise.

The Françoise network, which was based in Toulouse, rented several houses for aviators. But there was a problem with heating these houses, especially as the Americans didn’t fully appreciate how very difficult and expensive it was to heat any building during the war. But Françoise found a way around that. They recruited the director of the gas company in Toulouse.

This businessman had coal delivered illegally (without ration coupons) to a couple of homes used by Françoise for aviators. He also installed gas lines to a couple of other homes despite the regulations and then suppressed the readings from those gas meters for the duration of the war. That way the Americans could turn up the heat as much as they wanted.

The director also drove a couple of Americans in his personal car from Toulouse to Foix (90 km) on two occasions.

It’s not flashy. No one would make a movie about the director of the gas company. But it’s the sort of everyday circumvention that the Resistance relied on.

6th Sep

The Price of a Radio Show

It’s hard for many of us to imagine the atmosphere and circumstances in which Dutch-Paris operated. It’s hard to comprehend the emotional and physical difficulties of recruiting people into a life of clandestine danger for an unknown period because so many of us take our freedoms and ease (plenty of food, heat, clothing) for granted.

Here’s a story from a village in the French Pyrenees, close to the Spanish border, that might help illuminate the times. On the 10th of September 1943 a dozen or so people gathered in a private home to listen to the 9:30 pm broadcast of the BBC from London. Listening to the BBC was a crime in Occupied Europe, including France. But how much of a crime could listening to the radio be? A fine, maybe a couple of days in prison?

On that particular day in that particular village, the radio was turned up so loud that you could hear it from the street. A passing German patrol must have heard it because they burst in through the door, shooting into the air.

A French housewife who happened to be walking down the street with her four year old child took fright at the shots and ran away as any sensible mother would do. The Germans shot her too, once in the right arm and once in the right thigh. Eventually they allowed her to be taken to the hospital in the nearest town, but they took their time about it.

They next day the Germans arrested the man who had organized these public performances of the BBC, seized his radio, and deported him to a concentration camp. Where he died. For listening to the radio.

It’s not surprising that less than 10% of the population joined the Resistance. It’s rather surprising that so many did.

27th Aug

One of the more intriguing mysteries about escape lines is how the fugitives and the helpers found each other. After all, you could hardly look up “clandestine border crossing” in the yellow pages and make a reservation. There were a few places where Dutch-Paris helpers found fugitives and offered to help: the Dutch consulate in Lyon, the French prison in Annecy. For the most part, though, it was a matter of knowing someone who knew someone and hoping the someones all along the line were honest.

I read an article today with the best explanation I’ve ever seen of how it actually worked.* The article was written by Eugène van der Heijden, who, along with his family and some friends, helped many, many people to escape from the Occupied Netherlands. Van der Heijden was a young school teacher living on the Dutch/Belgian border in Hilvarenbeek.

In the early summer of 1942, when it was already clear that bad things happened to Jews “in the east” but the systematic deportations from the Netherlands hadn’t started yet, there weren’t any escape lines. In fact, the normal Dutch social and commercial traffic Read the rest of this entry »

17th Aug

Dutch-Paris couriers always traveled with a particular mission in mind: deliver a microfilm to a particular café in Louvain (Belgium) on a particular date or escort so-and-so from point A to point B. But they also kept alert for two other possibilities: to gather information about German activities and to help any Dutch people in need.

Take, for instance, the last Dutch-Paris mission in August 1944. A young Dutchman left Switzerland with the intention of going to Belgium to find out what was happening with the organization there. He already knew he couldn’t get there from Paris so intended to go via Nancy.

But as soon as he got to his usual hotel in Lyon, he was told that the day before the Germans had stopped the train at Macon and taken away all the men between 18 and 60. Our man verified the story with a young man who’d escaped from the train by running across the tracks. The next day he verified it again at the train station – where they advised him not to attempt any train travel – and at a notary’s office.

Our man got on his bicycle to return to Switzerland to attempt a completely different route. But it took him another 11 days Read the rest of this entry »

7th Aug

Devout Criminals

One of the ironies of the Nazi Occupation is that it led the most upright, church-going citizens into criminality. Men and women who would not dream of telling a lie, let alone defrauding the government or disobeying a law in 1938 found themselves routinely using false papers, sneaking across borders and generally disregarding the law in 1944.

They did so from higher motives, of course. Church-going rescuers placed the laws of God, which prioritize the value of human life, above the laws of the Nazis and their collaborators. Once they had identified the Nazis as evil – which wasn’t hard to do, especially if you were trying to help Jews – then they felt themselves absolved of the necessity of obeying Nazi laws.

As a devout member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, John Weidner had scruples about disobeying the laws of the Etat Français (French State) in the Vichy zone. Petain’s government was the legally constituted French authority, and there were people willing to debate whether it had shown itself as evil or not. It was a whole lot harder for a Christian to come up with a defense of the Nazis.

So once the Germans occupied the Vichy zone on 11 November 1944, John Weidner felt himself to be curiously freer than he had when the Germans had been paying lip service to Vichy’s sovereignty, despite the evidence of his own eyes when German troops and police agents appeared on the street.

As he explained it in 1968, after the Germans occupied southern France, “… in fact, morally, we felt freer. The situation was clear and simple. Until the occupation of the southern zone, we had felt obliged to follow certain legal rules. The fact that the Germans were everywhere, inspecting documents everywhere, permitted me to use false papers, to cross the [Franco-Swiss] frontier clandestinely and help others to cross it clandestinely, without any of it posing a moral problem for me. I was free to choose the conduct that I wanted because the Nazis made the law for a territory that did not belong to them.”

Obviously, the pious didn’t have a monopoly on righteous actions during the Second World War.  There were both atheists and believers in Dutch-Paris.  But the church-goers had a different set of scruples and a different path to see themselves clear of them.  It’s fortunate for the people they helped that Weidner and other devout rescuers were able to see beyond the letter of the law that they had been taught to follow as good citizens in order to serve the demands of a higher, more abstract law.

27th Jul

Why Postage Stamp?

Every Resistance organization had worries about security. They were particularly acute for groups like Dutch-Paris that simply could not be kept among friends. Dutch-Paris was too big and covered too much territory. Sometimes contact had to be made between strangers, although both strangers would come recommended and vouched for by mutually known third parties. One way to make sure you were meeting the right stranger was passwords.

Passwords work best if they are random enough to be unguessable. For instance, in 1943 John Weidner met a Dutch friend in a café in Brussels. He gave him an envelope and asked him to deliver it to his father in The Hague. Weidner didn’t have a password worked out with his father, but he wanted his father to know that he could trust the stranger knocking on his door claiming to know his son. So he told the friend to use this word: “postzegel” [postage stamp]. The friend had no idea why “postzegel”, but it worked with Weidner senior. Father and son collected postage stamps together and Weidner sometimes sent them to his father during the war in place of money, thinking that his father could sell the stamps for cash.

You could also use layers of passwords. For example, Weidner had an appointment with a Dutch student in a café in Louvain, Belgium, in April 1944. If the Dutch student didn’t show up Read the rest of this entry »

17th Jul

International Gossip

In August 1942, the corporal in charge of the Swiss border post of Biaufond sent his superior a report that was so interesting it made its way to Bern within days.

It’s important to know that the border crossing of Biaufond/La Rasse lies on the Franco-Swiss border east and slightly south of Besançon. Because that region of France fell into the “reserved zone,” the Germans controlled the French side of the border there.

Apparently the Swiss and German border guards there were on friendly terms because the German customs agent in La Rasse told our Swiss corporal across the barrier that the Gestapo had arrested a French couple who ran a hotel in Maîche, 19 km north of the border in France, and a third, unnamed person in connection with an organization that smuggled fugitives from France into Switzerland.
The Gestapo simply disguised themselves Read the rest of this entry »

7th Jul

The Trail of Names

Because there’s no written history of Dutch-Paris, or even a complete list of names of its members, I’ve been reconstructing the line following the trail of names in the archives.

That trail was first laid in 1944-1945 when various authorities asked the survivors to give them the names of other people involved. The Dutch Red Cross asked those who returned from the concentration camps for the names of the people who had been arrested and the names of other inmates whom they had seen die in the camps.  The French government asked John Weidner for the names of all those who would qualify for the benefits the French awarded to authentic resisters.  The resisters mentioned their colleagues in their reports to the Americans and British.

Once I have a name I can look for it in the relevant archives. It helps a lot to know the person’s nationality and where they were active because there’s no point in looking in the French archives for a Dutch woman who only got as far south as Belgium. It also helps to know how to spell a person’s name, or how the French are most likely to spell a Dutch name or vice versa.

There are some names, though, that never lead anywhere. For instance, one of the resisters mentioned in a report that so-and-so was arrested after a certain Egberts Read the rest of this entry »

26th Jun

These don’t give you the same sense of the wartime atmosphere or aesthetic as the 1967 documentary about Dutch-Paris that I mentioned in my last post, but here are some photos from my most recent research trip to Europe in May 2012.

Matabiau Train Station in Toulouse 2012

Like most of the Engelandvaarders and Allied aviators who traveled with Dutch-Paris, I took a train from the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris to the Gare Matabiau in Toulouse (the slow train; the more frequent TGV leaves from Gare Montparnasse).

Rue Croix-Baragnon, Toulouse, 2012

I was amazed to discover that I could eat in one of the same restaurants in Toulouse where Read the rest of this entry »


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