16th Jun

1967 Documentary on Dutch-Paris

In 1967 a Dutch journalist named Dick Verkijk made a documentary about Dutch-Paris called Weg naar de Vrijheid [Way to Freedom]. Fortunately for all of us, it’s now available on YouTube, subtitled in English by Maarten Eliasar. I highly recommend it.

For one thing, you can see John Weidner and some of his resistance colleagues speaking about the war. My personal favorite is watching Edmond Chait demonstrate how he used to cross from Belgium into France via the outside of a bridge. The black and white documentary also evokes the atmosphere of the war more strongly than standing in the very same places would today. For instance, you’ll see French policemen lurking in the background wearing kepis and capes, which they did during the war but certainly don’t do today.

More interesting to me, as an historian, is the fact that this documentary was surely the best history of Dutch-Paris that could have been written in 1967. Verkijk talks to people all along the route and takes you from the River Maas on the Dutch-Belgian border to the Milice prison in Toulouse and the slopes of the Pyrenees. But it’s not Read the rest of this entry »

6th Jun

D-Day on the Swiss Border

We think of the sixth of June as D-Day, the first day of the Normandy Landings that led to the Allied victory and the end of the Second World War. And although many men lost their lives that day, on balance we think of it as a day of hope and triumph. But consider the perspective of the German soldiers in France, who, like the rest of Europe, had been expecting an invasion.

I came across this communication in the French archives that pretty much sums up what D-Day meant for the Germans. It comes from the German douane (border guards) posted along the Franco-Swiss border. All German troops in that region had already been fighting a guerilla war with the maquis (armed Resistance) since at least March 1944.

“6-6-1944. Communication to all principle border posts. From the sector HQ at Bellegarde to the command post at Annemasse. According to the news on the radio Read the rest of this entry »

28th May

This story doesn’t involve anyone from Dutch-Paris, but it illustrates the problems of researching the history of Dutch-Paris or any other Resistance organization.*

During the war in the Basque country, in the western edge of the Pyrenees, there was a young woman of seventeen who worked as a secretary to the village mayor, who happened to be her future father-in-law. Her fiancé had crossed the mountains to Spain in order to escape the forced labor draft that would have sent him to Germany.

One day a stranger showed her the photograph of her beloved and herself that her fiancé had taken with him when he left the country. The stranger said that he could get her fiancé out of a Spanish internment camp if she would make false identity papers for him using the official stamps of the town hall where she worked. The young woman was worried about the trouble this might bring on the town if the Germans got wind of it, but she didn’t want her future father-in-law to be bothered about it either. He had already been taken to prison and released once before.

After she made the false papers, her fiancé reappeared on the French side of the border as a courier for an official French resistance line. Both of them became heavily involved in the clandestine passage of people and documents to and from Spain until they had to flee to Madrid.

Her father-in-law, the mayor, never knew what they had done. A few years after the war, her husband told the woman that she could get a medal for her Resistance activities. But she said no because she didn’t want her father-in-law to know that she had forged his signature under the Occupation.

And so, for that purely personal and familial reason, this courageous woman kept herself out of the historical record. She’d be completely forgotten if her husband hadn’t also been involved and an oral historian hadn’t asked her about what she’d done decades after her father-in-law had died.

And so there are always bound to be holes in any history, but especially in the history of a clandestine effort. In the case of the Resistance, few people knew very much during the war. The puzzle couldn’t be put together until people came forward with the pieces after the war. But some pieces – the parts of the story known only to those who participated in it directly – never became public because the people who knew them never told. Perhaps they didn’t survive long enough to speak or perhaps their postwar lives gave them a compelling reason not to speak.

*Gisèle Lougarot. Dans l’ombre des passeurs, p. 80-85.

18th May

Unlikely Passports

One of the ways to get Jewish people out of German internment camps in western Europe before they were deported “to the east” was to arrange a South American passport for them through consulates in Switzerland. In May 1943 a Dutch Jewish friend of John Weidner’s who was a refugee in Geneva found out about this trick and proposed it to Weidner.

This is what he told Weidner to do. First, find someone in an internment camp who is in serious danger of being deported to be killed in Poland [sic], not someone who is likely to be deported to a work camp. Then get all that person’s particulars: name, date of birth etc etc. Most importantly, find a way to talk to that person without the Germans knowing. Tell him or her what you are doing so that if the German commandant questions them Read the rest of this entry »

8th May

A Courageous Woman

There are times when I find myself almost overwhelmed by the courage and dedication of the men and women of Dutch-Paris and the Resistance. It happened today as I read the statement that a widowed French nurse born in 1893, gave to the British when she returned to Paris from Ravensbrück in 1945.
In September 1943, a Dutch student whom she had known for years asked her if she would lodge Allied aviators. Having answered yes, two Americans came to her studio apartment that evening, to stay 17 days. After they left she sheltered about 50 other airmen in her apartment, sometimes four at a time, although always for shorter periods. She fed them as best she could and put together food packages for their trips over the Pyrenees to Spain. Every single ounce of sugar and every egg in those packages would have had to have come from the black market.
She also, she remarked, had the opportunity to render some personal services to a certain “Thierry” of the British Intelligence Service by lodging his friends and carrying valises with weapons, maps and papers for him.
“Alas,” as she said, “the Gestapo put an end to my activities by arresting me at my home on 26 February 1944.” She and many other members of Dutch-Paris were sent to the infamous prison of Fresnes. Within a month the Gestapo tortured this 51 year-old woman eight times because they had found a calling card signed “Thierry” in one of her pockets.
Obviously, she explained, she made up a story that the Gestapo couldn’t confirm about the calling card. Her interrogator didn’t believe her. She summarized her experience by saying: “The refinements of the cruelty of the Gestapo knew no limits.”
Finally they condemned her to death and sent her to Ravensbrück. After three months in that hell, she was transferred to the salt mines at Beendorf where she suffered from brain injuries and heart attacks in addition to the general starvation, exposure and beatings. But she survived until May 1945, when she was handed over to the Swedish Red Cross. The hospitality of the people of Malmö moved her deeply.
When she returned to Paris she found that the Gestapo had pillaged her apartment, stealing furniture, jewelry, clothing, and linens.
She ended her report by congratulating the British on the good manners of the English, Polish and American aviators she had sheltered in her studio apartment. “To finish,” she said, “I would like to tell you one thing: I sincerely regret that I could not work in the service for longer.”

28th Apr

There was a young man we’ll call Ed (born 1923) who was flat out broke in 1942 and staying with a distant cousin of his mother’s who ran a restaurant in a small mountain town between Annecy and the Swiss border in Haute-Savoie (France). His hostess introduced him to a man in the hopes that he’d be able to earn some money. The man was John Henry Weidner; it didn’t work out quite the way she’d been expecting.

Weidner was looking for someone to join the cause, and join it Ed did. From May to November 1943, Ed passed people over the Swiss border for Dutch-Paris. There were difficulties though because a lot of these people were traveling with children and their own parents. They had luggage. They weren’t up to the rigors of climbing down a mountainside in the dark.

So Ed built up a team. He would take the families from Annecy to the Café des Lilas in a small village along the border, where Read the rest of this entry »

18th Apr

In 1939 a Catholic family from the Tilburg region left the Netherlands to buy a farm about 24 km outside of Paris. In 1940 they met a Dutch monk living in a monastery in Paris who had walked the 4 km from the nearest metro station to see if he could find some food for the monastery. They soon became friends during the monk’s frequent visits, from which he never left empty-handed. The family gave the monk food, and the monk introduced the son of the family to a respectable Dutch girl, whom he married in 1943.

The monk also sent 18 young Dutch men whom he’d met in Paris to stay at the farm and lend a hand with the work until he could arrange for them to go south over the Pyrenees to Spain and on to England. The Germans Read the rest of this entry »

8th Apr

Maintain Your Sense of Humor

Putting yourself in the hands of an escape line certainly increased your odds of getting to Switzerland or Spain, but it didn’t guarantee it. Things went wrong for everyone, and everyone – guides and fugitives alike – needed to be flexible and maintain their sense of humor.

On 24 November 1943, a young Engelandvaarder we’ll call E. and his travelling companion were given blank false papers and told to fill them out in the restrooms at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. They did so by smudging their thumbs with ink from their fountain pens for the thumbprint. Having smeared it the first time, E did it again, only making a worse mess of it. Rather than panic, they laughed.

They spent the night on a train going south with bona fide laborers but arrived in Tarascon four hours too late Read the rest of this entry »

29th Mar

The Courier’s Demeanor

Every time a resistance courier escorted a fugitive to a new place, the courier put his or her life at the risk of the fugitive’s ability to follow directions, act discretely and avoid being caught. How did they do that? We get a glimpse of it from a eulogy that a former Engelandvaarder, whom we’ll call Stapel, gave for one of the most important members of Dutch-Paris, whom we’ll call Moen.

Moen traveled through France and Belgium constantly during the war. He knew everyone and where everyone was. It was Moen who ran through the Dutch-Paris route in France after the big arrests in Paris, knocking on doors in the middle of the night, warning people to hide. He himself was never caught, although his mother and sisters perished at Auschwitz.

Stapel encountered Moen for perhaps three hours during the war but remembered him clearly and often until he met him again 25 years later at a commemorative event.  He remembered him still as the model of a man who knew exactly what needed to be done.  This is the story he told at Moen’s grave.

In November 1943, John Weidner introduced Stapel to Moen in Paris with the information that they would go to Lyon together the next day. Moen was businesslike and efficient. All he said was “8:30 in the hall of the Gare de Lyon.” The next morning at the train station Moen showed him where to buy a ticket and told him that they would travel in separate compartments. When they arrived in Lyon Stapel was to get out of the train and walk with the crowd; Moen would find him. Which is what happened, except that as they were leaving the station, they found out that there had been gunfire [schietpartijen] in the city the night before and the Germans had imposed at 7:00 curfew. No trams were running. They had just a few minutes to get to wherever they were going to spend the night.

They were supposed to take a tram 7km out of town to rendez-vous with two other Dutchmen waiting to go to Switzerland. Instead, Moen calmly took them somewhere else. The next morning Stapel went on to Annecy and Switzerland to later return with microfilms. Moen met him again and took him back to the Gare de Lyon in Paris. There he said, again very businesslike, “Now you’re going to Toulouse. When you get there, take such and such a bus to such and such a stop. Walk to the end of the street; you’ll see a small café. There will be Germans in the front but walk to the back and you’ll find everyone who’s waiting to go to Spain.” And it happened just as he said it would. Stapel made it to Spain and England and a career in the Dutch intelligence services.

Moen continued to travel after the war, constantly making the rounds of his many friends, the beloved center of the social network that grew out of Dutch-Paris. His friends’ children all called him Uncle Moen and remembered his good humor and how he loved to schmooze with the newspaperman or the train conductor as he traveled. It was only the people who had met him as a stranger who was willing to risk his life to help them during the war, who remembered him as curt and businesslike.

19th Mar

You Needed a Lot of Papers

For those of you who don’t like to carry your driver’s license around on the odd chance that you’ll get in a car accident, consider this. If one of the various German police surrounded the street you were walking down in Occupied Europe and caught you without your identity documents, or didn’t trust those documents, you could be, if things had turned really nasty there, shot or hung on the street. If things retained their civilized veneer, you might have been thrown in prison, which may well have led to deportation to a concentration camp. But the unexpected did happen, and you might have walked away with a small fine. It depended on when and where you were, as did so many things.

One of Dutch-Paris’s top couriers, a young man we’ll call André, went back and forth from Switzerland to France and Belgium. In Switzerland a certain Dutchman renewed his false papers on a regular basis. For France he needed the following:

1 – a French identity card, which would have his (false) name, date of birth, place of birth, photo, signature and various official stamps
2 – a work certificate [certificate de travail], essentially to explain what important war work kept a man his age out of the military or forced labor
3 – demobilization papers, to explain why he wasn’t in a POW camp
4 – an authorization to cross the borders of the department of Haute-Savoie that would allow him to approach the Swiss border

On his last trip through France, André carried:

1 – a French identity card
2 – an identity card [ausweis] from the air civil defense authority [Sécrétariat general à la défense aérienne]
3 – orders from the civil defense authority, of which he had many blank copies that he filled out himself
4 – a train pass for the French railways

The Belgians, who had had a very bad experience under German occupation in the First World War, required fewer and simpler documents. That made it easier to forge them, of course, as everyone knew. So in Belgium our man carried:

1 – a Belgian identity card, with name, address, birth date etc in an easy to forge format
2 – a pass from the Belgian Chamber of Commerce stating that he needed to travel to France for his business.

For 14 months in 1943 and 1944 all of these documents continually stood up to German, French and Belgian inspection on trains, at train stations, at borders and during random street checks.  Until one day, inevitably, they didn’t.

At the end of June 1944, André was approaching the Gare de Luxembourg in Brussels to inquire about possible trains to France, when three men in civilian clothes stopped him.  They compared André’s Belgian identity card to a list of official Belgian ID numbers written down in a notebook.  The number on André’s card was too high.  They took him to the German labor office and then to the Gestapo.  He spun a pretty story [mooi verhaal] as the Dutch say, in which he managed to hide both that he was a resister and a Jew.  But it wasn’t pretty enough to earn his release.  The Gestapo threw him in prison and then deported him to Germany, although he went as a forced laborer rather than a political or racial prisoner, which improved his odds of survival.  It wasn’t an easy year until the Americans liberated him, but he did survive.

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