9th Mar

Helping German Deserters in 1942

Sometimes it seems like the whole of Europe was on the move during the Second World War. Most belonged to the obvious categories: soldiers, refugees from military actions or bombing, forced laborers, Jews. Resisters were also on the move, of course. They were a small minority, but their stories are surprisingly diverse.

Take that of a certain Dutchman whom we’ll call Ton. Apparently he got into a spot of trouble with the Gestapo in Calais in 1942 because he’d been helping German deserters. (I wish I could tell you just how he’d been helping German deserters, but he didn’t consider that part of the story important enough to write down.)

Somehow or other he got out of the Gestapo’s hands, and he and his wife fled to southern France. Like so many fugitives, they ran out of money. As he was looking for jobs, the French police Read the rest of this entry »

28th Feb

In August 1945, the Dutch ambassador in Paris received a letter from a man in The Hague who was looking for his son. The 21 year-old had left the Netherlands on 2 March 1942 intending to leave Occupied Europe to fight the Japanese (he had been born in the Netherlands Indies). He wrote his parents a letter on 19 March 1942 from the prison in Besançon, France, saying that he had been caught near the Swiss border and sentenced to death.

But since then his parents hadn’t received any official notice of his death or his personal effects – a compass, a watch and a silver pen. But they had heard rumors that there had been an escape attempt by the five young Dutchmen condemned to die in Besançon and only one had been killed. They couldn’t stop hoping for a miracle.

The embassy launched an investigation. The vice-consul in Lyon had heard about the executions because in March 1942 he had gotten four young Dutchmen out of the prison in Macon. They had heard about the fate of their countrymen and were very afraid that they would also be shot. He gave the names of two of the four, who would be able to tell the parents what they knew.

The consul asked the French police, who confirmed that five Dutch subjects were executed by the Germans at the citadel in Besançon on 19 March 1942. They gave the names but were ignorant of the reasons for the execution.

The Dutch consul in Dijon tracked down the Dutch woman who had acted as interpreter for the German Feldkommandatur in Besançon. She had gotten permission to visit the political prisoners who weren’t receiving food packages because they weren’t allowed to communicate with their families. The five young men had admitted that they were planning to join the Allied armies when they were arrested trying to cross the Demarcation Line in France and had therefore been categorized as political prisoners.

The interpreter took them food and did their laundry for them. She had all but arranged for the five to be reclassified as prisoners of war when an extraordinary order came from the Militärbefehlshaber in Paris ordering that they be executed immediately. They were shot that same day at 6:00 pm. Their effects were given to the French Red Cross to forward to the next of kin.

Obviously, young men who tell the Germans that they’re breaking the law in order to join the Allied armies have a lot more pride than sense. And, obviously, if they had stooped to lying they would have had a much better chance of living to fight another day. The young men who had been rescued from the prison in Macon did lie about their intentions and they did join the Allies. One of them even flew on a bomber that bombed Germany.

A less obvious lesson comes from the interpreter. On the surface she was a collaborator because she worked for the Germans. And she must have done a good enough job for them or they wouldn’t have given her permission to visit imprisoned Dutchmen. But she was lying to them, because while she was working for the Germans she was hiding many of her countrymen in her own home and helping them to cross the Demarcation Line illegally and get to Switzerland. The consul in Dijon rather thought that she deserved official recognition for her patriotic service.

Her story reminds us not to judge by appearances and that the hand of compassion will use whatever talents and opportunities are available.

18th Feb

Memories vs. Documents

It’s hard to know what balance to strike between anecdotal history (as remembered by participants) and documented history (as written at the time) when writing about something as hidden as the Resistance. On the one hand, no one ever thought to write down certain details that can only be uncovered through talking to a participant. How else will you find out that one resister knew and trusted another because their mothers had gone to grammar school together? Or that the customs agents on the trams near the Belgian/Dutch border didn’t bother young men dressed like gentlemen because they were too busy inspecting the belongings of those who looked like farmers or workers?

On the other hand, the resisters themselves had a very limited knowledge of what was going on outside their own activities for the simple reason that Read the rest of this entry »

8th Feb

Muddling Through

Very few resisters were professional spies or criminals, so they had to figure out how to forge papers, evade the police, and smuggle people and goods as they went along. Sometimes they did this by diving down into the underworld and finding a criminal to mentor them. Sometimes they found a professional spy to give them some tips. But mostly they had to figure it out on their own.

Here’s an example. Until November 1943, Dutch-Paris in Brussels was mostly concerned with hiding Dutch fugitives in Belgium or getting them to Switzerland. If an Allied airman ended up in their care, they passed him on to one of the Belgian evasion services. But at the end of November 1943, one of their men announced that his contacts in the Ardennes and Maastricht had a whole lot of aviators that they wanted to move south. And so Dutch-Paris added an aviator evasion line to its activities.

They rented a boarding house and set it up to lodge and supply both aviators and Engelandvaarders. They would move the men into Brussels and equip them for the journey with workmen’s clothing, false IDs and advice on how to behave. First they had to take away all the airmen’s possessions except their dog tags because they had a dangerous habit Read the rest of this entry »

29th Jan

During the war, the Occupation authorities rearranged the social and political units of western Europe into individual boxes then threw up barbed wire barricades and a wall of regulations and police authorities to keep people and information from going from one box to another. It wasn’t impossible to get out of, say, the Netherlands and into, say, Belgium. But it wasn’t easy and it was even harder to get news to or from your family in another of the boxes. The situation gave rise to resistance networks like Dutch-Paris. It also presented opportunities to criminals.

Take the case of a certain young Dutchman we’ll call V who made a wartime career for himself of preying on the goodwill and/or fears of other Dutch men and women in France.  He appears to have been collecting money from his countrymen and from the Gestapo, who paid a bounty for resisters.  Here’s just one of his exploits.

At the end of 1943, V and a friend were trying their luck on the Riviera by posing as Dutch workers who needed money to go to Spain to join the Allied armies. They gathered quite a number of “loans.” But while they were talking to a Dutch consul, his colleague called the Dutch consul in the next town, who warned him that V was working with the German police. They got him out of the office as soon as they could.

But V and his friend used their Gestapo travel passes to go to the Netherlands. There they went to visit the two men’s sisters, with special greetings Read the rest of this entry »

19th Jan

Part-time Hero

Although we tend to think of Resistance as intense flashes of danger like we see in the movies, it’s important to remember that the Occupation ground on for years. In between the exciting parts, the heroes and heroines still needed to get their shoes fixed and take care of their families.  They all had great courage when it came to opposing the Germans, but they didn’t necessarily live blameless lives in all other regards.

Take the story of a man we’ll call Louis, who was a passeur, or mountain guide, in the Pyrenees. Louis took dozens of Dutch, Belgian, French and Allied fugitives over the mountains into Spain for several different Resistance networks. He charged Dutch-Paris 3,000 francs per man, which was around the going rate.

In mid-December 1943, the French police arrested Louis at a restaurant in Toulouse. Rumor had it that the restaurateur betrayed him because Louis was having an affair with his wife. The police couldn’t find anything to charge him with other than possession of a false identity card in the name of Paul Blanchard. A police officer who worked for the Resistance “legalized” the false card, and Louis walked out of prison as Paul Blanchard.

A month later in late January 1944, the Gestapo arrested Louis in the same restaurant. Public opinion blamed the restaurateur for denouncing him. It couldn’t be proved, but everyone thought it was highly suspicious that the restaurant owners disappeared at the liberation, presumably for fear of being tried (or lynched) for denunciation.

Louis, however, escaped from the train deporting him to Germany, made his way back to the Pyrenees and, with the help of his 20 year-old nephew, recommenced passing fugitives over the Spanish border. The Germans, however, traced him to a mountain village and demolished, stone by stone, the house that he and his nephew had just left. They didn’t capture Louis, but they did kill his 22 year-old niece. His nephew decided that things were a little too dangerous in France, took himself, two Dutchmen, a Belgian and a British aviator to Spain, and joined de Gaulle’s Free French in North Africa. Apparently he felt he’d be safer in the army in wartime than with his uncle.

Incorrigibly, Louis continued guiding fugitives until July 1944, when French Milice (paramilitary collaborators) kidnapped him by pretending to be maquisards (partisans). His body was found soon after with a bullet in the head.

Meanwhile, Louis’ wife was arrested by the Germans in early January 1944 for harboring fugitives. At the time, it was assumed that she was arrested as a hostage for her husband. But by 1947 it was thought that she was arrested for her own resistance activities because the Germans knew the passeur as Paul Blanchard rather than by the name he shared with his wife.

She returned from Ravensbruck in 1945 to take up her job as a hair dresser and care for their 6 year old daughter. It must have been somewhat bitter news to her that while she was in the hands of the Gestapo, her husband was caught, not because he was leading resisters through the forbidden zone or taking their child to safety, but because he was philandering. It’s hard to say how she or his niece’s parents would have felt about his posthumous Medal of Freedom.

9th Jan

The End of an Evasion Service

There was an evasion service (service d’évasion) that took convoys of 10 to 15 Dutchmen, Belgians, Frenchmen and Allied aviators from Toulouse to Spain every week from November 1942 to December 1943. They smuggled 400 people over the Pyrenees to Spain without mishap until it all ended because of one jumpy Belgian.

On the 19th of December, 1943, a 55 year old woman whom we’ll call Mme Arnaud escorted a group of 11 on the train from Toulouse to the small mountain town of Loures-Barousse as she had done with dozens of other groups. This one consisted of a Yugoslavian, a British aviator, four Dutch persons who had been in Switzerland, and five young Belgians. She passed the group on to the station master and a 14 year old boy.

Very unusually, an agent at the station two stops down the line asked to see the tickets of a Dutch doctor and his wife who were part of the convoy. They showed him their false papers. Two of the young Belgians, however, turned on their flashlight, which drew the attention of some Germans, who demanded their papers. Instead of Read the rest of this entry »

30th Dec

The Kindess of How Many Strangers?

Dutch-Paris helped all sorts of people to escape from the Germans during the war. Some of them were much more obvious candidates for evasion than others. The trained military personnel who had bailed out of Allied aircraft had, one presumes, the field skills, discipline and health for the task. The young Dutch Engelandvaarders also had youth on their side, along with an innate understanding of the European situation. The older resisters who were called to London might not have had youth, but they had already proven their moral courage and resilience. Generally speaking, however, the Jewish families who fled with their elderly relatives and young children had nothing particular in their favor but desperation. Obviously some of them were young resisters in their own right, but as a group, the Jewish fugitives had neither chosen nor been trained for the arduous task of fleeing across Occupied Europe.

Here’s a story that illustrates how Jews and other fugitives had to rely on the kindness of many strangers. It comes from a young Dutch woman who fled with her middle-class parents during the mass deportations of Jews from the Netherlands. Unfortunately she doesn’t explain Read the rest of this entry »

20th Dec

Separated in Flight

In February 1943 a Dutch man of Jewish descent showed up at a farm in the Jura Mountains of France that was owned by a Dutch couple. The man had probably been on the run for months and probably had no relation with the farmer other than a shared ability to speak Dutch. The farmer gave him a place to sleep, food and clothing, as he had already given several other Jewish fugitives.

This man distinguished himself from the other refugees at the farm, however, because he had been separated from his wife in their flight from the Netherlands. We can presume that he was worried, if not downright distraught, over this. Given that he must have stumbled onto the farm, perhaps even being sent there by a sympathetic French police officer who was well-known to the farmer, how would his wife ever find him?

It probably worried the farmer too. But being a man who knew Read the rest of this entry »

10th Dec

I received a message from a gentleman in Collonges-sur-Salève, who was kind enough to drive me around the Franco-Swiss border last year. Apparently he’s been reading Flee the Captor, which is a biography of John Weidner’s wartime activities written in the 1960s. My correspondent brought an historical inaccuracy in the book to my attention.
Apparently the book claims that Weidner took Charles de Gaulle’s brother Xavier and his family from France to Switzerland. But it is well-known in Collonges, where all this happened, that it was the local Catholic priest who took the de Gaulles to Switzerland. Mme de Gaulle even attended the ceremony in which the priest was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations, which tells us that the de Gaulles thought it was the priest who helped them to safety.
Looking back in my notes, I find a report filed in the Dutch archives in The Hague in which John Weidner describes the priest as an active resister who harbored many resisters and fugitives. That tells us that the priest was not part of Dutch-Paris but that he and Weidner were in contact during the war.
In the French defense archives, there’s a mention of Xavier de Gaulle as Dutch-Paris’s link with the Free French in Algiers, which suggests Read the rest of this entry »


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