25th May

The situation in Occupied Europe was so fluid and communications so tenuous, that sometimes even the professional spooks didn’t believe what was going on.

Take the story of a young Dutchman we’ll call Kees. He was the son of a law professor at the University of Leiden, a member of the Leiden hockey team and an economics student in Rotterdam, all of which means that he was well-educated and well-connected. He left the Netherlands without the help of any organized group on 1 December 1943 and arrived in England on 16 March 1944, which was about as quick as you could get to Spain and then back out of the hands of the Spanish, who preferred to stash men of military age in a truly miserable internment camp.

Once he got to England, the British put Kees and all other Allied nationals in the Royal Patriotic School, where they were interrogated before being allowed the freedom of the country. The British were looking for German spies. They were particularly interested in Kees because he’d been telling a cockamamie story Read the rest of this entry »

15th May

In October 1943 John Weidner went on a secret mission for the Dutch military attaché in Switzerland. He left Geneva at 1:00 pm on a Wednesday and crossed the border with the help of an unidentified “R”.  On the French side of the border he took the bus from St-Julien to Annecy, arriving at 3pm. Two hours later, he took the train to Paris, arriving at 7:00 am on Thursday without more than a documents check by Germans. He departed from Paris at 8:00 am to arrive in Brussels at 3:00 pm, again without serious difficulties. By 4:00 pm he had made contact with the person he was meeting, a certain “N”.

Weidner’s mission was to give “N” some documents in exchange for others. But “N”’s man hadn’t come from Holland with the documents yet, so Weidner spent the weekend in Brussels as the guest of “N”. They discussed their common interests in helping refugees and moving information, and “N” introduced Weidner to some of his contacts in Brussels.

Even though the papers hadn’t shown up by Monday morning, Weidner left Brussels as per his instructions. Without more than the usual customs and documents formalities, he arrived in Paris at 3:00 pm on Monday. He made contact with several members of the Dutch colony there, again discussing the possibility of coordinating efforts to help Dutch refugees, and caught the train at 10 pm. He arrived in Annecy at 10:00 am on Tuesday with nothing more than a German document verification in Dijon to trouble him. He took the bus back to Saint-Julien, arriving an hour later. And at 12:30 pm on Tuesday, Weidner crossed the Swiss border. He reported that it didn’t seem to be absolutely guarded by the Germans, but it had been raining hard that day.

Weidner ended his report with the plans he’d made to get the missing documents to Geneva and the following summary:

“Even though, in my opinion, the results of my mission did not equal the great risks of my voyage, I nonetheless had the satisfaction of eating some excellent French fries in Belgium and some of that famous ice cream. On the other hand, I got two rips in my pants while crossing through the Swiss barbed wire….. [sic] which has really pleased my wife.”

From which we can conclude that if a tendency to see the glass half full wasn’t an absolute necessity for bearing the risks of resistance, it certainly helped.

5th May

A Determined Mother

The war impelled all sorts of people to extraordinary acts, not least of them mothers. Take, for instance, the wife of the Dutch consul general in the Vichy zone of France. Madame, as we’ll call her, had four daughters but consistently refused opportunities to leave occupied Europe with them on the grounds that it was better for the whole family to stay together in times of trouble. Her husband the consul refused to leave on the grounds that, like the captain of a ship, he would not leave until the last Dutch refugee left.

So she kept them together and kept the girls on track in their education as the family moved from Bordeaux to Montauban to Vichy to Toulouse. After her husband was incarcerated in a spa hotel turned into a prison for high-ranking political prisoners such as generals and diplomats, she and the girls stayed in Toulouse. But the French Resistance paid her a visit to suggest that she move because a nearby ammunition factory was going to blow up. They went to a farm in the Dordogne. All was well until she received a message that her four children were going to be taken to Germany because her husband’s work helping Dutch refugees was continuing despite his imprisonment (thanks to John Weidner, among others).

Alarmed by this, she made a clandestine journey to Vichy by cover of night. There Madame, who was a devout Protestant, spoke to the Papal Nuncio, whom she had met before the war in Paris. The Nuncio invited Pierre Laval, the premier of the French State, better known as Vichy, to dinner the next night. And in the morning he told Madame that the rumor was true: her children were going to be taken to Germany.

The time had finally come to allow the girls to flee. Madame contacted her many friends in the Dutch resistance in France. A Seventh Day Adventist pastor in Lyon and his wife made false ID cards for the girls in their home and the pastor’s wife arrived at the farmhouse in Dordogne at 3am to escort the older two girls to Lyon. From there they took a Dutch-Paris route through Annecy to Switzerland, where the Dutch consul made arrangements for their lodging and education. When they had safely arrived, the younger two girls left by the same route. Walking through the snow to Switzerland in the cold January of 1944 was hardest on the youngest girl, who was only 12, but they made it.

Madame stayed in the town near her husband’s prison until the liberation of Paris caused his release and they both returned to Paris. When the consul general flew to London on the Dutch government-in-exile’s orders, his wife traveled to Switzerland to stay with the girls until they could all return to the Netherlands in 1945.

25th Apr

The Rescuers Rescued

Sixty-six years ago this week the Danish government and the Swedish Red Cross evacuated 7,000 female prisoners from the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, most likely saving their lives. The women traveled by the famous White Buses or train to ferries that took them to Sweden, where they were nursed back to sufficient health to return to their homes in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Poland after the war ended in Europe in early May 1945.

The evacuation from Ravensbrück was part of an effort to evacuate Scandinavians from the prisons and camps of the Third Reich that began in March 1945. At first the Germans would only allow neutral Swedes to come in, but by the end most of the personnel and matériel were Danish. They took the Dutch, Belgian, French and Polish women to safety because, to their surprise, Read the rest of this entry »

15th Apr

Three Ways to Find a Document

It’s not enough just to find an archive with relevant documents; you also have to find those documents within the archive. Unfortunately, every archive is organized differently, and none of them are organized for the convenience of historians. They’re arranged according to the inner logic of the organization that created them, whether that be a public administration, a charity or an individual who had his own way of filing the papers in his institute or home office. This is why large archives staff help desks in their catalog rooms.

There are three ways to go about searching for relevant documents. The best as far as I’m concerned is to befriend a knowledgeable archivist who’s happy to help. So I say something along the lines of: “I just read about someone named Smith who was supposed to be in Lyon in 1943.” And the archivist says, “Oh, that’s usually spelled Smythe in this archive” or “That would be over in ZBM/18/IIIc, let’s go look at the catalog” or, two weeks later, “You asked about Smith. I had this dossier on him sent over from a depot across the country.” Those are the archivists who have my eternal gratitude.

Another way to find documents is to start with someone else’s footnote. In this scenario you start out by Read the rest of this entry »

5th Apr

He Didn’t Do It

Favorable or otherwise, rumors have long lives. They usually creep along insidiously, showing up in quiet comments, in snubs at parties, in jobs inexplicably withheld, but sometimes cropping up in courts of law. Given the necessary lack of transparency in the Resistance and the brutal effects of its activities, it was and still is fertile ground for rumors.

Dutch-Paris is no exception. Not surprisingly, the rumors tend to center around the wave of arrests in February and March 1944. Because the Germans never said how they got the information that swept a hundred or so people into the concentration camps and many of those into their graves, the survivors were left to puzzle out their own explanations.

A highly placed member of the réseau who truly did suffer terribly at the hands of the Germans, returned from Buchenwald, Dora and Bergen-Belsen convinced that a certain individual whom we’ll call Max had betrayed the group to the Germans. His proof was that Max had not been arrested.

Actually Max had been arrested, but the Germans had run out of hand-cuffs at the “mousetrap” in Paris that he and another Dutchman had fallen into. When a guard was walking the two of them down the street, Max took off running in one direction, the other man in the other. The other man was recaptured; Max escaped.

After the liberation of France, John Henry Weidner was commissioned as a captain in the Dutch Army and put in charge of the Dutch Security Services in Paris. It was his job to vet all Dutch nationals in France for collaboration before issuing them passports to return to the Netherlands. He was, quite frankly, in a position to investigate anyone’s wartime activities and he took the matter of the betrayal of his Resistance group personally. He defended Max against his colleague’s accusations to the point of arranging for the colleague to publicly retract his accusations based on the signed confession of a young woman who acknowledged that she had given the names and addresses of most members of Dutch-Paris under Gestapo interrogation.

It took a few months for the dust to settle and one or two more official letters from Weidner, but Max’s name was cleared in 1947, officially at least.

Then in 1990 Weidner received a letter from a Dutch Engelandvaarder who had been arrested at 6:00 am on December 31, 1943, on his way to England in a hotel in Toulouse that was used by Dutch-Paris and other escape lines. The Dutchman, we’ll call him C, was convinced that an unknown man who had appeared at the hotel on the evening of the 30th had betrayed them all to the Germans. He claimed that he had met that man by accident in April 1990 in the Netherlands and that the man was Max. C had written a formal complaint to the Dutch office for the prosecution of war crimes accusing Max of betraying his fellow Dutchmen. C sent a copy of it to Weidner for his approval because he claimed that Weidner accused Max of causing the arrests in Paris in February 1944.

Weidner’s response was short: you have completely inverted what I said. Max was in no way responsible for those arrests. But in January 1991, Weidner received a letter from the Dutch prosecutor for war crimes asking about the arrests in Toulouse on December 31 1943.

This time Weidner answered more fully, explaining that he had investigated the arrests in Toulouse when he was in charge of the Dutch Security Services in France and concluded that a Belgian had betrayed the three Dutchmen, two Belgians and one Irish RAF officer at the hotel that last morning of 1943. He also defended Max from any blame in Toulouse or Paris and suggested various places where the prosecutor could find the files from the 1940s.

The paper trail ends there. I don’t know whether Max was called in for questioning or whether C launched a less official campaign against him. In any case, it couldn’t have been easy to have that rumor following him for fifty years and more.

26th Mar

You needed a certain entrepreneurial spirit to start up and run an escape line during the war.

There’s no need to elaborate on the risks involved, far worse than bankruptcy.

And you had to believe in what you were doing. Illegal, clandestine activities under the Nazi occupation were not for the faint-hearted.

You also needed to convince other people that your idea was both good and possible, and you had to pick your team wisely. After all, you were asking people to devote themselves to a project without guaranteed success or immediate profit. And one sloppy or chatty team member could mean the death of you all, quite literally.

And you were going to run into difficulties Read the rest of this entry »

16th Mar

How Not to Look Up the Relatives

Here’s an interesting story from a German reader who is related by marriage to the chief of the Parisian section of Dutch-Paris. We’ll call him Felix.

Felix worked in the Dutch consulate in Paris. His wife, who was also Dutch, had German relatives, one of whom tried to visit them at their home in Paris. This was the uncle of our reader. He spoke French and Dutch and had the family’s address but never managed to visit them because, as the family story goes, someone obstructed his way by sending him off in the wrong direction. It’s not that surprising in hindsight; he was wearing his German uniform.

This must have happened sometime between June 1940 and November 1942 because the German uncle was sent to the Russian Front in 1942, and the German authorities closed the Dutch embassy in Paris in November 1942 and ordered all the diplomats back to the Netherlands. Felix, his wife and three children removed themselves to a hiding place outside of Paris rather than to The Hague. It’s unbelievably unlikely that the relative in the German army would have the address of the hiding place of a family neck deep in the Resistance.

But why, if he had the address, couldn’t this multilingual German soldier find it? Apparently, he didn’t have a map. Of course, the unknown person who misdirected him might have been Felix’s concierge, who had her suspicions about his activities and would have lied to anyone in uniform who came looking for him. Or it could even have been Felix himself, who didn’t know his wife’s German relative but kept his composure when an enemy soldier asked for him in a chance encounter in the street.

But most probably, it was a random passerby who didn’t have any connection whatsoever to Felix but simply gave a German the wrong directions without knowing anything about the German or his destination. Maybe that person made it a policy to send Germans in the wrong direction as a personal act of resistance without ever being part of The Resistance. If so, it was the kind of attitude that made it possible for Resisters to disappear like fish in the ocean of the Parisian population.

Of course, he could equally as well have asked a sympathizer eager to ingratiate himself with the occupying army, or a woman looking for a German boyfriend to help fill the larder. Then that person might have taken him right to Felix’s door, where he may have seen something leading to Felix’s arrest, thus depriving Dutch-Paris of an important leader and compromising the escape and survival of hundreds of people.

History is full of such chances, good and bad, but we don’t usually hear about them. It’s really only chance that we know about this one.

6th Mar

Hiding in Paris vs. Hiding in Lyon

If you plot the known Dutch-Paris addresses for Lyon and Paris on maps, you’ll notice an interesting difference. In Lyon they’re close by each other in the same part of town, but in Paris they’re spread out across the entire city.

All but one of the Dutch-Paris addresses in Lyon lie in what is known as the Presqu’ile, or peninsula, between the Rhone and Saone rivers. A courier coming into Lyon would have arrived at the Perrache train station, walked northward to the grand Place Bellecour and then on into the shopping and residential district, going no more than a few streets further north than the Hotel de Ville. Even a Dutch refugee who’d never been to France before would have been able to find the Dutch Consulate close to Place Bellecour or the Office for Dutch Assistance in the monumental commercial building of the Bourse. It couldn’t have taken John Weidner himself more than half an hour to walk from the train station to his hotel on the rue Sainte Catherine if he was enjoying the window shopping along the way.

But Paris is another story altogether. Evading airmen hid in the basement of the physics laboratories of the Ecole normale superieur in the fifth arrondissement near the Pantheon while the woman who organized their escape lived Read the rest of this entry »

28th Feb

Historical Shivers

There’s a lot of dull reading involved in historical research, and at the beginning of a project it’s difficult to tell if the letter of complaint about delayed trams is worth noting down or not. After all, it tells you how the trams were functioning, but is that going to be important? It will be if it turns out that “your” people used those trams.

As the research goes on, the outlines of the story begin to emerge and the documents start fitting together. In the case of Dutch-Paris, where the records are scattered over more than a dozen archives in four languages, the documents tend to flow along several paths, only rarely confirming each other directly.

But I had a moment of eerie congruence when I was speaking to the widow of a passeur Read the rest of this entry »

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