1st Oct

A Resistance Joke

Humor will tell you a lot about current happenings and values in a culture. Take, for instance, a letter that John Weidner wrote to a colleague at the end of October 1942.*

“I returned to Lyon two or three days ago after adventures that I hope to have the “pleasure” of telling you about some day. Let me just say that I was in prison for a day and a half and my hands were chained. Fortunately, it all came out alright. So now after the war I can respond to question 18 on the Dutch questionnaire: “have you been in prison”, and I won’t have to fill out question 19 “if not, why not?”.”

Both men, the author and the recipient, were extremely upright Dutchmen coming out of strict religious families. Incarceration would have been an almost unbearable scandal before the war. And yet in the middle of the Second World War, if a day and a half in chains isn’t cause for rejoicing, it’s not something to be ashamed of or hidden. Quite the contrary, there’s a clear expectation that after the war it will be a matter of pride.

This one joke leads us Read the rest of this entry »

21st Sep

Wartime Mysteries

The circumstances of the Second World War created uncertainties and mysteries that haunted survivors for decades.  This is especially true for the Resistance, where people operated under false names and could disappear from one hour to the next either to save themselves or because they’d been captured and deported under the notorious “nacht und nebel” regime.

It happened to a man we’ll call Michel, a Romanian born in 1913.  The Paris chief of Dutch-Paris called him “our liaison with the German embassy”.  Sure enough, in his memoirs, a German officer who worked at the Paris embassy during the war remembers Michel as a member of a Gaullist group to whom he gave information.

The records show that Michel also belonged to the Corps Francs Vengeance, although of course we’re interested in him as a member of Dutch-Paris.  One American evader described Michel as being in his mid to late 20’s, 6’ tall and “looking like a dope fiend”.   In their reports, members of Dutch-Paris refer to him as the husband, or sometimes lover, of a Dutch student.   They did both carry false papers with the same last name and same address, which would have supported the confusion.

I say confusion because Michel was not married to Read the rest of this entry »

11th Sep

Some people are just plain helpful.  Take the case of a young Dutch woman we’ll call Catherine [born 1919].  Because she was working for the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in Paris when the war started, she naturally became involved in the effort to help Dutch refugees in 1940.  But, as she later said, she soon entered the Resistance without even realizing it by helping the Jewish refugees whom the Germans would not allow to return home to the Netherlands.

Catherine joined Dutch-Paris as an active and dedicated courier and escort after she met John Weidner in early 1943.  But by that time she had already lost two jobs because of her illegal activities on behalf of Dutch refugees and Engelandvaarders.  One thing kept leading to another.

In June 1942, her superior at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce asked her to help a friend of his Read the rest of this entry »

1st Sep

Who Pays the Hero’s Debts?

The war left Europe in a state of poverty, financial entanglements and confusion that often blighted survivor’s lives for years while being sorted out.

Take, for instance, the case of a man we’ll call Junior.  In 1924, when he was five years old, his parents divorced.  He stayed with his mother in the Netherlands while his father, whom we’ll call Senior, moved to Paris to paint.  Junior rarely saw his father and even more rarely received any sort of financial support from him.  But during the war Junior occasionally sent some Dutch friends to his father’s address in Paris, and his father helped these young men on their way to Spain.  In that way, Senior got involved in Dutch-Paris.  For that, he was arrested in March 1944 and perished in Dachau.

Shortly after the war ended, in the summer of 1945, Junior traveled to Paris to settle his father’s estate, such as it was.  He was shocked to discover that the Dutch Embassy in Paris expected him to pay the rent his father owed for his apartment between his arrest in March 1944 and the day the embassy moved a Dutch family into the flat in December 1944.  But both an official at the embassy and John Weidner, chief of the Dutch Resistance in France, assured the young man that of course he wouldn’t have to pay the Ffrs 5,371 for rent due while his father was suffering in a concentration camp.

As it was, the young man owed the municipality of The Hague 4,000 Dutch guilders for a scholarship to finish his engineering studies and had a wife and two small children to support.  He also incurred a debt of 1,221 Dutch guilders to have his father’s Read the rest of this entry »

22nd Aug

Here’s the story of how a young man (b. 1916) became one of the most important members of Dutch-Paris.  Thierry, as we’ll call him, grew up in Antwerp speaking mainly French but also learning Dutch, as befitted a Dutch citizen.  He spent some time at an agricultural college, took a long sea voyage, was discouraged by his parents from entering the Belgian naval academy, disliked an apprenticeship at a diamond concern and finally ended up as a partner in a successful textile export firm in early 1940.  He tried in vain to join the Dutch army in April 1940 and ended up in the French Foreign Legion a few days after the German invasion of France.  After being honorably discharged in December 1940, he went back to Belgium to help his parents.

Thierry passed up a couple of opportunities to escape from Occupied Europe because his parents didn’t want to leave Belgium.  He and his partner printed illegal newspapers on the mimeograph machine in their office for a few months in 1941-42, and Thierry took a vacation along the Swiss border in anticipation of needing to make a quick escape over it.  The Germans arrested his father Read the rest of this entry »

12th Aug

To say that the political prisoners whom the Nazis deported to Germany, such as dozens of men and women who belonged to Dutch-Paris, disappeared into the maw of the concentration camps is true but not necessarily accurate.  Prisoners had wildly different itineraries and were often shuttled about from one camp to another.  And although all were meant to die of starvation and mistreatment, some cheated that fate by dying in an Allied bombing raid or of blood poisoning following an accident at the work site.  And, fortunately, some survived.

In an incongruous nod toward civilized behavior on the part of their captors, some of the political prisoners were allowed to send letters home.  This great privilege could be carried out twice a month on a short, official form.  They had to be written in legible German no matter what language the prisoner spoke.  I presume that the prisoner had to pay for the forms and the stamps him or herself, although I don’t know that for a fact.

I know about these letters because I’ve seen copies of a handful of them in the archives of the French and Belgian administrations in charge of locating missing persons after the war.  The families had submitted them as evidence of their beloved’s last known whereabouts.  Other incarcerated members of Dutch-Paris most probably also sent letters home, but either the person or incontrovertible proof of his or her death returned in the summer of 1945, so the letters never made it into an archive.

The letters I’ve seen came from three men, all of whom died in the concentration camps without benefit of an official notation of their deaths.  They all cover the same “safe” topics:  I’m healthy; I’m with my comrade so-and-so; I can receive letters and/or packages; kisses to everyone.

Intriguingly, none of these men sent these letters to their immediate families.  One man, who had been arrested in the Haute-Savoie where he was a refugee with his wife and children, sent his letters to his mother in Lorraine.  Although Haute-Savoie and Lorraine are both in France, it was impossible for the mother to communicate with her daughter-in-law for at least five months after her son was deported.

Another man sent letters using the alias under which he’d been arrested to his cousin’s neighbor in Switzerland rather than to his wife and baby in Belgium.  Another man used his own name but sent his letters to the mayor of a Swiss village rather than to his wife and children in Haute-Savoie.  He probably did that to protect his family, without knowing that his wife had been arrested three weeks after his own capture and the little girls taken in by friends.

All of which tells us that these men did not consider their resistance to be over just because they had been captured.  They were still protecting their families, and their colleagues as they struggled to survive.

2nd Aug

It’s not hard to come up with a long list of hazards involved in rescuing fugitives from the Nazis.  The Germans themselves and their collaborators in all their many manifestations take the top of the list, followed by the usual problems of living in a warzone, such as bombardments.   Sometimes, however, the fugitives’ fear put their rescuers at risk.

The letter below doesn’t need much comment, except to point out that what the author doesn’t say is that every trip by the “social worker,” meaning a Dutch-Paris courier,  not only wasted her time and energy, but unnecessarily exposed her to the usual dangers of travel and to being captured with false documents.

John Henry Weidner wrote the letter under one of his many pseudonyms on 18 May 1943 to a friend of his who was also a friend of the P’s on 18 May 1943.   (I translated it from the French.)

“For the second time I’ve sent someone to get the P. family.  A week ago a social worker left with an order to travel from Lacaune to Chambèry [France] signed by the minister of the interior [made out for the P’s, probably forged].   But they didn’t want to leave, saying Read the rest of this entry »

23rd Jul

France fell apart under the onslaught of the Normandy Landings. Communications and transportation lines were broken throughout the country as the Resistance did its best to sabotage the German response to the invasion. Although some parts of the country passed the summer of 1944 peacefully enough, the region of the Alps along the Swiss border was boiling with a brutal sort of guerrilla warfare between the Germans and their collaborators and the maquisards of the Resistance. There was a such a high level of random violence in western Europe during the summer of 1944 that it made it almost impossible for organized, clandestine networks to operate.

On the 7th of July 1944, two of John Weidner’s lieutenants, we’ll call them Jacques and Armand, left the safety of Switzerland to find out what was happening to the rest of Dutch-Paris. They had heard disturbing rumors about Brussels and had lost track of one of their colleagues, Mouen.

They took their bikes with them, crossing through the frontier near St-Julien and riding from one Dutch-Paris safe house to another on the way to Annecy to gather the news. In Annecy they took a train that had to take a circuitous route to Lyon, stopping at St-Andre-le-Gaz. The night before the maquis had occupied the village and blown a train. That morning the Germans took the first thirteen young men they could lay their hands on and shot them in reprisal. They were still terrorizing the town when the train pulled through.

Our men arrived in Lyon at 10:00 pm on the 8th of July and went directly to the usual restaurant, but no one there had any news of Mouen other than a guess that he’d gone to Toulouse. They spent Sunday fruitlessly trying to contact various people and then took a train to Paris on Monday.

In Paris they found out that Mouen had definitely been there on June 30, but without Paul, and that several of their friends had been arrested. They also found out that it was impossible to get a train any further north than Nancy. They tried that, but after going 15 km in 3 hours and hearing that Nancy was heavily occupied, they returned to Paris.

Again, they tried to find a Dutch-Paris colleague who also worked for the Dutch Red Cross. When they finally did, it was only to learn of more arrests and several deportations of Dutch-Paris people to the concentration camps. It was the last time they would ever see him because he was arrested himself six days later, leading to his death in Buchenwald.

On the 13th of July our men boarded a train back to Lyon. After a long day during which the tedium was interrupted by three aerial attacks on the train, they arrived in Dijon only to be told that the rail lines to Lyon had been destroyed. The train kept moving slowly through the night, but could go no further than Chalons. There they joined up with three other men to hire a taxi to Lyon. The taxi driver was jittery and told them a long story about how another taxi driver had been summarily shot because one of his passengers had a weapon.

They set out on the 14th of July, the national holiday of the French Republic, with tricolor flags flying along the roads. But outside of Tournous they ran into a roadblock. All would have been OK if a plainclothesman at the road block hadn’t told the soldiers to search the taxi. They found some ammunition.

Suddenly there was shouting, rifle butts were being slammed into everyone who was in the taxi and they were all marched into a nearby home turned into a German HQ. The men were pushed up against the wall with great brutality and told to keep their arms high.

After a couple of hours like this they were called in for interrogation. Jacques was asked about some ration coupons that had been found in the car. Fortunately, his false documents had him as a police inspector so he was able to use that to make up a convincing story for himself and Armand, who he claimed was his superior. Three hours later the two of them were marched out of the house and behind a building, where their German guards shot into the air to scare the others and then told them to run. They considered themselves lucky to have escaped and been able to take a few of their possessions with them because “these “messieurs” were great thieves.”

A few hours later these same “messieurs” passed them in their new vehicle (the stolen taxi) and gave our men a ride to a town from which they managed to get a train to Lyon. They spent two days there trying to get news of Mouen and leaving messages for him, then left for Switzerland on the 17th. It took them three days of zig-zagging train routes and occasional mountainous bike rides to get back to the Swiss border. Once there a woman fed them and took them to the crossing point, only to see a German patrol in the nick of time. They tried again a few hours later and made it.

Jacques considered the mission to be a failure, but remarked that they had had more luck than most. He was right. The Paul who hadn’t been with Mouen in Paris had been caught up in a general razzia in Belgium in June and was deported to Germany as slave labor until the Allies liberated him the following spring.



13th Jul

This Saturday morning, 16 July, the cyclists of the Tour de France will be pedaling past a lieu de mémoire (memory site) of Dutch-Paris: the Col de Portet d’Aspet.    This 1,069 m pass is part of the St. Gaudens stage of the race.  Sixty-seven years ago it was a stopping place on the route that Engelandvaarders and Allied airmen took as they walked over the Pyrenees to join the Allied armies.

It wasn’t an easy walk either, with inadequate footgear, only the food in your pockets and the Gestapo and German border guards on your heels.  Things could go wrong, as they did on the cold morning of 6 February 1944.

There are, of course, various versions of the story; I’ll tell you what happened from the perspective of a 23 year-old American retail clerk who had been shot down over the Netherlands on his first mission as a B-17 radio operator.

Our aviator left Paris for Toulouse with 10 other airmen and three girls working for Dutch-Paris on 4 February.  The next afternoon they took the train from Toulouse to Cazères.  From there eight of them took a taxi and the rest took a bus to a village 10 or 15 miles further into the hills.  They later learned that so many men with bags getting out of a taxi was noticed in the village and duly noted in the mayor’s regular report on strangers.  According to our American the mayor was a good guy and didn’t expect the Germans to read his reports.  But they did, and they sent a message to the border patrol.  At dark the Americans  got back into the taxi and rode to the foot of the mountains.  There they met some Dutchmen and an Australian they’d known in Paris.

At 22:00 on 5 February 1944, the group of 24 Dutch Engelandvaarders and Allied airmen started along the trail with two guides.  It started to snow on the second mountain, adding to the three feet of snow already there.  At daybreak on 6 February they stopped in what our aviator called a deserted farmhouse for breakfast and a rest.  About two hours later they left the hut – guides first then aviators, then Dutchmen –  but the sun was low and in their eyes so they couldn’t see the German or his dog.  When the lead guide started waving his hat, half the men apparently thought it meant to go back into the building.  The others scattered up the hillside, making as many trails as possible in the snow.  The Germans opened fire.

From behind a bush on the mountainside, our aviator saw 10 Germans on skiis surround the hut and put the 14 men inside it into a bus, which told him that the Germans had been expecting the round-up.   Eight of those were Dutchmen between the ages of 19 and 32.   Two of them later escaped in Toulouse and made it over the Pyrenees and on to London.  But the other six were deported to the concentration camps.  None of them survived.

Our American spent the next week hiding in a hut belonging to the guide’s fiancee’s father, then returned to Toulouse and was put into another Dutch-Paris convoy of Americans and Dutchmen.  Heavy snowfall delayed their crossing the Spanish border until 19 March.

If you’re ever at the Col de Portet d’Aspet and not running a race or running for your life, you can visit part of the mountain hut where the Germans surrounded the escapees, now the historic site known as the “Cabane des évadés, Site classé, Février 1944,” and remember the men who almost made it to freedom.

3rd Jul

After a few days of meetings at the Dutch embassy in Bern, the Swiss secret service escorted Weidner and Felix back to the French border.*  At a certain place the Swiss helped hold up the barbed wire so that Weidner, Felix and an unknown woman who apparently belonged to the Swiss Intelligence Service could crawl through the mud underneath it.   Once on the road, the woman took Felix’s arm so that they were strolling along like silent lovers.  Weidner sauntered in front of them until he suddenly ducked into a house, followed by the other two.  Soon after, the German border patrol roared past on motorcycles and trucks with their helmets on.

It appeared to be the home of the French police inspector who had helped Weidner and Felix get into Switzerland.  The inspector’s wife cleaned the mud off their clothes and gave them a warm cup of ersatz coffee, which, Felix later commented, was a sure sign that they were back in occupied France.

The rest of the journey was ordinary enough by the standards of the time that Felix Read the rest of this entry »


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