16th May

Everyone knows that being in the Resistance was a dangerous business. But not everyone realizes that if you were good at it, it could also have been dangerous after the Liberation.

Take the case of a young French woman (born 1924) whom we’ll call Jeanne. From mid-1942 until August 1944 Jeanne and her mother brought food and information to the maquis and to passeurs in their valley in the Pyrenees. They also sheltered Allied aviators in their home. If the Germans or French collaborators had caught them at it, the women would have been imprisoned and maybe even deported to the concentration camps as resisters. Yet at the Liberation in August 1944, the Resistance arrested Jeanne and Read the rest of this entry »

2nd May

It Really Mattered Who You Knew

A friend was telling me about the “new networking” in which the important thing is not who you know but what they know about you. I can see how that might be true if you’re looking for a job in 2017, but it was certainly not true in the Resistance during the Second World War.

There were most definitely some qualifications that you wanted to keep quiet about during the war, such as: nerves of steel, strong convictions, excellent forger, terrific at dissembling, or willing to undertake hazardous journeys.

The story of Dutch-Paris makes it very clear that for both helpers and those they helped, it was who you knew that mattered most. After all, how did Jews and resisters who needed to escape occupied territory find Dutch-Paris or any other rescue network? Word of mouth. They knew someone with a connection to the line. That someone might be a cousin who worked for Dutch-Paris, or it could have been a French official whom they just met but who whispered a suggestion to find so-and-so who would know where to get help. One Jewish couple got out of the Netherlands because the woman’s hairdresser Read the rest of this entry »

18th Apr

As I’ve said before, the documents don’t explain why the men and women of Dutch-Paris joined the resistance. No one asked that question at the end of the war when the reports in the archives were written.

In late 1944 Weidner did write in an official report that they risked their lives to help strangers because it was their duty, but that has the air of the expected official story. Of course some of them might have felt it was their Christian or patriotic duty, but that would have made it everyone’s duty. Because only a small minority acted on it, it’s not a satisfactory reason. There had to be personal, individual reasons.

A couple of people in the line volunteered some explanation. One Dutch businessman, living in Brussels with his wife and seven children, mentioned that he felt he had to act both because of his Catholic faith and because he had not forgotten how the German occupiers treated his Belgian grandmother and aunt during the First World War.

This is speculation, but I do not think that it’s a coincidence that the three top leaders of Dutch-Paris, Jean Weidner and his two lieutenants, lived through the German occupation of Belgium during the First World War. They were all very young at the time, not even old enough for school when it began. And one of them was passed north through the barbed wire on the Dutch border to live with his grandparents in the Netherlands in order to get him out of the famine zone. Soon after the Armistice ended that war in 1918, Weidner’s family moved to Switzerland to recover from the deprivations of the Belgian occupation. So their formative memories and their family histories and cultures were shaped by the German occupation of Belgium, which was marked by hunger, disease and slave labor.

I also do not think that it is a coincidence that the biggest and best organized section of Dutch-Paris was the Comité in Brussels. The Dutch expats in the Comité found a lot of help from their Belgian neighbors. No one in Belgium had forgotten the last war, even if they may have drawn different conclusions from it.

Was the memory of the First World War enough to make everyone in Belgium a resister? No, plainly it was not. But I cannot help thinking that it contributed to the making of Dutch-Paris. At the very least, it might have made the men and women who did join Dutch-Paris and other resistance groups willing to believe the worst. Because they understood that bad things happen, they were willing to take action to stop them from happening.

4th Apr

As an escape line and rescue organization, Dutch-Paris ended at the Spanish frontier. The passeurs stopped at the border, handed out some pesetas that Dutch-Paris paid for, pointed the aviators and Engelandvaarders down the mountain towards the closest Spanish village and then turned around and headed back home. The resisters in Dutch-Paris did not know what happened in Spain because none of their fugitives came back. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t have given the men pesetas because the Guardia Civil just confiscated all their money.

Generally speaking, the first day or two after crossing the border went like this. Frenchmen tried to get as far into Spain as possible without being noticed because everyone knew that Franco’s Guardia Civil would turn them back over the border into the hands of the Germans. But Allied aviators and Dutchmen could rely on some diplomatic protection. They went into the nearest village or town and turned themselves into the Guardia Civil. Or sometimes the Guardia Civil saved them the trouble by waiting behind a boulder at the entrance to the village to arrest them.

The Guardia took the men’s particulars and their money and then sent them to an inn or café to eat and to clean up. Eventually the men moved south to the town of Viella courtesy of the Guardia Civil.  There they contacted Read the rest of this entry »

21st Mar

Another element that made every aviator’s evasion, and indeed every clandestine journey across occupied Europe, different was the fact that the enemy were not robots. Of course the German army and police were professional enough to be predictable, but even they had off days. And their orders changed in ways that resisters could not foresee. Besides, the Germans were not the only ones patrolling the trains and borders. A fugitive could encounter a wide array of local and foreign police and guards, some of whom were definitely more dedicated to their jobs than others.

Dutch-Paris did not send anyone into the streets much less on a train without a complete set of false documents. But the story of the British sergeant from the last post demonstrates that even something as obvious as having your documents checked did not always happen.

When our British sergeant, a handful of Americans and a couple of Dutch-Paris guides arrived at the train station in Brussels in January 1944, German officers searched Read the rest of this entry »

7th Mar

Despite the established routes and patterns of escape lines, every Allied aviator’s evasion was wildly unique. Certainly some crew members traveled the length of occupied Europe together and had similar stories. But even in the case of crew mates, men were left behind because of illness or took different trains to make a large group less noticeable.

Very rarely, if ever, did aviators parachute or crash into the hands of the network that took them across the Spanish border. Even when they had found their way to an escape line, they often had to change helpers because of arrests or because they crossed an international border.

Take the story of a British sergeant who was shot down near Groningen in the northern part of the Netherlands in October 1943. Because he had injured his leg, the rest of his crew left him with resisters to heal when they headed south. Our sergeant left his hiding place after 37 members of the organization helping him were arrested. He then planned to go to Sweden with a different escape line, but Read the rest of this entry »

21st Feb

Why did so Many Escape?

As I’ve mentioned before, there has been a fair amount of speculation about how the Germans found the convoy at the Col du Portet d’Aspet on the night of 5/6 February 1944. Theories have ranged from betrayal to the practical fact that 28 men make a lot of tracks in new fallen snow.

But maybe the question we should be asking is how half the convoy managed to escape. After all, the Germans had every advantage. They were a German border patrol, not fugitives. They were armed. They had the element of surprise and were hidden outside the hut. They even had buses waiting to take their captives to prison.

So how was it that fourteen exhausted, hungry and ill-equipped men managed to run up the mountainside in the snow without being captured? How did two Dutchmen manage to find their own way along the road until they found a family willing to take them in?

We cannot answer the question without the German documents. But we do know from the reports of the survivors that they watched the German soldiers round up the men who were caught in the hut and put them on the waiting buses.

It could not have been that difficult to see the dozen or so men running up the hill because Read the rest of this entry »

7th Feb

Seventy three years ago today six Allied aviators, four Engelandvaarders and a French guide walked north out of the foothills of the Pyrenees, going the opposite direction that they had walked into the mountains on their way to Spain and freedom just two days earlier. Why were these men returning to occupied territory?

On the evening of 5 February 26 Allied aviators and Engelandvaarders gathered in a field by a mountain hamlet. Dutch-Paris had brought them all to Toulouse and entrusted them to two local Frenchmen who had taken convoys to Spain before. Some of the fugitives had arrived in Toulouse the morning before and spent the previous night in a half-built house in a village in the foothills. Some of them had taken the night train from Paris on the 4th and arrived in Toulouse that very morning before taking another train into the foothills.

Their real problem, however, was not travel weariness but the weather. A blizzard blew up as they began walking up the mountain, slowing them down and forcing them to take the longer but less hazardous path around the mountain. They fell far behind schedule.

None of these men were dressed for mountain trekking in good weather let alone a blizzard. They were wearing Read the rest of this entry »

24th Jan

There’s no denying that the war was a hard time to be a mother.  My father’s memories of his mother during the war are of her crying in their kitchen in Maastricht because there was no food for the baby (him) and of telling his much older brother to keep his (illegal) rifle by the door.   Dutch-Paris took the children of at least three families into Switzerland so that their parents, who were in the resistance, would not have to worry about the children being taken as hostages.   And a Dutch-Paris couple in Brussels found a foster family for their infant so they could devote themselves to helping others in hiding.

There were also some extraordinarily courageous parents who joined the resistance even though they had children and kept the family together.  Most survived, but not all.   There are three Dutch-Paris families in which the children were orphaned for the final months of the war.

In one family on the Franco-Swiss border the father was shot in his garden and then hauled off by a still unidentified police unit.  The mother was arrested a couple of weeks later.  Neighbors took in the two school age daughters until the mother returned from prison at the liberation.

In another family both parents were arrested at the end of February 1944 and deported.  The mother returned in 1945 but the father died in the concentration camps, although his grandchildren grew up thinking he had been gunned down in his neighborhood in Paris.    Their parents’ employer helped the teenage daughter care for her brothers.

In another family in Paris all three children and both parents spent a couple of nights in a French prison.  Only the father was deported, but the mother died during a bombing raid, leaving the teenage boys to take care of their younger sister and themselves.  Their father did not return from the concentration camps.

As the war went on Dutch-Paris, like other resistance networks, found itself with a new category of social work, that of the families of resisters who had been arrested.  These included the orphaned children, of course, but also women with young children whose husbands had been arrested.  The line did what they could during the war by giving the families money, offering to take them to Switzerland and such.   And Weidner persevered with years of paperwork to get the survivors all the benefits to which they were entitled.

It was a hard time to be a mother, but it was also a hard time to be a child.

 

10th Jan

Resisters’ Families

I’ve been thinking about resisters’ families since my last blog but I can’t come to any conclusion. The men and women of Dutch-Paris had many different family situations during the war. Weidner himself was married, but did not have children. There were widowed women with grown children; young men and women who lived with their parents; bachelor businessmen in their 30’s; men in their 40’s or 50’s who lived with their wives and children, and single Jewish men and women who knew that the rest of their families had been deported “to the east.”

Furthermore, the families don’t often come up in the documents. The documents ask what actions an individual took. They never, ever, ask how that individual’s mother felt about any of it. But there are a few hints. In some families, the men kept the women in the dark in the hopes of protecting them from anxiety. An Engelandvaarder said that his father came to say good-bye and give him some foreign currency but he left without telling his mother or sisters. A resister said that he sewed his own secret pocket because he didn’t want to Read the rest of this entry »

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