24th Sep

Why Ordinary Heroes?

A reader asked me why the Dutch edition of the book is called Gewone Helden (Ordinary Heroes) when everyone involved with Dutch-Paris was far from ordinary. In fact, she said, they were extraordinarily courageous and selfless. It goes without saying that she is correct. I’ll share my explanation below in case anyone else was wondering the same thing.

“Of course, by definition every hero is extraordinary. What I think is so impressive about the men and women of Dutch-Paris is that they were very ordinary people before the war. They were students or businessmen or housewives or shopkeepers. They were all respectable people living respectable lives. During the war, most ordinary people kept living their respectable lives as best they could. They did not break the law in order to help a stranger. They did not risk trouble for themselves and their families. The men and women of Dutch-Paris, on the other hand, started out as ordinary but refused to accept what “ordinary” meant during the occupation. They refused to look the other way. They rescued the persecuted. After the war they went back to their ordinary, respectable lives. Almost all of them made nothing out of their wartime heroism after the war. And so they were both ordinary people and great heroes. They are an inspiration to all of us.”

No one will have any questions about the title of the American edition of the book because it will be called The Escape Line. Oxford University Press will publish it in June 2018.

5th Sep

It goes without saying that if you were playing the dangerous double game of acting like a collaborator while working for the resistance, you needed to plan ahead to limit the damage if anyone in your group was arrested. Commander Lecatre, from earlier posts, had plans for such a contingency and issued orders on what to do in case of his arrest.

The Gestapo, and perhaps their French colleagues, arrested Commandant Lecatre and his daughter on the morning of 23 May 1943 at their home. A neighbor immediately warned Lecatre’s second in command. The lieutenant immediately gathered up all the incriminating documents from the commandant’s office, such as maps and lists of men taken over the border, and hid them under the rafters on the 3rd floor, as they had decided ahead of time.

The lieutenant then sent a warning to the man in charge of that day’s patrol on the border and signed a furlough for another officer so he could disappear without Read the rest of this entry »

22nd Aug

Timothy Snyder’s last lesson in On Tyranny is:

“Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

You may think that courage should be left to the professionals like trained military special forces, but notice that he says “be as courageous as you can.” No one expects a middle-aged housewife to take on enemy soldiers ninja-style. But she doesn’t need to. What Dutch-Paris illustrates so clearly is that the kind of courage needed to defend our freedom belongs to men and women of every age and every occupation. The line was made up of businessmen, teachers, students, clergy, widows, café owners, secretaries, bankers, engineers, insurance agents, salesmen and farmers. Not one of them carried a gun. They were sensible enough to be afraid, but they overcame that fear. Each did what his or her circumstances and personal resources allowed. Together, being as courageous as they could be in defense of the human rights that they believed in, the 330 men and women of Dutch-Paris rescued 3,000 other human beings from the Nazis. Each one was as courageous as he or she could be, and that was enough.

8th Aug

Continuing with the ways in which the history of Dutch-Paris illustrates Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, we come to Snyder’s lessons 15 and 16.

Lesson 15 is “Contribute to good causes. Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life.”

Dutch-Paris was an organization that believed in the dignity of the individual human being qua human being. It just so happened that in the context of the time, namely the Second World War, the authorities in power did not believe in human rights. The Nazis and their collaborators believed that people who came from certain ethnic groups were far superior than other people from other ethnic groups. They took that ideology to the extreme of genocide. In that context, expressing the view that all men are created equal meant disagreeing with rather violent authorities. That is why Dutch-Paris was an illegal organization, otherwise known as part of the resistance.  It is also why the men and women of Dutch-Paris who were caught were deported to the concentration camps. Fourteen of them died for being active in an organization that expressed their own view of human rights.

Lesson 16 is “Learn from peers in other countries.”

If the men and women of Dutch-Paris had not only learned from their peers in other countries but also banded together with them to cooperate in the rescue of fugitives, there would not have been a Dutch-Paris. The line began as separate groups of resisters in Lyon, Brussels and Paris who then joined together to form a network that stretched across western Europe from the Netherlands to Spain and to Switzerland. They were able to do far more to defend human rights and defeat the occupation authorities when they worked together across international borders than they ever could have had they restricted themselves to their home regions.

25th Jul

Let’s continue with how Dutch-Paris illustrates several of the lessons in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth-Century. We covered lessons 9, 10 and 11, which are about the importance of finding out the facts for yourself and thinking for yourself. They bring us to lesson 12, which is about an important element of how to keep your independence of mind.

Lesson 12 – “Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust.”

Dutch-Paris started when an individual decided to help another individual. It ended with 330 people who lived in four countries conspiring together to rescue strangers. How did men and women who did not know each other when the war started create such a vast illegal network? Obviously, they did not advertise for co-workers in the newspaper. Instead, they talked to other people. They made friends with secretaries in town halls who filled out identity documents for a living. They got to know owners of cafes. One Dutch refugee in Toulouse found a highly reliable escape line to take fugitives over the Pyrenees to Spain by making friends with Read the rest of this entry »

11th Jul

In the last post, we talked about how the men and women of Dutch-Paris illustrate a few of the lessons in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. They did not accept the slogans of propaganda but instead were “kind to our language” (lesson 9) and “believed in truth” (lesson 10).

The resisters in Dutch-Paris hid hundreds of Jews in occupied Belgium and France; smuggled hundreds more refugees, resisters and Allied aviators out of occupied territory, and acted as an international courier service that carried money, secret documents and personal letters throughout occupied western Europe. They were able to do so because they followed Snyder’s lessons 11.

Lesson 11 – “Investigate. Figure out things for yourself.”

Snyder is talking about how to figure out what is really going on in current politics. As we discussed in the last post, the men and women of Dutch-Paris did that by listening to the radio and reading the newspapers that the authorities made it a crime to listen to or read. If tyrants make it a crime to read something, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s something in it that’s of real value to a citizen.

As I mentioned in the last post, the men and women of Dutch-Paris saw through the propaganda of the day by finding reliable sources of facts and paying attention to the evidence in front of their own eyes.

But they also needed to investigate on a much more mundane level in order to do their illegal work. The Gestapo, for example, did not publish their patrol schedules or issue alerts that they would be raiding such and such a place at such and such a time. People who wanted to avoid the Gestapo and their ilk Read the rest of this entry »

27th Jun

Every citizen of every democracy should read Timothy Snyder’s short but important book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder uses examples from the history of Nazism and Communism and their domination of other countries to explain how tyrants take power in democracies and how individuals can defend their civil liberties in such times. He does not mention Dutch-Paris, but he could have. This and the following posts will describe how Dutch-Paris illustrates a few of Snyder’s lessons on how to fight tyranny.

Lesson 9 – “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing phrases everyone else does….Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

Obviously, the internet did not exist during the Second World War, but much the same thing did in the official and censored radio and newspapers that inundated civilians with propaganda. The men and women of Dutch-Paris did not rely on such dubious sources to tell them what to think. Instead they listened to the BBC, which stuck to the facts, or Swiss Radio, which came from neutral Switzerland, even though it was a crime to do so. They read illegal, underground newspapers. They observed with their own eyes and talked to other people to find out what they had observed.

So in 1943, for example, they did not fall for the official stories about how Germany was winning the war. They knew about the catastrophic defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad. They knew about the increasing volume of Allied bombers flying over the Netherlands and Belgium every single day to bomb Germany. They had enough facts to nourish the hope that the war would end and they would regain their liberties.

Even when the facts were downright depressing, the men and women of Dutch-Paris did not turn away from them. They did not take the bait of happy propaganda. This brings us to

Lesson 10 – “Believe in the truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”

When the Nazis and their collaborators started rounding up Jews in western Europe and deporting them in 1942, they announced that those men, women and children were being “resettled in the east.” That was enough explanation for most people. “Resettled in the east” sounded like they were going to work on big farms, which didn’t sound so very bad in the context of the war.

But John Weidner and his colleagues in the resistance did not accept the official slogan. They asked what it really meant and found out that being “resettled in the east” meant “going to die in Poland.” That put a whole different light on the matter. “Going to die in Poland” was bad.

They knew it was bad because they still remembered the truths that everyone accepted in their prewar democracies. According to fascism’s alternate facts, whatever benefited the master race was good. It followed that getting rid of people defined as enemies of that master race was bad. The resisters didn’t buy it. They stuck to the age-old consensus that murder is bad. Seeing the truth of what was happening and the truth of what it meant gave them the clarity of mind and the courage to resist.

13th Jun

Why was the Daughter Arrested?

In the last post I talked about Commander Lecatre, as we’ll call him, of the GMR, who was using his position as a Vichy border patrol to sneak resisters and others into and out of Spain. He and his daughter were arrested in May 1943.

Why was his 20-year-old daughter arrested? She did not work for the GMR, but she did work at the prefecture as a secretary. And she did work with her father in the resistance. For example, she altered the files of young men Read the rest of this entry »

30th May

Here’s another example of resisters disguising themselves as collaborators. The collaborationist French government, Vichy, created a paramilitary police force called the Groupe mobile de réserve or GMR (mobile reserve group). They have a nasty reputation from their zealous fight against resisters.

And yet, at least a few of them were resisters. For about two years before his arrest in May 1943, the commander of a GMR unit based in Perpignan used his position to get hundreds of fugitives, including Dutchmen, over the border into Spain. This man, who we’ll call Lecatre, commanded the border patrol in the eastern edge of the Pyrenees from Cerbère to Bourg-Madame.

Lecatre and his men took fugitives to the border, sometimes in GMR uniforms, and ushered them across. They also escorted clandestine French intelligence agents into and out of Spain. The GMR owned the rights to cut wood for fuel in a forest on the frontier. On the days that an intelligence agent needed to get to Spain, a GMR truck would Read the rest of this entry »

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 »


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