25th Jan

The Sounds of Occupation

I found myself standing by a canal in the heart of Amsterdam while twilight darkened the city and night fell. Ice skimmed the water and snow brightened the sidewalks.

It was beautiful, but what struck me most was how quiet it was despite being a metropolis at rush hour. The occasional car rolled slowly by. I could see and hear the tram around a bend in the canal. But most people were going home by foot or by bike. Bicycles, I discovered, counter noise pollution as well as air pollution.

It made me realize how quiet Amsterdam and similar cities must have been during the war. By the end of the occupation, most Dutchmen, Belgians and Frenchmen had lost their motorcars to army requisitions, a lack of spare parts or gasoline shortages.

Deliveries could be made by horse-drawn vehicle, bicycle or by gazogène (charcoal-burning motor), which look noisy although I’ve never heard one. Even these would have been subject to requisition by 1944.

So most people were left with the tram, a bicycle or their feet. Now it’s true that rubber shortages forced many cyclers to switch to wooden wheels. Again, I’ve never heard a wooden-wheeled bicycle ride down a brick or cobbled street, but I suppose it’d be noisier than today’s bikes but still quieter than a car. And even bicycles were subject to requisition by 1944, although only men’s models. Apparently it was beneath the dignity of the Wehrmacht to ride ladies’ bicycles.

Add the prevalent fear and foreboding to a city without mechanical engines and you have a quiet city that is nonetheless listening.

So the sound of an engine might well make you turn the other way, given that by the end only the enemy and his collaborators had vehicles and the gasoline to run them.

Imagine how awfully the pounding march of the hobnail boots of a German squad must have ricocheted down the narrow streets as they came to arrest a neighbor or you.

And imagine how many people would hear a party of Germans and their local girlfriends laughing in the streets on their way home from a night out. Perhaps the memory of that unconcerned noise in a worried city fueled the anger at “horizontal collaborators” that spilled out into the public humiliation of such women at the liberation.

So for me as I stood by the canal in 2010, the quiet seemed peaceful. But had I been standing in that same place sixty-five years earlier in the last desperate winter of the war, the quiet would have meant scarcity, or fear, or even temporary safety.

 Do you remember what the war sounded like? Do I have it right? Please leave a comment by clicking on the word “comment” below and writing in the blue box. Thank you!

17th Jan

There were all sorts of ways to join the Resistance. For some, it was just another, more dynamic, way of hiding.

Threatened with deportation to “the east” (i.e. the extermination camps) in 1942 like all other Jewish persons in the Netherlands, the “van Caneghem” family found a hiding place in July 1942. The parents, their daughter and their two sons left it in November 1942 with the intention of getting out of Europe via Spain. Unluckily, they were arrested in Lille and spent a month in prison before being deported.

One of their sons jumped from that train near Liege and made his way to the home of one of his father’s school friends in Brussels. His father’s friend introduced him to a Dutch Jewish businessman in Brussels who was a founding member of the Comité tot Steun van Nederlandse Oorlogsslachtoffers in België [The Committee to Support Dutch War Victims in Belgium]and who gave him a place to stay and a stipend to live on.

The young man was 24 years old. He had been educated and trained to take over his father’s Hessia n factory. In the present circumstances he turned his energies to setting up an exchange of the illegal press between the Netherlands and Belgium under the alias van Caneghem.

By May 1943 he had started working for the Comité, distributing false documents to people in hiding and such. When the Germans arrested the man who gave him the hiding place and the stipend in July 1943, van Caneghem took over his tasks of keeping the “social work” going. He expanded beyond hiding people to set up an escape line for Allied pilots and Engelandvaarders to Spain.

The escape line was a joint effort with some Dutch university students and maréchausees (similar to gendarmes) who were specializing in rescuing downed Allied pilots. The German security services arrested van Caneghem when they “rolled-up” that line in November 1943. Apparently they didn’t know about his connection to Dutch-Paris because he spent the rest of the war sitting in the prison of St. Gilles in Brussels “for lack of proof.” Note that the proof wasn’t sufficiently lacking to get him released, just to prevent him from being deported or executed, which I think it’s safe to say was good enough for him.

After the liberation of Belgium, van Caneghem joined the army to become a liaison officer with an Allied repatriation mission. He married the daughter of the family friend who first sheltered him in Brussels and rebuilt his family’s textile business.

7th Jan

At the risk of sounding prematurely crotchety I have to wonder if this isn’t too much to ask of a 24 year-old (my apologies to all recent college grads currently improving the world). I’ll tell you as much of the story as is in the file, which is regrettably sparse on background information.

A certain Yves v.d.M,. born in ‘s-Gravenhage, the Netherlands, in January 1920, came into contact with the Dutch-Paris organization in Brussels in January 1944, right around his 24th birthday. He did some errands for the leaders of the organization. That probably means he distributed false documents, money, ration coupons etc; although the French says fait des courses, which literally means that he did some shopping. Maybe he did. Shopping was an arduous chore in 1944 and making a man stand in endless lines or find another way to procure necessities may well have been a good way to test a new recruit and break him in. On the other hand, a man standing in those lines would have been conspicuous.

His errand-running days were limited, however, because on 28 February, the Gestapo “rolled up” the Brussels leadership by raiding their HQ at 19 rue de Franklin. Yves suddenly became responsible for the day-to-day welfare, indeed the very lives, of hundreds of people who were subsisting underground in Brussels and environs. His new co-leader, Paul S. also came from The Hague, but he was such a junior member of the organization that his file doesn’t even have his birthday. To make matters worse, the Gestapo had also captured whatever records the group had and all of its false document-making paraphernalia such as “official” forms and stamps.

Fortunately for everyone, most especially those in hiding, the arrested leaders had finally been persuaded to take measures to separate the books of the “social work” and the escape line a handful of days before the Gestapo raid.  The supervisory committee of Dutch-Paris had engaged an experienced manager to reorganize their procedures on a more secure footing, but Yves and Paul did not see him on a daily basis.

So at least Yves and Paul could find the people they were supposed to be feeding and protecting. But they would have to figure out another way to provide those people with false documents. And they would have to be very, very careful. There was no way to tell what information the Gestapo would be able to torture out of their colleagues.

To their honor, no one in St Gilles prison betrayed others in the Line. But at the end of March someone else, who was arrested in a random round-up, gave the Gestapo Yves’ address. Yves’ wasn’t home when they paid a visit but he was, as they say, brulé (burned) in Brussels.

He left for Spain on 7 June 1944. The commotion over by the Normandy beaches diverted him into the Jura Mountains in eastern France. He joined the maquis there, and, then, after the liberation, joined the Dutch “Princess Irene Brigade”.

Of course, being part of a liberating army would have been exciting, but I think we’d have to forgive Yves if he secretly also found it a bit of a relief. Given the sudden nerve-wracking responsibilities he’d been handed in Brussels without sufficient experience in either his career or Resistance work, it may well have seemed downright restful to be taking orders from someone else.

28th Dec

New Year, New Place

We – my husband, our two little boys and I – are on our way to The Hague for the next seven months so that I can research Dutch-Paris in the Netherlands and other relevant points.

As is so often the case, that sentence has been easier said than done. Apparently my request to spend seven months in the archives (rather than the automatic three months’ visit granted American citizens) was so unusual as to cause confusion if not consternation within more than one ministry. I continue to think of myself, as an historian, as unobjectionable and inoffensive, but I think I now have a better understanding of why there’s so little good Dutch history available in English.

We wouldn’t be going at all if not for the professionalism and courtesy of Els Smits-Wilmer of the Dutch Consulate in Chicago and William Arink of NIOD.  My most sincere thanks to them.  I almost feel that I should apologize for being the cause of so much paperwork and so many transatlantic communications.  Really, I had no idea.

But Ms Smits-Wilmer and Mr Arink have prevailed.  I have an official permit to reside in the Netherlands until 1 August 2010.  My husband and sons should get their permits once we’ve accomplished one or two other bureaucratic tasks involving official documentation of marriage and co-habitation and a form that I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce that one obtains at the town hall.

So off we go. We’ve found a place for our dog and winterized our house. We’ve found a school for the boys and an apartment to live in. We’ve figured out a way to get money from here to there and the most economical way to pay for health insurance in Europe and in the US (which scarcely merits being in the same sentence as the word “economical”). We’ve calmed at least one five-year-old anxiety by deciding to bring our own marshmallows, just in case. We’ve made some ruthless decisions about luggage, amply motivated by the absurd new idea that a suitcase is a luxury that deserves an extra fee.  We’ve even got a ride from Schipol airport to the new apartment in The Hague. Of course we haven’t managed all that on our own – our thanks to everyone who’s helped on these and other unofficial matters.

But I have one lingering dread in all this: that my kindergartener will have homework in Dutch. I can read academic Dutch and 1940’s bureaucratic Dutch and the public transportation website and parts of the newspaper, and I can order a meal and navigate the shops. But kindergarten homework, which is essentially a collaboration between literate grown-up and pre-literate child? In Dutch? I’m not that smart.

17th Dec

The Kindness of Strangers

Let me tell you a story of kindness in a time of war, about a man whom we’ll call Colonel N. because all I know is that he was an officer in the Belgian Army, a veteran of the Great War of 1914-1918. After the Germans released him from the POW stalag where he’d been imprisoned in 1940, Colonel N. returned to his apartment in Brussels, which he shared with his “fully Jewish” aunt. He himself qualified as “half Jewish,” which was hazardous but manageable.

A Jewish woman whose name is unrecorded came to that same apartment building with her three children after her husband was killed in Amsterdam. When the Germans hauled her away from her hiding place, they left behind the four year old, the two year old and the six-month old baby. The concierge asked the Colonel’s advice about what to do with the children; he said he would take care of them. He had photographs taken of each of the children so that their mother could find them again.

Eventually all five of them had to leave the Colonel’s apartment for a safer place with friends in another neighborhood of the city. The couple who shared their home helped to care for the children, to find them food and clothing. But the Colonel worried about their safety. He found a family in the city to take the two girls and a family in the country to take the boy. The extra food in the country may have consoled the boy for the separation from his sisters. Everyday, the Colonel bought extra milk and cheese for the children. What with ration cards, shortages and inflation, that involved much more than a quick trip to the market.

In 1944 the local Resistance found out that the Colonel was trying to sell securities on the black market. Concerned that he would fall prey to swindlers (in which black markets abound), they sent a man we’ll call H to talk to the Colonel. While H visited N at his hiding place, it came out that the Colonel had used up the entirety of his savings in supporting himself, his aunt and the three unrelated children. H estimated that it must have cost the Colonel at least 1,000 Belgian francs per month and at least 50,000 Bfrs per year (the math is his) to take care of the children.

Because H worked for Dutch-Paris as a “house visitor,” he had a good sense of the costs of hiding people. Given that the children were Dutch, he arranged for the Colonel to receive a monthly stipend of 450 Bfrs per month per child through the Comité tot Steun van Nederlandse Oorlogsslachtoffers in België ,which was the Brussels branch of Dutch-Paris.

The children survived until the Liberation, when, like all Dutch citizens hiding in Belgium, they would have become the responsibility of the Dutch consulate. The report doesn’t give their names. It’s possible that their names were lost with their mother. We can hope that she came back; although, the report doesn’t say one way or the other. In fact, the report doesn’t make much of the story at all.

7th Dec

Alias Number 5

Around this time of year in 1943, the oversight committee of the Brussels branch of Dutch-Paris (the Comitétot Steun van Nederlandse Oorlogsslachtoffers in België) started getting worried about security. They felt that the escape line for pilots and Engelandvaarders should be completely separated from the “social work” that supported about four hundred people hiding in various corners of Belgium. They recruited a man in his 40’s who had worked as the head cashier for a very large hotel whom we’ll call De Smet after his nom de guerre. His mission was to reduce costs and increase security.

Fortunately for a good many people, he effected that separation in a café on 25 February 1944. Three days later the German authorities raided the escape line’s HQ, arrested ten American airmen and almost as many members of Dutch-Paris and confiscated the line’s books, lists and document-forging utensils. They did not find any information pertaining to the group’s “social work”.

That was too close a call for De Smet, who designed a new system based on the idea of one of the university students then running the daily operations. She herself went into hiding before it could be implemented, but the butcher from Amsterdam who took over the job put it into force. No one was arrested during his tenure during the dangerously chaotic last months of the occupation of Belgium in the summer of 1944.

And so we have a well-placed civil servant, an inspector from the Ministry of Finances, who took responsibility for forty hidden families under the alias of “Number Five.” All of his “clients,” as they called them, had a code name that began with the numeral 5.

It was a businesslike, efficient and secure system but it was not without its prejudices. The fact is that Number Five did not actually do the physical work of delivering money, documents and food to, or running the errands of, forty families. It was far too dangerous for a 39 year-old man to venture onto the streets of Brussels where he might well be rounded up as a hostage or slave laborer or otherwise mishandled on the suspicion of being a non-German man of military age.

His wife, the mother of their two young children, ran all over town under the assumed name of “Madame Helene.” The reports don’t explain why she had a name rather than a number. Perhaps neither she nor the people she was helping liked to think of women as numbers. Perhaps the men running Dutch-Paris shared the German’s opinion of women as essentially non-threatening. It was that prejudice that enabled women to make up the living communications network that allowed the Resistance to function. You would think that resisters, of all people, would know better than to underestimate women.

Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they gave her a name because they appreciated how exposed she was and didn’t want her connected to the forty families beginning with “5” if she was caught. Neither De Smet nor Number Five considered the matter important or interesting enough to explain it in his report, but I wish they had.

29th Nov

You Needed Luck Too

A friend of mine mentioned that the blog is very interesting but I’d neglected to write about how critical a role luck played in escaping Nazi Europe. He should know because he’s an Engelandvaarder who traveled from Amsterdam to Spain via Dutch-Paris. He now lives in Tasmania and has quite convinced me to move there if I should ever have the means, but that’s another story.

My friend, we’ll call him Z, generously shared his as-yet unpublished memoir of his escape with me. I hope it is published because not only is it the kind of story that will keep you turning pages until all hours, but it will teach you a lot about life in Occupied Europe. I’m willing to bet that none of you knew that one of the best places for a man of military age to hide in Amsterdam was the golf club. Apparently the Germans didn’t think they’d catch enough evaders there to make it worth their while to raid it.

It’s no coincidence that Z calls his memoir Luck Through Adversity. I’ll give you just three examples from it of the kind of luck you needed to stay away from the firing squad.

(1) On Z’s first attempt to get to England, his escape-line contact in Breda (the Netherlands) received a warning that stopped Z from crossing the border a few hours later. Members of the escape line had been arrested in Brussels, turning Z’s destination there into a trap.

(2) On his second attempt, Z was arrested because of indiscretions during a night out in Paris. That was unlucky. But it turned out that the Germans who arrested him didn’t know Paris well enough to navigate in the black-out. For two or three seconds all three Germans turned to the left to try to read a street sign. That was lucky because it allowed Z to roll out of the Citroën and get away. (Of course that was only lucky because Z had the audacity to let himself out of the Wehrmacht vehicle and could run so fast, but he gives the credit to luck).

(3) That arrest and escape in Paris convinced the Dutch-Paris agents to put Z and his companion on the Line down to Toulouse ahead of schedule. The two of them crossed the Pyrenees without notable difficulty and even managed to get through Spain without the usual purgatory in one of the Spanish internment camps. That was lucky because they were supposed to travel south with a convoy that ran into a German ambush at the Col de Portet d’Aspet eleven days after they had passed through it. Many of the men in his original group perished on the mountainside or in a concentration camp.

There are other less dire examples of luck in the story, but these will show you how crucial it could be. They also demonstrate that along with luck you needed the wit to take advantage of it. And they remind us that this wasn’t a game. Some people were lucky and they got through, but others were unlucky. And they died. 

20th Nov

From Where the World Is Run

In my off minutes from being an historian or mommy, I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. I’ve been surprised to discover that St. Thomas More personally oversaw the torture of heretics while Thomas Cromwell made sure his kitchen boys were warmly dressed and taught to read and write. But what resonated most thoroughly with me was the following quotation:

“The world is not run from where he [Henry VIII] thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

That is true for Dutch-Paris. Every member of the Line counts as a hero. But heroism wasn’t enough. If Dutch-Paris didn’t need promissory notes for guns they needed them for food and train tickets and false documents. The entire enterprise relied on a network of bankers, professional or metaphorical who raised money and clicked their abacuses to get the best exchange rates, to marshal their funds, to make their efforts cost-effective.

In August 1944, Dutch-Paris was supporting 400 people at 150 addresses in and around Brussels at the cost of 400,000 Belgian francs for that month alone and not including the costs of their information and people-smuggling operations in the other four countries involved. Not one centime of that was spent legally but it all had to be spent in cash. Donations came in Dutch guilders, Swiss francs, and Belgian francs with the occasional contribution of US dollars, Pounds sterling and Canadian dollars. There were undoubtedly some Australian dollars and other unlikely currencies involved as well.

Money did not flow freely in Hitler’s New Order. In fact, the Germans had a special currency police to make sure that it did not. And yet it did, from places that the men with the guns probably did not even imagine.

For example, when the donations of private individuals proved insufficient, the Comité tot Steun van Nederlandse Oorlogsslachtoffers in België requested funds from the Dutch government-in-exile. London sent them in the form of a microfilmed promissory note drawn on Swiss francs that was smuggled from Switzerland to Brussels in an empty fountain pen. The Comité then raised substantial loans among the Dutch community in Belgium on the strength of a microfilmed letter from an exiled government. One of the Comité‘s members, a bank director, also created a system of false accounts to draw the Swiss francs directly from Switzerland and exchange them into Belgian francs before distributing them through a series of false checks.

Dutch businessmen in their forties who lived in Belgium created exchange loops with their business associates or their relatives living in the Netherlands. They recruited a cheese dealer who had the legal right to exchange guilders for francs at the best possible rate, that of the Brussels bourse.

The bankers gave the money to the couriers, who gave it to the forgers and the passeurs and the shopkeepers who would sell potatoes or shoes without ration tickets. And they kept the Jewish families alive and they snuck the pilots and the journalists and the priests and the young men who were going to London to bring down the Third Reich out of Occupied Europe to the Allies’ bases in England. Despite the enemy’s guns and despite his fortifications.

11th Nov

Let us pause for a moment on this 91st anniversary of the Armistice that halted the official slaughters of the First World War (1914-1918) to remember the men and women who have died in our battles over the last century and those who’ve lived the rest of their lives under the shadow of those battles.

It would take an entire semester to work out all that that first war unleashed – some good (female suffrage), most bad (Spanish Flu pandemic). The most notorious consequence, of course, was the Second World War (1939-1945).

Now that was a war that did not limit itself to the military for either fighters or victims. That was a war that compelled soldiers and civilians alike to great acts of courage. So among today’s photos of Marines at Iwo Jima, half-frozen snipers at Stalingrad and French girls kissing their American liberators, I’d like to add another.


Dutch-Paris Convoy in the Pyrenees January 1944

Dutch-Paris Convoy in the Pyrenees January 1944

Taken in January 1944, it shows a Dutch-Paris “convoy” on the final stage of its journey out of Occupied Europe: climbing the Pyrenees. To my knowledge, the photo shows the French guide (a member of Dutch-Paris); a Dutch priest; two American airmen (one from Boston and the other, a boxer, from California); a Polish RAF Spitfire pilot; a Dutch lawyer and a Dutch intelligence agent. The others are probably Read the rest of this entry »

6th Nov

Following my last post about joining the Resistance, I’ll be offering a series of examples of how members of Dutch-Paris ended up in the Line. We’ll start with the chef de reseau himself,John Henry Weidner (1912-1994).

Weidner’s father was a Dutch Seventh Day Adventist preacher who taught at the SDA college at Collonges sur Salève, France, when John was still in school. That gave John a strict moral upbringing, fluency in French as well as Dutch, and personal knowledge of the Franco-Swiss border where he spent as much time mountain-climbing as he could. When the Wehrmacht invaded France in 1940, Weidner was a businessman and youth group leader in Paris.  He and a French friend tried to get to England but missed the last boat.  So the two of them opened a textile shop in Lyon, which, if nothing else, gave them an officially acceptable reason to travel. Read the rest of this entry »


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