30th Sep

Illegible Dutch Handwriting

It’s hard enough to read someone else’s handwriting in your native language, let alone in one you learned in graduate school. But to my immense relief, most of the documents I’ve come across so far are typed. In some cases that’s because somebody’s secretary typed up copies of handwritten reports (thank you!). But in other cases people typed their own reports or letters. It surprises me how many businesses and individuals still had their own typewriters just after the war. I wonder if people hid them from the Germans the same way they hid their radios and their bicycles.

But not everyone used a typewriter, and not everyone wrote legibly. I give you Exhibit A, a letter written to John Read the rest of this entry »

15th Sep

And in Box Number Three…..

The herculean task of organizing the Weidner Archives is being ably undertaken by Stan Tozeski, a retired archivist from NARA. He tells me that when he started in on a heap of moving boxes filled with manila folders and papers in various states of deterioration, in other words, the contents of John Henry Weidner’s office shipped across the country.

Weidner’s personal correspondence is now neatly alphabetized in acid-free folders and stacked in 36 (at my last count) archival-quality document boxes. Read the rest of this entry »

1st Sep

Whose Identity Card?

Travel papers such as the authorization to cross the borders of Haute-Savoie in the last blog would be easy enough to forge if you had the forms and the stamps. Identity cards posed more of a problem. Actually, they were more like identity booklets of heavy paper stock folded in thirds than the laminated cards Americans carry today in the form of driver’s licenses.  That’s probably why the police agents in black and white movies are always saying: “your papers please.”

Dutch identity cards were notoriously difficult to forge because of the misplaced zeal of a civil servant who came up with a new way to complicate the cards and presented the idea to the occupying authority. The Belgians, however, had been through a nasty occupation during the First World War and had a deliberately simple, i.e. easily forged, identity card.

Take a good look at the following five identity cards, three French and two Belgian.

WA_WC_15_IdentificationCards_Vernet_Jacques

Issued to: Jacques Vernet, born 20 November 1910 in Algiers [Algeria, then a French territory]

Issued by: Prefecture of Haute-Savoie, 10 April 1943 Read the rest of this entry »

17th Aug

In amongst the documentary riches of the Weidner Archive, I’ve found a little cache of false documents. Some of them are the fakes that John Henry Weidner himself used during the Occupation and the quite legitimate military documents issued to him at the liberation and just after the war. And some of them are the blank forms for said documents. Legally, only the issuing authority should have had those blank forms and the stamps that formalized them, but there was a brisk trade in them during the Occupation.

By the end of the war, the Dutch Resistance had a catalog of false documents. You told your contact what documents you needed, handed over some photographs, and three days later you had your papers. Read the rest of this entry »

3rd Aug

It’s a Treasure Trove

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand corrected.  It turns out that resisters did write a lot down.  It’s just that they wrote it down after the danger had passed.  For France that happened with the Liberation in the summer of 1944.  Belgium was liberated in September 1944, as was a southern swathe of the Netherlands.  To its immense sorrow, the northern majority of the Netherlands was not liberated until May 1945.

I am working in the Weidner Center Archives at Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts.  It holds Weidner’s private papers and a filing cabinet Read the rest of this entry »

20th Jul

The most poignant of the NARA helper files I’ve read concerns a young Dutch woman who was a student at the Sorbonne when the Germans invaded in 1940. We’ll use her nom de guerre, Anne-Marie. In the normal course of affairs, she met a man who worked at the Dutch embassy in Paris. As a member of Dutch-Paris, he was busy helping Dutch citizens get to England (via Spain) and Switzerland, so she helped him help her landgenoten (fellow countrymen).

In 1943 other friends of hers from the university were asked if they could help some allied pilots get out of France. Anne-Marie asked John Henry Weidner if the pilots could take the same route as the Dutch nationals. Weidner said they could, and so Dutch-Paris began helping pilots.

At first Anne-Marie walked to homes around Versailles where Americans or Brits were hiding, took their shoe sizes, noted down what else they needed in the way of clothing and organized false documents for them. Later, whole groups of about 10 downed airmen came from Brussels at a time. She helped hide them in Paris or escorted them to Toulouse.

In February 1944 an important courier for the Line and Dutch-Paris’s man at the Gare du Nord railway station were arrested in Paris. Anne-Marie wanted to disappear for a month, but her money had been cut off when the Germans occupied France and she couldn’t afford to take a holiday from her (unspecified) job.

When it comes to money, even altruistic heroes can loose sight of the big picture. The Gestapo arrested her within days and eventually sent her to the notorious women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück.

Only a few days after she returned to Paris in the summer of 1945, Anne-Marie took her report to the British. The British sergeant escorted her over to the American MIS-X offices so that she could share it with them. She wrote it herself in clear, if grammatically imperfect, English. The last lines read:

The Gestapo sent me to the concentration camp Ravensbruck where I stayed exactly one year. Everything I saw in the camp made me very glad to have worked against them.”

That certainty that she was fighting the good fight undoubtedly helped her withstand a concentration camp in which only 40,000 of the 130,000 prisoners survived.

7th Jul

Helper Files

One of the best things about this project so far is the community of people who are actively interested in escape lines.  For instance, the Escape Line Memorial Society (ELMS;  http://www.escapelines.com) based in the UK raises funds to assist helpers who are now in financial need.   They also run freedom treks across western Europe in honor and memory of the escape and evasion lines. 

There is also an informal community of people who are researching escape lines.  Serendipity has brought me into contact with Bruce Bolinger of California, who is researching the evasion of a young American airman named Tom Applewhite.   [If you have information about that, I’ll happily forward it to Bruce].  His researches have recently taken him to Washington, DC, where he’s been ferreting about in the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA).  In particular, he’s been looking for the “helper files” of the people who facilitated Applewhite’s escape.  He very generously sent me a stack of photocopies of files marked Dutch-Paris.

 The helper files are the kind of document that puts a little skip in an historian’s step because they’re detailed and come from a reliable source.  And I confess that I’m pleased to read something in English.  Both the British and the Americans started compiling them as soon as they liberated an area in order to reward and assist those individuals who had helped Allied servicemen, in effect aviators, to evade and escape the enemy.  Reward might come in the form of a certificate of recognition signed by General Eisenhower, if not the Congressional Medal of Freedom.  Assistance could well mean food, money or a job.  But SHAEF wasn’t just going to take someone’s word for it before they started handing out cash or tins of corned beef hash.

 Nope, the Americans and the British investigated every claim themselves as well as searching out people to thank.  They had actually been working on this before D-Day by debriefing the aviators who made it back to England.  Their mission then was to figure out how the lines worked and who worked on them so they could tell their air crews what to do if they got shot down. 

 The American detachment, called MIS-X, had offices in Paris, Belgium, Wasenaar (near The Hague) and elsewhere.  They shared information with their British counterparts and even had a bit of a competion going as to who could do more for the helpers.

 Judging from the very few MIS-X files I’ve seen, their modus operandiwas to ask someone they knew had been an authentic helper for the names of his or her colleagues.  Then they’d invite those people to come into the office and give a statement.  Some came, some didn’t.  They put all those statements together in the “helper files” and made recommendations for awards and assistance.  They clearly respected John Weidner as a recognized Resistance chief and authority on the subject.

Although the files are obviously skewed towards assistance to Allied airmen, they are wonderfully detailed about that particular activity.  Given that Dutch-Paris rescued 112 named airmen, and perhaps 80 more whose names were lost in a Gestapo raid, this is very useful information.  I’ll discuss one of the reports in detail in my next blog.

 In the meantime, I’ll just note that all the files I’ve seen so far have been declassified in the last 10 years.  I have to wonder why the reports of people who were considered to deserve the thanks of the American people were held secret so long.  Unless it’s because the American authors also included  their speculations about who betrayed the Line to the Germans?

22nd Jun

Call Him Mr. Brooks

I’ve had the honor to spend an afternoon with an Engelandvaarder, one of those approximately 1,700 Dutchmen and 48 women who made the arduous journey to England during the Occupation. A few of them traveled via Dutch-Paris; although this particular gentleman did not. Let’s call him Mr. Brooks after his nom de guerre because I have neither asked for nor received permission to use his name on this blog.

As a student during the war, Mr. Brooks “did a few things” for the Resistance including unscrambling radios so that people in the Netherlands could hear Queen Wilhelmina’s broadcasts from London. When the Germans found his trail, he and a friend decided it’d be best to leave town. They had a few addresses in Antwerp and Paris and of a certain farmhouse on the Demarcation Line that divided Occupied France from Vichy France.

When they got to the Demarcation Line, they convinced a gendarme on the north side that their papers authorized them to be there looking for work. Apparently the French policeman was equally unable to read Dutch or German. Then they simply waded and swam across the river. They’d almost convinced the gendarme on the south side of the same tale when his supervisor pedaled up on his bicycle and arrested them. They escaped from the village jail with a pair of nail clippers but ended up working on a farm under the orders of a French prefect. That wasn’t quite what they had in mind, so they went back to the prefecture, distracted the prefect while they stole back their papers, and went on their way to the south of France to be near the Spanish border, which lies along the peaks of the Pyrennees.

It’s a thrilling adventure, but what interests me the most about it is that it undermines my image of Occupied Europe. The Nazis moved people around by the millions in what are literally staggering feats of population transfers. Most notoriously they moved millions of Jews towards their deaths in central Europe. But they also moved millions of people from eastern Europe into Germany and western Europe as labor – not usually of the voluntary sort – and in the reverse direction moved millions of western Europeans to the east to work and fight. And that doesn’t even include all the soldiers moving about. Or the refugees who left their homes because of aerial bombardment or fighting.

The usual picture of Occupied Europe is of people trapped in their homes by repressive regimes or being forcibly moved to some place worse by an even more repressive occupation authority. Occasionally a heroic Resister dashes across the screen.

Yet here we have two young Dutchmen wading across the Demarcation Line in France with nothing more formidable than two policemen on bicycles to stop them. There were 60,000 Dutch nationals in France and Belgium during the war, the majority of them counting as what we would now call “illegal aliens”. There was clearly a need for a Dutch escape line that specialized in helping Dutch people through Belgium and France. I wonder how many people, like Mr Brooks, made it through without the help of Dutch-Paris or any other Resistance network.

8th Jun

As soon as I start to tell a story, I run into the problem of names. The documents usually give the full names of the members of Dutch-Paris, with the exception of those who never told their colleagues their true name before their arrests and then deaths in deportation. But would it be right to publish the names on the web?

Why not? you ask. Aren’t these people heroes? They certainly are, but that doesn’t mean that they have happy memories of the war. Most of them lived in fear for months, even years. Some of them were betrayed to the enemy by people they considered friends. Some were tortured. Many spent agonizing months in concentration camps, permanently undermining their health. Even those who evaded arrest may not want to bring up the past. After all, they may have built a life in the intervening sixty-some years that doesn’t have room for the Resistance.

I think these men and women deserve their privacy. So I will use either their first names alone, or what the Dutch call their schuilnaam, literally “shelter name”, and the French call their nom de guerre, literally “wartime name”. In English we have to settle for the less picturesque “pseudonym” or “alias”. I have no doubt that if an English-speaking country had been occupied by the Third Reich we’d have another word for it with the reverberations of danger that echo through nom de guerre and schuilnaam. Let’s be grateful that we don’t.

The exception to the rule of using first names or pseudonyms will be those individuals, like John Henry Weidner, who were the publicly recognized leaders of Dutch-Paris, or those who have given me permission to use their names in this blog. If you read your own story on these pages and would like your full name recognized, I will happily change it. Just send me a message via the comment box below.

26th May

Het Nationaal Archief

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working in the Dutch national archives, het Nationaal Archief, in The Hague this week.

In the first place there’s a thrill to holding an original document in your hands.  That paper was there, actually part of something that you yourself are passionately interested in but couldn’t be part of.  In this case I have a good excuse; my parents hadn’t made it past second grade yet when these particular documents were written, although he wasn’t too far away in the Netherlands. 

But the Dutch archives are themselves a nice surprise, especially because you literally have to walk through the central train station and along a construction site to find the door.  The public part of the building is new, spacious and designed to let in as much natural light as possible.  There’s even a courtyard garden behind a wall of plate glass so that you can stare out into green when reading smudged carbon copies gets to be too much of a strain.*

All you need to register for a reader’s card is a simple form and your passport.  You stow everything you have other than paper, pencils and a laptop in a locker which returns your 1 euro coin at the end of the day; show your paper or laptop to the security guard who politely flips through them; wave your electronic reader’s ID at the sensor by the door, and you’re in.  You can order your documents at a computer in the reading room or in advance on-line.  To leave, you wave yourself out  and the guard does a more thorough job of flipping through your papers.  This might seem like excessive security for a bunch of historians who voluntarily choose to spend their days reading documents that are, even to them, often boring.  But it does add a certain James Bondish glamour to our nerdy days.  After all, except for laptops and email, historians tend to lead low-tech lives.  All this gadgetry makes us feel almost important.  Of course whoever thought up this whole system wasn’t worrying about genuine historians, but impostors with mischief-making political agendas on their minds.  But even the possibility of impostors ups our glamour-quotient a bit.

I digress, the very best part of  het Nationaal Archief is the knowledgeable and helpful archivist who shepherds WWII historians.  Sierk Plantinga gave me the impression that his entire job consists of helping the public, although common sense says that can’t be true.  I will admit that my experience in the archive may have been smoother than someone else’s because Sierk helped me out, but it didn’t seem that way.

I certainly could have used someone like him at the French national archives (les Archives nationales) in Paris twenty years ago.  Getting a reader’s card required an official attestation of my credentials complete with embossed seal from Berkeley, where I was a graduate student, and an interview with an archivist to determine the validity of my research.  I remember it more as an interrogation, and a mortifying one at that given the miserable state of my spoken French at the time.  The building was new and modern but not well lit.  Researchers and their notebooks were subject to scrutiny, most unnervingly by the militarized firemen who paced back and forth scowling.  I have a vague recollection of some debate about whether or not wearing a wool pashmina was an acceptable way to keep one’s extremities warm enough to write notes.  The most disconcerting thing, though, happened when a huge concrete panel fell off the cathedral ceiling to smash the twenty-foot, solid wood library table beneath it.  Fortunately the researcher who was sitting there had gone to lunch, but her documents were, as they say, ecrasé (erased, crushed, eradicated).

 That was twenty years ago and there may well be a new, more researcher friendly regime at the Archives nationales these days.  I sincerely hope so.  Many of my difficulties in France stemmed from having chosen what a departmental archivist called a “very delicate” topic, i.e. the Second World War, and being an American graduate student.  But that’s a story for another day.

For now I’m happy to be at het Nationaal Archief.

 

* For the younger set: carbon copies hail from the age of the typewriter.  You put a flimsy sheet of tissue paper treated with black or purple “carbon” between sheets of typing paper and made more than one copy of whatever you were typing at one time.  Parsimonious secretaries reused their carbon paper until even a magnifying glass couldn’t detect its traces.

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