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.

12th May

The Dutch-Paris Escape Line

The Dutch-Paris Escape Line ran from the Netherlands through Belgium and France and into both Switzerland and Spain. It rescued approximately one thousand people, about 800 of whom were civilians, the majority of whom were Jewish families. It also acted as a messenger service for the Dutch government-in-exile in London by, for instance, smuggling microfilms hidden in fountain pens along the same route. Its acknowledged leader, at least in France and Belgium, was John Henry Weidner, a Dutch citizen who preferred to speak French and, in 1940, owned a textile store in Lyon, France. The Gestapo arrested over a hundred Dutch-Paris agents in February 1944 but the line kept functioning until the liberation of Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands in September 1944.

The rest of the details of how the line operated are, I’ve been assured, “notoriously confused”. The John Henry Weidner Foundation for the Cultivation of the Altruistic Spirit has commissioned me to clear up that confusion by writing a history of Dutch-Paris.

It’s a fascinating project, but not a straight-forward one. If I were, say, researching Winston Churchill’s opinion of Charles de Gaulle (admittedly not much of a challenge) I would read his publications and then present myself at the public archives to consult the nicely cataloged documents. Or if I were doing a local study of a French town during the war I would persuade the departmental archivist to let me see the catalog; beg permission from various French authorities to see the documents, and then read them.

But resisters didn’t generate documents that can be collected in an archive. In fact, they had a positive horror of writing things down. And for good reason. Imagine what the Gestapo could do with a membership list of Dutch-Paris.

We will have to track our heroes more obliquely. They may have left impressions in other people’s records during the war. The Germans, for instance, kept exhaustive records and would surely have written down what they found out about the line. But, most inconveniently, they destroyed their records before retreating from western Europe. I do have some hopes of finding information about the deportation of line members in the recently opened International Tracing Service Archives. And of course line members may have written things down themselves after the war. It’s just a question of finding it all.

I have a list of sixteen archives in the USA, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the UK that may have relevant information. The richest sources will probably be the Weidner Center Archives at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts, which holds Weidner’s personal papers and the Nationaal Archief (National Archive) of the Netherlands. But the exciting thing about historical research is that you never know what will or will not be in an archive until you sit down and actually start reading the documents.

And one of the most thrilling things about working on the Second World War is that it is still in living memory. Some of these heroes and some of the people they rescued are still alive. They alone know the details that will make the whole puzzle click together.

If you yourself or someone you know were involved with the Dutch-Paris Escape Line in any way whatsoever, PLEASE contact me via the comments box below. I will respect your privacy in whatever way you wish. All comments are read by me before being posted for public viewing. Thank you!



27th Apr

It’s 1942 in Amsterdam and the Gestapo is after you.  Perhaps you’ve done something particular to annoy them, like printing an illegal newspaper or bailing out of an American or RAF bomber.  Maybe, because you’re a young man of military age, the occupation authorities think you should go work in Germany – essentially as slave labor – but you think you’d rather walk across the Pyrennees  to join the Allied armies.  Or maybe, because three of your grandparents are Jewish, you are in real danger of being rounded up, sealed into a cattle car and “sent east” to your death.

 To really and truly be safe from the Gestapo, you need to get to Switzerland or Spain.  Not an easy undertaking, especially if you’re taking your grandparents and small children with you or if you’re an English-speaking airman.  You need to cross the border to Belgium illegally then get Belgian IDs, ration cards, transit passes and money.  Then you need to illegally cross the border into the Occupied Zone of France and obtain a whole new set of false documents.  A little further south you’ll need to smuggle yourself over the Demarcation Line into Vichy France, which requires another set of false documents.   All of this in a time when food is rationed and hotel registers are regularly checked by the Nazis. 

If you don’t mind sitting out the rest of the war in a refugee camp, you can head east to Switzerland, but you’ll have to have your name officially inscribed as an authorized refugee before you get to the camp or the Swiss will return you to France.  If you need to get to London, you’ll need to obtain another set of papers for the “forbidden zone” in the foothills of the Pyrennees, dodge German patrols while hiking over the mountains, and then take your chances in the Spanish refugee camps.

It’s not a prospect for the faint-hearted, but the Gestapo has ways of encouraging people in what would be considered as acts of reckless heroism in peaceful times.  It’s clear to even the most self-sufficient that one needs help on this journey.  But where to find it?  No one is advertising all-expense paid tours to Spain in 1942.  It’s a matter of whispers and rumors.  There are definitely “passeurs” out there who promise to get people where they want to go.  But many of them are asking a steep price and not all of them can be trusted.

Your best chance is to fall in with one of the escape lines that act as underground railroads out of Occupied Europe.  They have escorts who will get you from one safe house to another, sources for false documents and ways of finding food, clothing and medical aid.  They can even get you registered with the Swiss or let the Dutch Embassy in Madrid know to look for you in a Spanish camp.  There are several such escape lines, all of them staffed by men and women with exemplary moral courage.

You’d be lucky to come across the Dutch-Paris Escape Line.  While some of the lines “specialize” in, say, Allied airmen, Dutch-Paris takes anyone who’s in danger no matter how old or young, male or female.  Indeed, over the course of the Second World War, Dutch-Paris rescued approximately one thousand people, the vast majority of them civilians.

This blog will be about my own journey through memories and archives to write a history of the Dutch-Paris Escape Line.


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