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 »

27th Dec

A Resister’s Parents

I had the great honor of visiting with Joke Folmer a few weeks ago in Amsterdam. She is well known for having escorted hundreds of downed Allied aviators out of the Netherlands, some of whom she passed to Dutch-Paris.

Among other things, I was interested to ask how she knew where to go when she went to a new contact in a new town because I myself had missed a turn on my rented bicycle that very morning and ended up taking the longest possible route to our meeting place. Apparently getting lost was not a problem in occupied Holland because she passed aviators over at train stations or on bridges. I think Mevrouw Folmer must also have a much better sense of direction than I do.

But of all the things that we talked about, what has stayed with me is this. Joke Folmer was a very young Read the rest of this entry »

13th Dec

I’d like to share some of the discussion at the book launch symposium in Amsterdam last month. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything to write with, so this is not as detailed as I’d like.

Professor Hans Blom began the discussion by reminding us all that a person needed both the desire to be a resister and the opportunity to do something in order to join the resistance. Then Ad van Liempt talked about why some people chose to join the resistance. Jean Weidner, for example, felt very strongly that it was his Christian duty to resist the occupier by helping the persecuted. Other resisters also felt compelled by their strong Christian beliefs.

As he said later in private, today you might even call Weidner and these other Christians religious fanatics, but you would also applaud their resistance.

During the discussion, however, Max van Weezel asked me if Weidner’s strong Christian beliefs were shared by everyone in Dutch-Paris. The answer is definitely “no”. Dutch-Paris had a strikingly ecumenical membership ranging from Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, church-going lay people, to Jews to atheists. There was even a communist of the non-Soviet variety.

Dick Verkijk made an interesting observation from the audience. Mr Verkijk had a long career as a journalist in the Netherlands. In fact, he made the 1967 documentary about Dutch-Paris (available on Youtube with English subtitles, follow the link in the side bar). So he met and interviewed many resisters. In his opinion, those men and women experienced joy in resistance despite the dangers because they were taking action against the occupation. As he said, if you do not accept unfreedom, you are free. So resisters were free in unfree circumstances because they refused to accept those circumstances.

Although many books have been written on why some people chose to resist while most did not, I don’t think we’ll ever have a satisfactory answer. For one thing, no one asked that question at the end of the war because it seemed self-explanatory then. I also suspect that the answer would change slightly for each man and woman. We could certainly have continued that discussion for much longer at the symposium if we’d had more time.

What we could conclude at the symposium, however, was that all resisters were men and women of strong conviction. That conviction might have stemmed from religious beliefs or patriotic anger or other causes, but wherever it came from, it was the strength of their convictions that made them resisters (along with the opportunity to do something, of course).

29th Nov

I think that everyone can agree that the launch of the Dutch translation of my book on Dutch-Paris, Gewone Helden (Ordinary Heroes), in Amsterdam on 10 November 2016 was a great success. Many thanks to Maarten Eliasar and his extended family for organizing the symposium and watching over every last detail.

Just over 280 people came to the symposium at the Amsterdam Hilton, including family members of 18 Dutch-Paris resisters and several Engelandvaarders and Jewish refugees who were helped by Dutch-Paris. It was a great honor to have them there, especially Joke Folmer, who escorted many Allied aviators across occupied Holland before passing them to Dutch-Paris (and other lines). We were also pleased to be joined by the ambassador of Israel, the consul general of the United States and the consul general of France.

I was on a strict time table, so I told the short version of Read the rest of this entry »

15th Nov

Here’s an interesting question that came up during the proof reading for the Dutch translation of the book.

Before the days of commercial air travel and cheap long distance phone calls, let alone the internet, travel took time and involved a lot more surprises than it does today. You might set out for a foreign city without knowing where you would stay or exactly when you would be there. But how could the people back home contact you if you did not have an address? The post offices had a device for this situation called “poste restante.” The person back home addressed the envelope to a name, a city and “poste restante”. The traveler went to that particular post office in the city and asked if there was any mail for him or her. It worked quite well if no one was in a hurry.

Paris being the gigantic city that it is, you could address “poste restante” mail to  train stations as well as post offices. This was, of course, very convenient because even if you were just passing through Paris, you could pick up your mail.

During the war, one of Dutch-Paris’s leaders told his comrades that they could send him messages addressed to “Mr van den Hove uit [from] Bending” poste restante at the Gare St Lazare. Mr van den Hove was obviously a false name. But the copy editor wanted to know about the town of Bending. Where was it? Was it spelled correctly? Because there is no Read the rest of this entry »

3rd Nov

I am happy to report that the Dutch translation of my book on Dutch-Paris has arrived from the printers. Many thanks to Maarten Eliasar, Hélène Lesger and the rest of the production team for the terrific job they did with the translation, the copy editing, the illustrations and all the details that have made it such a fine looking book. It will be at Dutch bookshops starting this weekend. (Gewone Helden: de Dutch-Paris ontsnappingslijn 1942-1945, ISBN 978 90 5875 5568).

Also this weekend, the Dutch tv programme Andere Tijden will broadcast an episode called Ontsnappingsroute in de oorlog (Escape Route during the War). It will air at 21.10 on Saturday 5 November on NPO2. You can follow this link for the preview (in Dutch and some French) http://www.anderetijden.nl/programma/1/Andere-Tijden/aflevering/682/Ontsnappingsroute-in-de-oorlog The link includes a sublink to the 1967 Dutch documentary about Dutch-Paris, which has footage of many of the line’s leaders.

I have not been involved in making the documentary, but every researcher’s favorite archivist, Sierk Plantinga has been interviewed extensively for it. Some of you may have already seen him talking about a postcard sent from the Third Reich on the tv preview for the show.   I don’t know if the entire show is about Dutch-Paris, but at least part of it is.  I can’t wait to see it.



25th Oct

If you read the earlier post about trains, you know that a lot has changed about railway journeys since 1944. Another thing that has changed in some places, is the train stations. On a small scale, you used to have to buy a “platform ticket” in order to enter the platforms. So if you wanted to walk your sweetheart to the door of the train to bid him or her a tearful adieu, you needed to buy yourself a ticket to get that close to the train. This could have unexpected consequences. In December 1943 a Dutch-Paris guide could not get platform tickets for the early train out of Toulouse. When she came back for the afternoon train, the Gestapo arrested her on the platform.

On a larger scale, some of the train stations have changed beyond recognition. The station in the small mountain town of Annecy, for example, has been completely rebuilt in the last five years. It is now an ultramodern structure of glass and steel. During the war it looked like this:


If you took a train from Paris to Lyon Read the rest of this entry »

11th Oct

Wartime Railway Journeys

If you were to trace the steps of Dutch-Paris couriers and guides, you would do most of it by train. Like all civilians during the occupation, they relied on the railway to get themselves and those they were helping from one city to another. So you could get on a train in Amsterdam and follow the same route as an Engelandvaarder to Toulouse.

But you could not entirely re-create the journey. Obviously, Europe is not at war and who would really want to experience the anxiety of Gestapo identity checks and possible air raids? But there are more peaceable differences between then and now as well.
The European Union has abolished the international border crossings, so you no longer have to get off the train, shuffle through customs and passport control, and get back on the train when leaving one country and entering another.

There are also fewer trains now than there were in 1944. Belgium had an impressively dense network of trains and tram, many of which have been replaced by roads for automobiles. Likewise, many of the current roads in the Pyrenees were train tracks in 1944.

The trains themselves were different as well, as you can see in this postcard of the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris.  Many of them had first, second and third class carriages. Only the most modern of them had the connecting carriages that we take for granted today. The upside of the old-fashioned trains in which you had to get off the train altogether and walk along the platform to get into the next carriage, was that the German police didn’t much care for them. At least in the Pyrenees, they preferred the modern trains with carriages that they could walk between while the train was in motion and rarely controlled passports in the old fashioned trains.

Wartime trains were also big polluters, billowing out huge clouds of steam laden with coal dust. Today you need to visit a railway museum to smell that particular combination of hot, damp coal and metal. The steam of the trains created its own atmosphere in the train stations as well as causing continual negotiations among passengers about opening or shutting the windows. Closing them kept out the soot. Opening them allowed for the possibility of some air as well as lessening the impact of any possible explosions. None of the trains, even the most modern, had air conditioning.

In fact, compared to today’s high speed, international train travel, even the most uneventful first class train journey during the occupation was slow, inconvenient and uncomfortable.  But it was the best available and the men and women of Dutch-Paris relied on it.


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