Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
By the end of 1943 there was no doubt in John Weidner’s mind or that of any of his colleagues in the leadership of Dutch-Paris that the German authorities were on their trail. And they had every reason to think that those same German police would be particularly persistent in hunting down resisters who helped Allied airmen. After all, there were plenty of public announcement posters to that effect plastered around trains stations and the like. Why then, did they put the escape line for civilians and their aid to Jews in hiding at risk by helping airmen?
There were many reasons. For one, Dutch-Paris helped the persecuted. These men were being hunted down, so Dutch-Paris helped them. For another, a number of men and women in the line wanted to help the Allied war effort. Like others, they felt that getting trained aircrew back to their bases in England would mean more bombers flying over Germany, which would mean that the Allies would win the war sooner. Others felt that it was the least they could do to show their gratitude to these young men from other continents who had left their homes to risk their lives to liberate them.
And then there was politics. Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government-in-exile did not Read the rest of this entry »
As I mentioned in my last post, the German police, especially the counter-intelligence officers of the Abwehr, were very good at their jobs. One of the things that they were so good at was playing on the trusting natures of some resisters.
They did this by hiring local men and women as agents provocateurs. These agents, known as V-men, passed themselves off as resisters in order to entrap legitimate resisters. The legitimate resisters had no defenses against this other than their own prudence and suspiciousness. The resistance was, after all, a clandestine and volunteer society. Anyone could start a resistance organization, including, it turned out more than once, the Abwehr.
It didn’t help that some resisters were very young and many were not the naturally suspicious sort. So if a friend introduced you to someone as a resister and that person said all the right things, who were you to say he or she was not a resister?
Jean Weidner and other leaders in Dutch-Paris were all too well aware of the danger of informers and were constantly trying to impose safety protocols on the organization. More than once they verified some one’s bona fides with the authorities in London via the Dutch embassy in Switzerland. They were remarkably successful given how many people were in involved across three countries. But even so, they could not keep themselves a secret.
When British military intelligence arrested a Belgian V-mann in 1944, they found the calling card of Dutch-Paris’s top man in Paris among the traitor’s papers. A young Dutch resister had given him the card when he was in Paris claiming to be looking for places for Engelandvaarders to hide. By that time the young Dutch man and most of his colleagues had been arrested and deported to concentration camps.
Similarly, when a young Dutch-Paris courier went out to a café in Amsterdam, she ran into another young Dutchman whom she had met in Paris. Her acquaintance introduced her to his companions, a Dutch resister and his French colleague. Or so they said. They were really an Abwehr officer and his V-mann, a fact she did not discover until after she returned from Ravensbrück.
So the German police including the Abwehr knew that Dutch-Paris existed although they were confused about the details. The safety protocols that the organizations’ leaders had put into place, however, meant that the Germans could not capture the group for some time, and even then they never found the leaders.
How did the German police capture so many members of Dutch-Paris? The short answer is that they, especially the Abwehr (military intelligence), were very good at their jobs. And they had help from the Nazi policy of terror.
Despite the round-up, Dutch-Paris counts as a great success story in the world of the resistance. But even so, Abwehr officers knew about the line, if rather hazily. They had a lucky break in early February 1944 when a collaborationist French police unit arrested a Dutch-Paris courier. After a few days, the French police turned her over to their German colleagues.
According to the postwar testimony of the French commissioner, he turned her over because he was afraid that she was an agent provocateur sent to test his loyalty and that he would end up in the concentration camps if he did not. Obviously, the man’s testimony is not entirely reliable because he gave it at his own purge trial for crimes that carried the death penalty. Nonetheless, Read the rest of this entry »
Looking at the photos of the men and women and places of Dutch-Paris, I notice two things in general.
The first is how ordinary the resisters looked. Not a one looks like Hollywood’s version of heroes and heroines. Some are youthful, beautiful and handsome, of course, but not in the way that movie actors are. Instead they look like the favorite uncle about to gather the children up for a game. Or perhaps a shopkeeper having trouble with the accounts or a student on the way to class.
Chances are that if you had to pick the resisters’ photos out of a pile of 100 photos of random men and women from the war years, you wouldn’t be able to do it. They simply do not look suspicious. They may have acted like men and women engaged in illegal activities and defying the Third Reich. But they looked like kind, law-abiding citizens. Of course, that is exactly what they were until their kindness could no longer tolerate the consequences of Nazi law.
The second thing you might notice about the photographs is Read the rest of this entry »
For the younger set who have thousands of photos on their cell phones and who take photos with the cell phone to remember something rather than write it down, I should explain the state of photography during the Second World War.
Digital cameras had not been invented yet. Every camera used film. It came rolled up in little canisters to protect the film from exposure to sunlight. You had to go into a dark room to put the film in the camera and make sure that the little holes running along the top and the bottom of the film were hooked into the camera properly, or the film would not advance correctly. You advanced the film by turning a little wheel like knob on the camera. You had to do this after each photo or you would get a double exposure of more than one picture on the same photograph. When the roll of film was done, usually 24 exposures, you took it out of the camera and took it to a camera shop. They developed the film in a dark room that involved a series of smelly chemicals and particular timing. When you came back to pay for your photographs, the shop gave you both the photographs and the negatives, ie the film. You kept the negatives in case you ever wanted to make another copy of any of the photographs.
Color film had been invented already, but it was expensive and in short supply. It also required Read the rest of this entry »
I am happy to announce that Uitgeverij Boom will publish a Dutch translation of my book on the history of Dutch-Paris this autumn. It is called Ordinary Heroes or Gewone Helden. (No English language publisher yet.)
While looking through what few photos there are in the archives, I was struck by how very ordinary the men and women of Dutch-Paris looked; although there was nothing ordinary about their actions. That gave me, and the wonderful team working on the book production in Amsterdam, the idea of finding as many photos of as many people who were involved in Dutch-Paris as we can.
My sincere thanks to all those who I have met through my researches or through this blog who have already shared photos of themselves or their families. Is there anyone else who has a photo for the book?
The photos need to be of people who were involved with Dutch-Paris, either as a helper who belonged to the line or someone who was helped by them (refugees, Engelandvaarders, aviators). They should be from the war years or shortly before or after the war. I doubt very much that there are any photos of Dutch-Paris in action. Would anyone actually have stopped to take a snapshot while sneaking under the barbed wire into Switzerland? But there are the passport photos on false identity cards. There are photos of people in Spain or Switzerland just after they arrived. There may have been a war on, but people still went to birthday parties or had their photos taken at weddings.
I do not need the actual, physical photograph, so there is no risk of losing it. Instead, the publisher needs only a high resolution scan (300dpi or 3-5MB). It would be most helpful if you could give the image the name of the person in the photo. It might be best to send me a message through the blog first to say that you have a photo. Then I will give you a better email to send the photo to. It would be a great shame to lose any photos because there wasn’t enough room on the server.
Seven months is just a blink of an eye as far as putting a book together, so the sooner we have the photos, the better. Thank you! Bedankt! Merci!
Seventy-two years ago, on 28 February 1944, German police arrested a number of Dutch-Paris helpers in a well-organized sweep. Officers from the Abwehr (German military intelligence), Geheime Feldpolizei (secret military police) and Gestapo (secret state police) cooperated in the raids. One group invaded the Dutch-Paris safe house in Brussels at the same time that other units arrested Dutch-Paris helpers in Paris at their homes across the city and even outside it.
Those men and women who were captured on 28 February endured interrogation and in many cases torture, imprisonment, deportation in cattle cars and the slave labor, exposure and mistreatment of the concentration camps. Some of them survived to return home after the war. Others did not.
Over the months of March, April and May, Read the rest of this entry »
In the last post I asked how much a map of an occupied city can really show of what it would have been like to walk from one place to another in a city hushed by gasoline rationing, darkened by air raid precautions and filled with dread. We can ask the same question about clandestine border crossings.
A standard map of the Franco-Swiss border in the Genevois with the Dutch-Paris hiding and crossing places marked on it would certainly provide a sense of distances. A really detailed version might even include the no-man’s-land that fugitives had to run across before actually reaching safety in Switzerland. And it might be able to convey the looming hulk of Mt Salève on the French side of the border and the steep climb to and from the safe house above the village of Collonges and the border. The map would indicate the bridge that resisters and their charges hid under as they waited for German motorized patrols to zoom past or looked out for French gendarmes on foot. But can a map suggest the fear or excitement? Can it adequately portray the confusion of Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been thinking about maps of Dutch-Paris. The line covered so much territory that the story needs many maps: Dutch-Paris’s routes through the Netherlands, Belgium and France; maps of the clandestine crossing places from the Netherlands to Belgium, from France into Switzerland and from France to Spain; maps of Dutch-Paris places in the main cities along the route, Brussels, Paris, Lyon and Toulouse.
These maps would give a reader a sense of the distances that the line covered, thousands of miles across western Europe. They would illustrate that in Lyon almost all the Dutch-Paris addresses were in the same neighborhood, but in Paris and Brussels they were scattered all over. The map would show how far a resister might have had to walk from his or her apartment to a train station to meet fugitives or to another resister’s apartment for a meeting. It might even show the most obvious routes that resister might have taken.
But a map does not show how narrow the streets were or how exposed intersections might be. They give no sense of the quiet of city streets when Read the rest of this entry »
The second reason that Dutch-Paris hesitated to take Allied aviators until January 1944 was that the German authorities considered helping aviators to be a much more serious offense than helping civilians. Helping an Allied service man was, after all, aiding and abetting an enemy soldier, at least from their perspective.
In addition, everyone in the Third Reich, including the families of German servicemen stationed in western Europe, suffered greatly under the Allies’ almost constant bombardment of Germany. The Germans considered Allied aircrews to be “Luftterroristen” or “air terrorists” who killed women and children.
German military intelligence, the Abwehr, had counter-espionage units dedicated to tracking down evading airmen and their helpers. These men were highly trained, professional and very successful. The penalties for captured helpers ranged from imprisonment to deportation to the concentration camps to death and often including torture along the way. These penalties could and sometimes did fall upon the helpers’ entire families including uncles and cousins.
It is not surprising, then, that the German officers who interrogated Dutch-Paris members after their arrests in February and March 1944 questioned them about Allied airmen. The round-ups caught Read the rest of this entry »