Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Right around this time in 1944 Dutch-Paris started taking downed Allied airmen to Spain. Some of the men and women in the line who worked in Brussels and Paris had been wanting to do this for some time. The problem had not been where to find aviators on the run. Other resistance groups in the Netherlands, Belgium and France were eager to pass on aviators whom they had gathered up after their airplanes crashed. The problem was that helping airmen was far more dangerous than helping Jews or resisters.
There were a couple of reasons for this. In the first place, Allied airmen were foreigners who looked and acted like foreigners. This wasn’t as true for British fliers, but it certainly held true for Americans. Without meaning to, they stuck out. Here’s a story from the liberation of Maastricht that demonstrates how attuned civilians were to strangers in their midst.
In September 1944, no one could say when the Allies would arrive in Maastricht, but there were signs of their approach. Most of the German left town, blowing the bridges over the Maas behind them. Local boys who belonged to a Dutch partisan group that camped a few miles away in Belgium Read the rest of this entry »
In 1944-45 my father lived on the eastern side of the river in Maastricht, not far from the railway station and the Bailey bridge that the US Army slung across the Maas for heavy artillery and troops on their way to Germany. He and all the other kids in the neighborhood had a lot to watch, and plenty of time to do it before the schools reopened.
Not surprisingly, that bridge had its own anti-aircraft battery stationed right there in my father’s neighborhood. The unit cooked for itself. Sometimes they made doughnuts. These were the kind that are called cake donuts, fry cakes or sometimes cider donuts. They’re plain rings of a cake like dough of flour, baking powder, cinnamon, sugar, eggs and milk fried in oil until they’re crispy on the outside and cake-y on the inside. Every American has had them. They’re good for dunking in coffee or cider.
The Pied Piper himself could not have put out a more compelling call to the neighborhood children than the smell of frying doughnuts. Every time my father and every other kid downwind of the anti-aircraft guns came running toward the smell of doughnuts, the GI who was frying them up passed them out.
I can’t ask my grandmother, but there’s a good chance that she and the other mothers appreciated the gift of doughnuts given to their children even more than the kids who ate them did.
Happy Holidays to that American GI who shared the donuts with the local kids, and all his family, from a Dutch boy who still remembers the kindness, and all his family.
It didn’t take long for the businessmen in Dutch-Paris to figure out that all their careful vigilance in getting the best possible exchange rates and diligence in raising donations from themselves and others could not pay for hiding people indefinitely or escorting other fugitives out of occupied territory. The black market food, rents, clandestine health care, clothing and train tickets for hundreds of people simply cost too much.
They needed the kind of money that only a government could provide. The problem was not so much in convincing the Dutch government-in-exile and Queen Wilhelmina in London to support Dutch fugitives in France and Belgium as it was in getting the money to the resisters who were helping those in need in occupied territory. It had to be in cash in the local currency to be of any practical use, but the German occupation authorities had disrupted the usual banking system. You could not wire large amounts of money from London to Paris during the war.
Various members of the line came up with various schemes to circumvent the legally authorized exchange system, all of which boiled down to one idea. The resisters in France and Belgium would get a loan in local currency from some local individual in town. The government would pay the loan back after the Allies won the war. Obviously, they came up with this idea after the German army lost at Stalingrad and it began to look like the Allies might actually win the war. The more certain that became, the easier it was to raise the loans.
A few members of Dutch-Paris did indeed “loan” Read the rest of this entry »
The question of getting money across borders during the occupation that Weidner solved with postage stamps in the last blog post bedeviled other Dutch-Paris resisters and, indeed, the whole line. They came up with a number of arrangements that added up to a private, clandestine banking system that stretched from the Netherlands through Belgium and France to Switzerland.
These things started on a small scale between family members. For example, a Dutchman whom we’ll call Joseph lived and worked in Brussels, Belgium, while his father, a retired colonel, lived in Maastricht, the Netherlands. When family friends decided to leave the Netherlands illegally because they were Jews, the Colonel offered his son’s help. Because Jews were not allowed to take themselves or any currency out of the country, the Jewish family gave the Colonel a certain sum in Dutch guilders. When they arrived in Brussels, Joseph took the equivalent amount in Belgian francs out of his own bank account to give to the fugitives. Of course they made this exchange at the legal, official exchange rate, which was the most favorable one for the fugitives but was unavailable to most civilians. Joseph and his father held themselves to the highest ethical standards while breaking the law, a common enough paradox for resisters.
Being an insurance agent with seven children at home, Joseph soon Read the rest of this entry »
The restrictions and shortages of living under German occupation during the Second World War brought out an impressive creativity among otherwise ordinary and law-abiding citizens. In fact, the whole story of how Dutch-Paris operated an escape line and rescued so many people could be seen as an exercise in creativity, but here’s a smaller, more personal example.
The leader of Dutch-Paris, John Henry Weidner, was living in Paris when the war started. His parents and youngest sister were living in the Netherlands. Now, Papa Weidner was a retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor who taught and translated Greek and Latin. He had a limited income. His son, on the other hand, was doing well selling textiles, at least early in the war.
John Weidner wanted to send money to his parents and sister in the Netherlands. But how? Doing so legally involved a great deal of paperwork and considerable taxes and fees. Even getting a postcard to his parents legally took time and a certain amount of double entendre to get it past the censor.
So Weidner sent his father Read the rest of this entry »
The last post discussed why the vast majority of people who were “patriots in their hearts,” and so disposed towards the resistance, did not join it. Many surely feared the consequences if they were caught, which could reasonably be expected to include torture and deportation to the concentration camps. Others who may have been willing to risk the physical consequences nonetheless might never have had the opportunity or the skills to join.
It should be mentioned that women faced additional obstacles to joining the resistance. Many had family obligations that kept them homebound, of course. And just keeping a home going took much more time and effort during the war because of all the rationing and standing in line.
Some women also encountered straight forward chauvinism. There was one young Dutch-Paris leader in Brussels who refused to let women Read the rest of this entry »
The leader of Dutch-Paris, John Henry Weidner, wrote shortly after the war that for every 50 Dutch expatriates in France and Belgium during the war whom he knew to be patriots in their hearts, only one resisted. The other 49 did not collaborate. They probably even sympathized with the resistance and maybe turned a blind eye here and there in favor of resistance activity. But they did not commit themselves to acting against the occupying forces.
Why did so few patriots join the resistance? Most obviously, resisting meant risking your life. The 50 expatriates to whom Weidner referred were not soldiers. They were men and women of every age and station, and they had good reason to fear torture and/or execution at the hands of the Gestapo and their ilk if they were captured as resisters.
Some might have been willing to risk themselves but had responsibilities and obligations that they were not willing to risk. The decision to resist becomes much more complicated when you have young children or elderly parents relying on you, or if Read the rest of this entry »
A curious thing happened during the liberation of European cities 71 years ago. Among the massacres, the vengeance and the rejoicing, citizens rushed to save documents from burning buildings. There’s footage of it in the British newsreel of the liberation of Belgium posted on the website of the city of Brussels [http://www.brussels.be/artdet.cfm/5562].
Whenever the German occupation authorities retreated, they either took their files with them or burned them. There may have been some bureaucratic desire for tidy record keeping at work when officials loaded their files onto trucks, of course. But they burned them because they knew that those files documented an array of crimes: the deportation of men, women and children to concentration and extermination camps; the massacre of resisters; the torture of prisoners; the taking of hostages; the theft of art and other property as well as other, more petty, corruption. Burning the meticulous records was meant to cover up the crimes and was, in part, successful at doing so.
But not entirely successful, because not all the records were burnt. Some were overlooked at the bonfire. Others were snatched from it by civilians. I have read half charred documents at the Archives nationales of France. The newsreel of the liberation of Belgium shows citizens of all ages in a long line passing documents from one to another to save them from the flames. Why do that when other citizens were chasing down collaborators or kissing Allied soldiers?
There are two reasons that I can think of, both of which confirm the power of the written word and demonstrate a belief in the principle that the pen is mightier than the sword.
In the first case, even after four or five years of Nazi occupation and perversion of the law, those men and women still believed in the rule of law. And they believed that the Allied armies would restore it. They expected the perpetrators to be put on trial in a court of law that would require evidence. It must have seemed obvious at the time that if the Gestapo was burning something, it was evidence against them.
In the second case, the men and women who rushed to rescue papers from the flames wanted history to bear witness to what had happened to them. They each knew part of the story, and maybe they had their suspicions as well. But the documents would tell the details. The documents, for example, would give the names of all the prisoners, even those who had disappeared.
Whether the civilians guarding the documents were intent on condemning every member of the occupation army to the death sentence, or establishing the history of their community, or any other cause, they were upholding the civilized standards that the Nazis had tried to destroy. They were themselves acting as liberators of their own culture and standards from those of the Nazis.
The next major city on the Dutch-Paris line to be liberated after Brussels was Maastricht. Dutch-Paris did not actually have a station in Maastricht, but they had working associations with Dutch resisters there, and a couple of Dutch-Paris guides went back and forth over the Dutch border there to escort aviators into Belgium or bring news and documents across.
Allied Bombers targeted the strategically situated bridges in the city in late August 1944, and German troops destroyed those bridges over the Maas when they retreated. But otherwise the city escaped ruinous battle.
My father was there as a boy of six. He remembers the long funeral cortege for the victims of the bombing, which his family maintained was a navigational mistake on the part of the Allies. He also remembers the first American GIs to appear in his neighborhood. One of them gave him Read the rest of this entry »
This week of the end of August and beginning of September 2015 marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Belgium by British forces, culminating in the liberation of Brussels on September 3.
It had been a difficult spring and summer in Occupied Brussels. German soldiers had been increasingly jumpy and suspicious, especially after the Normandy Landings in early June. Even before then, German police had been rounding men up off the streets of the capital to send to the factories and mines of the Third Reich as forced labor. In fact, Dutch-Paris lost two of its best couriers that way, one in March and one in June. They were both arrested on the street, essentially for being men in their early twenties; imprisoned without much formality; loaded onto trains with thousands of other unfortunates, and put to work until the end of the war in extremely difficult circumstances.
By July Dutch-Paris had adjusted to the randomly dangerous Read the rest of this entry »