17th Jul

A friend has asked me for some advice on how to research his family history during WWII. I know that there are a lot of people trying to piece together how a relative escaped Nazi occupation or served in the Resistance, so I’ll share these thoughts with all of you. I’ve already mentioned useful archives in other posts, so these will be about the method of research.

The most important thing to keep in mind about any document from the war is context. You need to know who wrote the document, when and why. And you need to understand not just the context of the time but of the particular document. It is not enough to find a page of a document on the internet or to rely on a single report.

No one writes things down, especially during a paper shortage, without a reason. The reason might be to convey family news to a relative in another town or country. It might be to file a missing persons report in the hope of finding someone who was arrested. It might be to accuse someone of collaboration or to make a case for the defense of the accused collabo.

All of these documents called for some sort of response and most of them Read the rest of this entry »

5th Jul

The Weather and Civilians

If you wanted to know what the weather would be like during the war, you had to go stand outside and make your best guess. Even if weather forecasting had not been such a new art, the ordinary person would not have had access to any such reports. The ordinary person could not even read what the weather had been like in other places the day before because that information was classified. The British and their allies, who lived on the leading edge of the westward moving weather, weren’t about to share that information with the Luftwaffe to make their bombing raids any easier or safer. In order to keep the militarily useful information about the weather from the German army and air force, it was kept from everyone.

Yet the weather played a huge role in everyone’s lives during the war. In the first place, if bad weather kept the air forces on the ground, civilians could sleep in their beds the whole night through without fear of a bombing raid. Good weather might well bring bombers, but it would also make sleeping in the fields more bearable.

As shortages of food, fuel and clothing increased over the course of the war, ordinary people became more and more vulnerable to the weather. In many cities women and children Read the rest of this entry »

21st Jun

As I write this the world outside my window is covered in icy slush, and sleet is beating down. Large drops of mostly frozen rain pelted my face as the dog and I picked our way around patches of ice and through the icy clumps of snow left on the ground. The weather seems a lot like what Engelandvaarders and aviators described for some of their treks over the Pyrenees into Spain in January and February 1944, except the wind isn’t as strong or as cold. I was also much better dressed for the weather than they were and walking on a flat sidewalk rather than a sheep path in the mountains.

So it occurs to me that there is another vital factor about moving through a wartime city or boundary land that a map cannot convey: the weather. It made a world of difference for Engelandvaarders and aviators whether they were climbing the Pyrenees in dry and mild weather or in the middle of a blizzard.

On the other hand, a little bad weather was a help Read the rest of this entry »

7th Jun

What’s the Point of Footnotes?

What is the point of footnotes (or endnotes, as you call the ones at the end of the book)? It’s quite simple: they distinguish fiction from non-fiction.

Footnotes essentially establish a history book’s credentials. Footnotes tell the reader where the author found his or her information. They keep the historian honest because they make it possible for other historians to check his or her work.

And don’t think that that never happens. When I first started graduate school, a scandal rocked my department because a man who had recently gotten his PhD there published a sensational book about Nazis. One of his (and my) professors, who had spent decades researching the Nazis, did not agree with the book. So he traveled from California to the archives in Germany and found the document on which the student had based his entire thesis. It turned out that the student had missed the “not” in the sentence, which negated the thesis of his book. My professor always said that the point of the scandal was “never translate in the archives” but it also gave all of us a very healthy respect for footnotes.

But footnotes are also the friend of the researcher and writer. The footnotes in other people’s books Read the rest of this entry »

24th May

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 »

10th May

Suspicion was a Survival Skill

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.

26th Apr

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 »

12th Apr

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 »

29th Mar

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 »

10th Mar

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!


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