23rd Dec

The Farmer’s Compromise

In the last post I described a young Alsatian man who was both a resister and a collaborator. He was far from the only young man from the occupied countries who made a choice that the world considers to be evil out of concern for his family rather than ideological commitment or personal depravity.

Here’s another example. Consider a young Dutchman whom we’ll call Ton. He was one of the oldest of 10 children, the son of a nurseryman. Inevitably, he received an official notice to report for labor duty in the Third Reich. This was unwelcome news. Ton would likely be assigned to work in a factory, where conditions were harsh. German factories were also the regular target of the fleets of bombers that flew over the family’s home on their way from their bases in England to their targets in Germany.

Ton’s father offered to arrange a hiding place for him with an acquaintance in the city of The Hague. His family, however, would have to provide food for him, which meant making the long trip into the city at least once a week. Ton did not think that the family could manage this extra burden along with running the nursery without his help. So he Read the rest of this entry »

6th Dec

If your father or grandfather crossed the Pyrenees illegally during the war, could you recreate his route? You could probably figure out the general path from the documents, but unless he himself made the effort to figure out where he’d been in the dark and wrote it down, you are unlikely to be able to determine exactly where he walked.

The documents will provide the broadest outlines of a route. Many men reported the names of the last French train station they went through and the first Spanish village they arrived at. The documents will also reveal which passeur took the man over the mountains. Dutch-Paris hired three regular passeurs plus a few others when the first three were busy. The passeurs relied on networks of local men and women to assist their convoys during the two to three day trek, so they tended to stay within the neighborhood of their networks. They even repeated a trail if the previous convoy had traveled along it safely. So you have a good chance of figuring out the broad outlines of the route.

Very few documents, however, give much detail. Most American, Australian, Canadian or New Zealand airmen really did not know where they were. Navigators who had a professional habit of paying attention to their routes and men who made their living outdoors, such as farmers, tended to give the most detailed reports. They may even have given estimated heights for some hills or distances across water meadows. Engelandvaarders were more likely to have noticed or asked for the names of the villages and hamlets they passed through because, as Europeans, they could read the landscape better than the others. But as they stumbled up and down steep inclines through the cold and the pitch black, many Engelandvaarders really didn’t care where they were as long as they got to Spain without the Germans capturing them.

What if one of the men in the convoy Read the rest of this entry »

25th Nov

The Brussels Safe House

As in Toulouse and Paris, Dutch-Paris used many hiding places in Brussels. These included the private homes of Dutch expatriates and a hotel not far from the main train station. The best remembered safe house, though, was a boarding house away from the city center on the rue Franklin.

In the fall of 1943 the resisters in Brussels decided to separate their “social work” from their “transport work.” Social work meant supporting fugitives in hiding, most of whom were Jews. Transport work meant passing Engelandvaarders and Allied airmen along the line.

Accordingly, the line rented the entire boarding house on the rue Franklin as a headquarters for the transport work. They set up an atelier there where one of the younger resisters forged the many documents that a young man of military age needed to travel in Occupied Europe. The resisters involved in the transport work, mostly university students, slept at the boarding house, as did some Engelandvaarders and most of the Allied airmen they helped. The Belgian landlady Read the rest of this entry »

11th Nov

Hiding in a Dungeon in Paris

In Paris, as in Toulouse, Dutch-Paris hid its fugitives at many addresses although one address has eclipsed the others in the memory of the line. In Paris the best remembered safe house was used for only a few weeks in early 1944 and mostly by downed Allied airmen.

If they reached England again, aviators remembered that Parisian hiding place as a “dungeon with rats,” a school or a hospital. It was, in fact, an electrical room in the basement of one of the buildings of the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) near the Sorbonne. Although students and faculty at the ENS belonged to the Resistance, the institution itself had no connections to Dutch-Paris. That particularly building played a role in Dutch-Paris because of its concierge and its neighbor.

The building sits next door to Read the rest of this entry »

28th Oct

The Panier Fleuri was a small inn on the outskirts of Toulouse that has enjoyed a modicum of postwar fame as the place where Dutch-Paris hid evaders before they left for the Pyrenees. Over the years, it’s been confused with other places, perhaps because it had name for people to remember (see previous post).

This is the brief history of the Panier Fleuri and Dutch-Paris.

Dutch-Paris actually inherited the Panier Fleuri as a safe house when Weidner and his colleagues set up a base in Toulouse in November 1943. Before that, Weidner had been arranging for Engelandvaarders to travel between Geneva and Toulouse, where they passed into the care of the acting Dutch consul. The official Dutch consul had already disappeared into the concentration camps by that time. His replacement was a refugee with good intentions. This refugee-consul seems to have established the Panier Fleuri as a safe house, probably in August 1943. We don’t know how he recruited the owners because his secretary burned all his papers when he went into hiding and he himself died of a heart attack at the end of the war.

When Weidner’s colleagues arrived in November 1943, they found the Panier Fleuri dangerously overcrowded Read the rest of this entry »

14th Oct

No matter how obsessive an historian is about her research, no matter how many archives she visits or how many thousands of documents she reads, some details will be lost or confused. That’s an obvious thing to say about something that happened in, say, the 1700’s, but it is also true for events that happened in living memory.

Take, for example, the question of where Dutch-Paris hid Engelandvaarders in Toulouse while they waited to leave for their treks over the Pyrenees into Spain. A number of people who know something about escape lines and contemporary books that mention Dutch-Paris say that Dutch-Paris hid its protégés in a brothel on the outskirts of Toulouse that was called the Panier Fleuri.

That seemed reasonable enough when I started out on my research, but it confused me because that wasn’t exactly what the documents were saying. It’s very clear that Dutch-Paris did hide some Engelandvaarders in the Panier Fleuri, but only before 31 December 1943. Dutch-Paris never used that hiding place after 7 January 1944 because they knew it was no longer safe. Also, there’s nothing in the documents to suggest that the Panier Fleuri was a brothel. It might have been, but I doubt it. Dutch-Paris women as well as men worked at the Panier Fleuri. John Weidner was not the sort to ask, let alone require, a respectable woman to enter a brothel.

So where did Dutch-Paris hide Engelandvaarders in Toulouse in 1944? The documents mention a handful of hotels by name, but mostly refer to a rickety sounding room or apartment on the top floor of a building where some of the men thought one of the passeurs lived. No address appears in the documents because the men who wrote them did not know the address or because they kept it quiet to keep the safe house safe.

I now think that that the upstairs or attic room was the brothel because Read the rest of this entry »

30th Sep

An historian can find unexpected treasures in an archive. Usually that means a paper trail leading to an unknown event or unsuspected person. But sometimes the unexpected thing involves the actual physical document.

For example, when I was looking for German reports on the arrests of Dutch-Paris agents in the French Archives nationales in Paris, I found a report from the German Security Services (Sicherheitspolizei und SD) in France dated February 1943. Strictly speaking, the report was useless to me because neither it nor any of the other documents in the box mentioned Dutch-Paris.

But as an historian, that report intrigued me because it was typed on the back of cut up maps. And not just any maps, but extremely detailed maps showing every elevation line and every outbuilding, all carefully labeled in German. Not maps of France or Belgium or any occupied territory, but of England. Presumably they had been meant for the German invasion of Great Britain Read the rest of this entry »

16th Sep

In the last post I described how a teacher at the Seventh-day Adventist seminary in Collonges-sous-Salève used to ride his bicycle across the Franco-Swiss border to attend graduate class in Geneva. He often carried messages and documents across the border with him, usually without any trouble at all.

There was one day, though, that he almost found himself in a lot of trouble. As he was waiting in line at the border to show his special pass and cross, one of the usual customs guards came over to talk to him. The guard asked him in a low voice if he had anything with him. Our man showed the guard a packet of envelopes. The friendly guard shook his head, whispered “pauvre monsieur” (poor man) and Read the rest of this entry »

2nd Sep

Here’s a reason to stay in school, even pursue a graduate degree, that you may not have thought about before.

One of the links in the Dutch-Paris chain over the Franco-Swiss border was a group of resisters at the Seventh-day Adventist seminary above the village of Collonges-sous-Salève. Collonges sits right on the French side of the border. The seminary sits above it on the mountainside. I’m told you can see Geneva from the seminary on a clear day, but I was there on a foggy day so I can’t vouch for that. Geographically speaking, Collonges and the other villages on the French side of the border belong with Geneva in Switzerland rather than the nearest French city. Geneva is much closer than Annecy or Lyon.  Besides there aren’t any mountains between the border and the Geneva although there are plenty between the border and the rest of France.

So when the teachers at the seminary wanted to get their graduate degree, or the children needed a serious high school, it made sense for them to go to Geneva. In fact, they could ride their bicycles, although the ascent up the mountain to the seminary at the end of the return trip would not be for the weak or unfit. It was also possible Read the rest of this entry »

5th Aug

The rue Yankee

During the war the grocer in a small town outside Paris organized most of the other notables of the village into an escape line for Allied aviators. They gathered up survivors of USAAF or RAF crashes from across northern France and sent them on to Spain through another escape line. German counter-espionage agents rolled up that other line in late 1943, which caused a certain back up of aviators in the town.

At Christmas 1943, the villagers were hiding 29 Allied aviators, mostly in homes up and down two streets. In fact, there were so many Americans in those two streets that the locals called them the “rue Yankee” and the “rue Américain.” Obviously the resisters were eager to get rid of these guests because the consequences for helping Allied airmen were dire indeed. They tried another line, but it turned out to be a German trap that caught half the men. The French resisters sent the other half to Spain via Dutch-Paris.

You might ask yourself, especially if you’re an historian who has researched this period, how I know that the locals called those two streets “rue Yankee” and “rue Américan.” It’s not the sort of detail that usually shows up in the sort of bureaucratic records that make up official archives. It’s possible that one of the aviators mentioned it in his escape and evasion report, if he spoke enough French to catch on and was especially chatty, but no one did. It is the kind of thing that might show up in a memoir or oral history interview if someone had researched that resistance group in that town. As far as I know, no one has.

So how do I know? I know because an elderly friend of mine told me. He lives in Tasmania; I live in the United States. So we’ve never met, but we do correspond by email because this gentleman was one of the Dutch Engelandvaarders who traveled from Paris to Spain with the help of Dutch-Paris. He’s written a fascinating memoir about his trek, although this detail is not in it. He happened to remember it these many, many years later when something jogged his memory.

And how does this Dutchman who was never in that small French town know what the French villagers called those streets under their breaths during the war? He knows because he spent a grueling three nights walking across the Pyrenees and then a few, more restful days in Spain with some of the 29 Americans who had hidden in that French town for a couple of months. One of the American aviators told him about it. Fortunately our Dutchman spoke English, because the American didn’t speak Dutch.

That’s what you call research serendipity. It is also a long delayed example of how Dutch-Paris gathered its own intelligence. Someone told someone else something interesting, like that the German police did not inspect the documents of passengers on the Paris-Toulouse train on Thursday nights. The second someone told a third someone. And somewhere along the line, the resisters in Dutch-Paris found out what they needed to know to get 16 Allied airmen out of a little town to the northeast of Paris and all the way to Spain.


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