Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Although we tend to think of Resistance as intense flashes of danger like we see in the movies, it’s important to remember that the Occupation ground on for years. In between the exciting parts, the heroes and heroines still needed to get their shoes fixed and take care of their families. They all had great courage when it came to opposing the Germans, but they didn’t necessarily live blameless lives in all other regards.
Take the story of a man we’ll call Louis, who was a passeur, or mountain guide, in the Pyrenees. Louis took dozens of Dutch, Belgian, French and Allied fugitives over the mountains into Spain for several different Resistance networks. He charged Dutch-Paris 3,000 francs per man, which was around the going rate.
In mid-December 1943, the French police arrested Louis at a restaurant in Toulouse. Rumor had it that the restaurateur betrayed him because Louis was having an affair with his wife. The police couldn’t find anything to charge him with other than possession of a false identity card in the name of Paul Blanchard. A police officer who worked for the Resistance “legalized” the false card, and Louis walked out of prison as Paul Blanchard.
A month later in late January 1944, the Gestapo arrested Louis in the same restaurant. Public opinion blamed the restaurateur for denouncing him. It couldn’t be proved, but everyone thought it was highly suspicious that the restaurant owners disappeared at the liberation, presumably for fear of being tried (or lynched) for denunciation.
Louis, however, escaped from the train deporting him to Germany, made his way back to the Pyrenees and, with the help of his 20 year-old nephew, recommenced passing fugitives over the Spanish border. The Germans, however, traced him to a mountain village and demolished, stone by stone, the house that he and his nephew had just left. They didn’t capture Louis, but they did kill his 22 year-old niece. His nephew decided that things were a little too dangerous in France, took himself, two Dutchmen, a Belgian and a British aviator to Spain, and joined de Gaulle’s Free French in North Africa. Apparently he felt he’d be safer in the army in wartime than with his uncle.
Incorrigibly, Louis continued guiding fugitives until July 1944, when French Milice (paramilitary collaborators) kidnapped him by pretending to be maquisards (partisans). His body was found soon after with a bullet in the head.
Meanwhile, Louis’ wife was arrested by the Germans in early January 1944 for harboring fugitives. At the time, it was assumed that she was arrested as a hostage for her husband. But by 1947 it was thought that she was arrested for her own resistance activities because the Germans knew the passeur as Paul Blanchard rather than by the name he shared with his wife.
She returned from Ravensbruck in 1945 to take up her job as a hair dresser and care for their 6 year old daughter. It must have been somewhat bitter news to her that while she was in the hands of the Gestapo, her husband was caught, not because he was leading resisters through the forbidden zone or taking their child to safety, but because he was philandering. It’s hard to say how she or his niece’s parents would have felt about his posthumous Medal of Freedom.