Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
The Dutch-Paris Escape Line ran from the Netherlands through Belgium and France and into both Switzerland and Spain. It rescued approximately one thousand people, about 800 of whom were civilians, the majority of whom were Jewish families. It also acted as a messenger service for the Dutch government-in-exile in London by, for instance, smuggling microfilms hidden in fountain pens along the same route. Its acknowledged leader, at least in France and Belgium, was John Henry Weidner, a Dutch citizen who preferred to speak French and, in 1940, owned a textile store in Lyon, France. The Gestapo arrested over a hundred Dutch-Paris agents in February 1944 but the line kept functioning until the liberation of Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands in September 1944.
The rest of the details of how the line operated are, I’ve been assured, “notoriously confused”. The John Henry Weidner Foundation for the Cultivation of the Altruistic Spirit has commissioned me to clear up that confusion by writing a history of Dutch-Paris.
It’s a fascinating project, but not a straight-forward one. If I were, say, researching Winston Churchill’s opinion of Charles de Gaulle (admittedly not much of a challenge) I would read his publications and then present myself at the public archives to consult the nicely cataloged documents. Or if I were doing a local study of a French town during the war I would persuade the departmental archivist to let me see the catalog; beg permission from various French authorities to see the documents, and then read them.
But resisters didn’t generate documents that can be collected in an archive. In fact, they had a positive horror of writing things down. And for good reason. Imagine what the Gestapo could do with a membership list of Dutch-Paris.
We will have to track our heroes more obliquely. They may have left impressions in other people’s records during the war. The Germans, for instance, kept exhaustive records and would surely have written down what they found out about the line. But, most inconveniently, they destroyed their records before retreating from western Europe. I do have some hopes of finding information about the deportation of line members in the recently opened International Tracing Service Archives. And of course line members may have written things down themselves after the war. It’s just a question of finding it all.
I have a list of sixteen archives in the USA, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the UK that may have relevant information. The richest sources will probably be the Weidner Center Archives at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts, which holds Weidner’s personal papers and the Nationaal Archief (National Archive) of the Netherlands. But the exciting thing about historical research is that you never know what will or will not be in an archive until you sit down and actually start reading the documents.
And one of the most thrilling things about working on the Second World War is that it is still in living memory. Some of these heroes and some of the people they rescued are still alive. They alone know the details that will make the whole puzzle click together.
If you yourself or someone you know were involved with the Dutch-Paris Escape Line in any way whatsoever, PLEASE contact me via the comments box below. I will respect your privacy in whatever way you wish. All comments are read by me before being posted for public viewing. Thank you!