Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
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 how formally everyone is dressed, at least by today’s standards. No European woman in 2016 would wear a skirt to crawl under barbed wire and run through a no-man’s-land to cross a border illegally. But in 1944 a woman wearing pants would have been dangerously noticeable on a bus near the Franco-Swiss border.
Similarly, in the few photographs of Engelandvaarders and aviators making their escape to Spain through the Pyrenees, the men are wearing what we would consider wholly inadequate clothing. To be honest, most of them also found their clothing inadequate to a mountain blizzard, especially the Americans. There is no gortex (not invented yet), no super light, ultra warm boots (boots of any sort were a coveted luxury), not even parkas. Instead the men are wearing city shoes so as not to be inconspicuous on the trains they took to the foothills. The luckiest among them have on the wool berets and overcoats of working men. But many have on suit coats and mufflers. Many are wearing ties! It’s hard to imagine any man in 2016 putting on a tie to evade enemy patrols while trekking through the mountains in the dark (outside of the movies, of course).
Indeed, Dutch-Paris’s couriers crossed borders, climbed along the outside of bridges or over barbed wire fences, and traveled long hours in crowded trains in suit and tie or modest dress. That’s what respectable men and women of the middle classes wore at the time. It’s what those men and women already had in their closets, including the university students among them. But it was not what the police expected criminals to be wearing. So the formal dress is both a reflection of the society of the time and a disguise that allowed the resisters of Dutch-Paris to travel across occupied Europe on their illegal missions.