Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Like all organizations, resistance networks were faced with occasional turnovers in their management positions, although not always for the usual reasons.
Take the Committee affiliated with Dutch-Paris in Brussels. It began in the spring of 1942 as the work of three men: a Dutch (Protestant) pastor we’ll call the Dominee, a Dutch (Jewish) businessman we’ll call Mr Albert, and another Dutch (Jewish) businessman we’ll call Mr. Smits. They were busy helping Dutch fugitives of all denominations hide or move on to Switzerland when Mr Albert was arrested and deported in July 1943. Recognizing that the burden of sheltering and supporting so many people was too great for two men, even with assistants, the Dominee and Mr Smits invited two more Dutch (one Catholic, one Protestant) businessmen living in Belgium to join the committee in September 1943. They put a younger man whom we’ll call van Cagenhem in charge of daily operations.
When van Cagenhem was arrested in November 1943 for being in the wrong place at the wrong time rather than for his actual offences against Occupation law, one of the new members of the Committee resigned. Soon after, the Gestapo made things too hot for Mr Smits in Belgium and he had to get out of town. The remaining two members of the Committee invited a Dutch (Catholic) banker to join them.
In January 1944 the Dominee, the businessman and the banker engaged a Dutch accountant to impose some order and security measures on the young men who were running the daily activities of sheltering fugitives, manufacturing and distributing false documents, getting Allied aviators and Engelandvaarders to Spain and exchanging Dutch money for Belgian cash. He split their efforts into two separate domains: social work for those in hiding and the “Grapeline” for fugitives and microfilms heading to Spain. He did it just in time too. Less than two weeks afterwards, everyone associated with the “Grapeline” was sitting in a Gestapo prison, but the social work continued on until the liberation in September 1944.
The Germans appear to have had their suspicions about the Committee because all of them had their telephones tapped in the spring of 1944. They arrested the Dominee in May 1944 and kept him in a relatively benign prison in Brussels until August but made no move against the other two. The businessman who had resigned in late 1943 out of anxiety was persuaded to return, but was commonly considered to have done nothing of any use. Mr Albert survived the concentration camps; Mr Smits did not.
The organization experienced even greater turnover at the more active levels of couriers, home visitors, and forgers for much the same reasons. But despite the very real dangers, the difficulties and anxieties, and the changes in personnel, the men and women associated with the Committee remained constant to their wholly voluntary purpose: to shelter the lives of other people persecuted by the Germans, even at the possible cost of their own.