Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
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 of an email conversation between myself, the son of an Engelandvaarder and an Engelandvaarder who went through Toulouse himself. The son of an Engelandvaarder told me that his father told him that he and several other Dutchmen had slept head to toe in a small attic space above brothel where all sorts of things were going on. The Engelandvaarder replied that it was probably the same cramped room where he stayed with other Dutchmen and Allied aviators while all sorts of things went on below.
The son of the Engelandvaarder assumed that the uncomfortable room in Toulouse was in the Panier Fleuri because that’s the name he had seen in the 1967 documentary about Dutch-Paris and other places. It could not have been the Panier Fleuri, however, because his father was in Toulouse after 7 January 1944.
What’s happened as the story has been passed down is that the inn on the edge of town called the Panier Fleuri and the brothel in the center of town have been conflated into the place where Dutch-Paris hid Engelandvaarders. It’s a minor detail that makes the story flow more smoothly as well as satisfying the general urge to give things a name and a place. But it obscures the much more dramatic reality that resisters had to move continuously because no place could remain safe for long. It is also incorrect, which is something that historians will spend years in the archives in order to avoid.
(see the next post for more about the Panier Fleuri)