At the Nationaal Archief today I asked for a file regarding the repayment of loans made to Dutch-Paris during the war. The file belonged to the records of the Dutch Embassy in Belgium and I had to read it in the section of the archives with extra surveillance. A guard sits at the top of the steps leading to the area watching to make sure that no one makes any copies. And he is watching. I’ve seen the guards there take a pencil away because it had an eraser on it.

What, you might ask, is so secret about that file? There turned out to be something more in there than the correspondence about repaying those loans.

The biggest of the loans was for 2,000,000 Belgian francs made by a Dutch builder living in Antwerp on the collateral of a microfilmed guarantee signed by the Dutch Ambassador to Switzerland on behalf of the Dutch government-in-exile. The sheaf of notarized documents about that loan made the repayment of it clear cut. The Dutch Ambassador to Belgium gave the builder, we’ll call him van H, a check for 2,000,000 Belgian francs in February 1946.

In March 1946 the Dutch consul in Antwerp received a letter from our man in the construction business. It seems that on his own and without any receipts or lists of names, he handed out a further three and a half million francs to Dutchmen in distress during the war. And he helped Allied pilots. And he started in 1941. But he never asked for the money back. He just wanted the consul to know. And he sent a second letter in February 1947 to ask the consul for a reply to the first.

The consul hadn’t been in Antwerp during the war so he forwarded the letters to the Embassy in Brussels. There they sat until September 1947 when a letter came from the civil servant in charge of organizing the decorations that Queen Wilhelmina would bestow on Dutch citizens during her upcoming visit to Belgium. The civil servant had heard from the liberation-era Military Government (!) about the selfless patriotism of van H and thought it’d be wonderful to recognize his generosity with a medal.

The Ambassador sprang into action. He asked the banker and the pastor who headed the Committee for the Support of Dutch War Victims in Belgium what they thought of van H’s claims. They should know. They were the ones who borrowed the two million from him during the war. They replied that they’d never heard of van H doing any such thing and that the bona fide loan was very much a business deal for van H. Reporting this to the Minister, the Ambassador mentioned than van H’s brother had had a high position in the Military Government.

In February 1948 the Ambassador got yet another letter about van H’s patriotism. This one came from the Minister of Foreign Affairs who’d been asked by his colleague at Education why van H was being treated so shabbily. The Minister of Education had been informed of the injustice by a writer, who was later revealed to be van H’s son-in-law.

The embassy wrote to John Henry Weidner, acknowledged chief of the Dutch Resistance in Belgium and France and widely considered to be the only one who knew much about it. Weidner replied from Paris that he had no records of van H doing anything for the Resistance other than loaning the two million; that van H had made a tidy profit from the loan because it protected his money from a currency reform, and that by his own numbers van H had helped 700 people but, unbelievably, not one had thanked him for it after the war. That was in March 1948.

In January 1949 the Minister of Foreign Affairs wrote again to say that now the organization that compensated Resisters was asking why van H had been treated so badly.

And in July 1951 a chief inspector from the Ministry of Finances made an appointment with the Ambassador in Belgium to discuss the van H case. Apparently by this time van H had submitted a receipt for 500,000 Belgian francs that he wanted the ministry to repay.

The consul in Antwerp hired a private investigator who, for 65 Belgian francs, discovered that there wasn’t much to be said about van H. He had a “beautiful automobile” and had about 50 employees and a good reputation in his business. Similar inquiries of the mayor of Antwerp revealed that van H was born in 1896, was married with children and had never been in trouble with the local police.

But there’s more. The embassy took the receipt for 500,000 Belgian francs to the local police. They suspected forgery on the grounds that an extra 0 had been added to what was probably 5,000 francs and the year ’44 was written in a thicker hand than the 2-2. The embassy had also sent someone to talk to the man who signed it, who claimed he never heard of van H or signed any receipt for that amount.

The file ends with a letter dated 1951 from the chief inspector of the Ministry of Finances saying that he’s submitted the receipt to the Dutch version of the FBI.

What’s so interesting about this little tale is that it could go on for so long. This man claimed to have given away three and a half million francs without a single receipt or name. Apparently the story wasn’t so far-fetched at the time for the government to spend five years, a good number of stamps and a trip by a chief inspector to investigate it. Even when known and widely acknowledged Resistants who were wholly trusted by an Ambassador said that the story was unbelievable, civil servants whose business it was not to hand out three and a half million francs thought it might be true. It took a badly forged receipt to put an end to it (and you have to wonder why van H didn’t get a better forger so soon after the war).

That’s the nature of the Resistance. People did give away large sums of money to strangers. Weidner did, and he didn’t ask for receipts. Of necessity, such good deeds had to be done in secret. Even the banker and the pastor weren’t willing to say, for certain, that van H didn’t do what he claimed. The most they would say is that they never heard of it and that there were many reasons that it seemed most unlikely. It was hard to prove you were in the Resistance. It was hard to prove you weren’t.

The lack of proof for bona fide Resistants meant that there was an opportunity after the war to remake oneself in a more heroic image with some lucrative side benefits. Van H failed in his bid to do so, but others surely succeeded.