Deacon on Koreman, 'The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe'

Author: 
Megan Koreman
Reviewer: 
Valerie Deacon

Megan Koreman. The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 416 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-066227-1.

Reviewed by Valerie Deacon (NYU-Shanghai) Published on H-War (April, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53240

Megan Koreman is well known amongst French historians for her previous book, an excellent history of the post-Liberation period in three French towns. In The Escape Line, she turns her attention to the story of the Dutchman Jean Weidner and his French wife, Elisabeth Cartier. Their entry into resistance in France was prompted by a letter in 1942 from a Jewish friend who was looking to escape the Vichy government’s increasingly dangerous anti-Semitic laws. After helping this friend cross the border into Switzerland, the couple started to receive additional requests from friends and strangers alike and Weidner committed to expanding his yet-unnamed escape line. Although the earliest help was given to Jews, the line would ultimately assist anybody who needed it. Using archival sources from some seven countries, Koreman details the creation of the line, its expansion, the various crises it experienced, the role it played in helping people flee the oppression of occupying forces, and the consequences for having done so.

From 1943 to 1944, the line was run by Weidner, Edmond Chait, and Jacques Rens. The three men had a great deal in common: all were in their early 30s, all three were multilingual, all were businessmen, and all were religious, though each man came from a different devotional background. Together, along with some three hundred colleagues, these men operated a network that spanned the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Spain. Operating as both a welfare agency and a courier service, the line that would eventually be called “Dutch-Paris” supported 1,500 refugees in hiding and took another 1,500 to safety in Spain and Switzerland (p. 26). The people they helped included British and American airmen, which put the line in a great deal of danger because it was a capital crime to help downed Allied aircrew and Koreman notes that for every two airmen who were returned to their bases after finding themselves in the Netherlands, one Dutch helper was killed (p. 139). This bravery, Koreman emphasizes, was particularly special because the people involved with Dutch-Paris were regular citizens, ordinary people from diverse backgrounds.

The book is compelling, engagingly written, and solidly researched. It seems clear that two primary objectives of the book were to honor the courage of the people who resisted the German occupation and to write their stories accessibly, for broad audiences. Koreman achieves both of these goals, but in doing so, glosses over a couple of important historiographical and archival issues.

In setting the stage for a full discussion of Weidner’s work, Koreman first tells her readers why his Jewish friends were desperate to leave France. She writes: "as the preserve of right-wing conservatives, the Vichy regime sympathized with Nazi goals.... More tellingly in the context of the times, the Vichy regime repudiated the French Republic's welcoming attitude to immigrants, to the point of revoking the naturalized status of people who had earned their French citizenship more than ten years earlier" (p. 8). Statements like this do not quite do justice to the complexity of the situation in France before and during the war. An administrative commission under the Vichy regime did indeed examine some 650,000 files with a view to revoking previous naturalizations, especially those granted during the Popular Front years. As Claire Zalc shows, many of these denaturalizations were arbitrary, based not on the explicit application of any particular law, but rather on the inclinations of the person who was reviewing the file.[1] The arbitrary nature of these denaturalizations should come as no surprise, given that we know the bureaucracy of the Vichy government was staffed by people who held a wide range of opinions on all subjects, including immigration.[2] Moreover, it is problematic to say that the French Republic had been unequivocally welcoming to immigrants before 1940. Republican policies of exclusion and surveillance meant that, while Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation was new, the spirit behind it was not. While a full discussion of these nuances was probably not warranted in Koreman’s book, it is possible to note the continuities between the Third Republic and Vichy, as well as the evolving nature of the wartime regime, without detracting too much from the narrative.

Koreman’s account of the astounding accomplishments of Dutch-Paris also reminds us that the success or failure of rescue can be relative to the perspective of the person doing the telling. Historians of the resistance have long grappled with the pros and cons of relying on archives kept and curated by resisters themselves. Koreman herself even identifies archival gaps—the lack of German sources about the repression of resistance—so she has considered some issues of representation. Her research highlights the excellent reputation of Dutch-Paris and its use by other resistance networks to get their own families out of France. One example offered in the book is Marie-Madeleine Fourcade (Meric at the time), the head of a very large resistance network, who needed to get her two children out of France once her security was compromised. She turned to Dutch-Paris at the suggestion of Gilbert Beaujolin, the treasurer of her network, Alliance. The Dutch-Paris archives tell us these two children were successfully smuggled out of France by members of the line. In her own memoirs, Fourcade writes that the line got stalled up, thanks to a backlog of evaders and the increasing surveillance of the Germans. She goes on to say that her children eventually crossed the border alone, that the peasants to whom they had been confided simply pointed out the border, many kilometers in the distance, and the 12- and 10-year-old children smuggled themselves across.[3] The difference in these accounts is not one that Koreman necessarily should have known about—it would be virtually impossible to verify each rescue. It is, however, a good reminder of some of the dangers inherent in this kind of research.

Notes

[1]. Claire Zalc, Dénaturalisés. Les retraits de nationalité sous Vichy (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2016).

[2]. Eric Jennings also describes contradictory attitudes of various Vichy bureaucrats when confronted with the question of facilitating emigration out of France or keeping immigrants interred in local camps. Eric Jennings, Escape from Vichy: The Refugee Exodus to the French Caribbean (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[3]. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, L’arche de noé (Paris: Fayard, 1968), 413.

Citation: Valerie Deacon. Review of Koreman, Megan, The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53240

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