The Escape Line
How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe
Oxford University Press, New York, 2018, 424 pages
Book Review published on: September 7, 2018
One of the burgeoning areas of interest regarding the history of World War II focuses on the role of resistance movements that defied Hitler’s Third Reich. Megan Koreman’s latest offering adds to the nascent body of knowledge on this important topic and helps one understand the context that drives some countries’ narratives even today. Hers is not a story of armed combatants who tenaciously fought the Nazis tooth and nail but is one of ordinary citizens who resisted in their own way and at great risk—without ever resorting to the use of force.
The Escape Line is meticulously researched and written with great care in a straightforward prose. Koreman obviously has a love for her topic and takes great pride in getting the details right. This book tells the story of the “Dutch-Paris escape line” (or the “Dutch-Paris” for short), a multifaceted resistance movement that in its heyday helped hundreds of vulnerable persons persecuted by the Nazis—initially focusing on Dutch Jewish persons—seek sanctuary in Switzerland or simply hide out in France. Later, the Dutch-Paris expanded to help the so-called Engelandvaarders (translated to “England sailors”)—the Dutch on their way to England in order to join their armed forces in exile, as well as downed Allied aviators and prisoners of war seeking to escape continental Europe.
The Dutch-Paris was unique in that it was an unarmed resistance movement involving hundreds of ordinary civilians, many operating “in plain sight” due to their access to the apparatus required to obtain illegal documents, forge passports, etc.—all necessary to help escapees or those in hiding. Unlike many of the better-known armed resistance movements, members of the Dutch-Paris were untrained in tradecraft or espionage, making them particularly vulnerable to infiltration by the Gestapo and other government security forces, including host-nation police, particularly those in collaborationist France. But they had one thing in common: “The only characteristic that every man and woman in Dutch-Paris shared was a willingness to help other men and women escape the Nazis and their collaborators despite the risks to themselves.”
Koreman spends most of the book describing in meticulous detail the origins and growth of the Dutch-Paris, centered on its “founder” and eventual coleader, Paul Weidner, a Dutch businessman who initially sought to assist fellow citizens, primarily Jewish people, fleeing the Netherlands enroute to sanctuary in Switzerland. From these humble beginnings, the Dutch-Paris grew in articulation and assumed its multiple roles mentioned above. As such, the resistance line eventually encompassed infrastructure in Brussels, Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and the Pyrenees—key locations along the escape route to safe havens in Switzerland or Spain.
Koreman’s narrative peaks as a Dutch-Paris operative in Paris, courier Suzy Kraay, is arrested by French police after being caught with some illegal food parcels destined for Allied aviators hiding in France. After confiscating a notebook full of contacts she had in her possession, the collaborationist French police, and eventually the Gestapo, sought to systematically dismantle the line through vigorous investigation, torture, and deportation of its operatives. Despite severe setbacks to its operations, the line held. Weidner and his coleaders, demonstrating great resilience, continued most operations until the liberation of France and the Netherlands in the summer and fall of 1944.
One of the challenges facing readers is the sheer number of characters Koreman portrays in The Escape Line, whether members of the Dutch-Paris organization or its beneficiaries. Because of the risks involved in running such an enterprise, many did not use their own names. Thus, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of all of the actors in the narrative. However, she mitigates this difficulty by providing some very helpful appendices, including a listing of members of the Dutch-Paris and their pseudonyms, along with a list of people the Dutch-Paris assisted. While Koreman’s straightforward style and lack of hagiography is admirable and refreshing, she could include further reflection on the significance of the Dutch-Paris and its overall contributions to the war effort. Additionally, the book could benefit with a longer conclusion. Nonetheless, these minor shortcomings detract neither from the value nor from the readability of the book.
While The Escape Line is easily understandable to most readers due to its clarity and straightforward prose, it is perhaps of greatest interest to students and academicians specializing in World War II resistance movements or the Holocaust in general. Koreman’s meticulous detail and in-depth research sheds great light on this important topic, and pays appropriate tribute to those who risked their lives as part of the Dutch-Paris line of resistance. It makes a very important contribution to one’s understanding of those who defied the Third Reich without resorting to violence and is well worth the time invested.
Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia