Megan Koreman ’86 | June 5, 2020
It’s rare for a historian to see her work make any sort of impact outside the classroom, let alone evoke tears of gratitude. So I was surprised when my research into a Second World War resistance network set off deep emotional reverberations.
Between 1942 and 1944, the Dutch-Paris escape line, what Americans would call an underground railroad, rescued approximately 3,000 people from the Nazis. The 330 men and women in Dutch-Paris had very little in common other than a refusal to accept the hate-filled demands of the Nazi occupation. They lived across Western Europe, spoke several languages, belonged to a variety of faiths and represented the range of social strata. Yet together they hid Jews in occupied Belgium and France, smuggled Jews, resisters and downed Allied aviators to safety in neutral Switzerland or Spain, and operated as a clandestine courier service for people of goodwill.
Even without arrests or reprisals, the double life of resistance took an insidious toll. Most Dutch-Paris resisters stayed in their homes and jobs in order to do the illegal work of rescue. A banker, for instance, could not move money around for the network if he did not go to his bank. A civil servant could not forge identity papers without using the forms and rubber stamps kept in the town hall. To be of help, these otherwise ordinary people had to lie routinely to the authorities and their neighbors, use false identities, buy food on the black market, exchange currency outside legal channels, ignore the curfew and commit other crimes. Although the goal of rescuing the persecuted justified these lives of falsehood and dissimulation, it corroded the resisters’ sense of themselves as honest citizens. So many months of maintaining a respectable façade, when every act of kindness toward a fugitive counted as a crime and threatened danger, could not help but leave psychological scars.We may now recognize resisters as the great moral heroes of the 20th century, but during the war they were hunted as criminals by an array of Nazi and German authorities, paramilitary collaborators and national and local police. The men and women of Dutch-Paris rescued anyone who needed help, but in doing so they put themselves and their families at risk. The posted punishment for assisting an Allied aviator was the execution of all the men in the resister’s extended family and the deportation of all the women to concentration camps.
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