Dutch-Paris was one of the most important and most successful underground networks for people persecuted for faith or race, Allied pilots and persons of great Dutch importance to help them escape via Switzerland and Spain during the Second World War.
In its heyday, 300 people were part of the underground network, of which about 150 people were arrested. 40 people were slain or died from the effects of captivity. The escape route has greatly contributed to the French resistance, and is responsible for the rescue of more than 1,080 people, including 800 Dutch jews and more than 112 downed Allied pilots.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Jean was living in Paris. With the subsequent German occupation of France, he fled with several others from Paris to Lyon in the unoccupied part of France. Because he had to abandon his Parisian business, he began a new business in Lyon.
In 1941, Jean founded an escape network of which the location of his Lyonnaise textile business at 13 Rue du Griffon soon became its headquarters. After being merged with Laatsman own network in 1943, it would be known as "Dutch-Paris". He was assisted by Jacques Rens, Edmond Chait, Suzanne Hiltermann-Souloumiac, Jef Lejeune, Herman Laatsman, Paul Veerman, Benno Nijkerk, Hans Wisbrun and father Aan de Stegge. Although the leadership was mainly Dutch, the majority of the network was French. Dutch-Paris was in close contact with other networks of the Belgian and French resistance to obtain false papers including place for sheltering, food and other services.
Most refugees were Jewish families but also “Engelandvaarders” and allied pilots. Rich Dutch people often paid the flight their self, but Dutch authorities in exile made contributions as well.
Initially Switzerland was the endpoint of the escape route, as Jean knew hiding places and the route through the mountains to Switzerland well from childhood climbing. In order to get passes to go in and out of the Swiss frontier zone, he set up a second textile shop in Annecy at the end of 1942. Later the endpoint of escape line was extended by Spain, which run via Toulouse through the guides led Pyrenees mountains.
There is an anecdote how the name Dutch-Paris was known: One day, an allied pilot in Paris asked Herman Laatsman what the name was of the organization that helped him. Because the organization had no name at that time, Laatsman just replied: "Dutch in Paris", most likely due to the presence of Dutch helpers in Paris. Back in England, the pilot told everyone that he was helped by "Dutch-Paris", and that name has stuck since.
Jean later said that his upbringing in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its altruistic nature was an important reason for him to dedicate his life to the rescue of people who were persecuted by the Nazis. Additionally his organizational skills, persuasion and perseverance made the escape network a real success.
In February 1944, a young female courier was arrested by the French police officers of the Brigade d'lnterpellation and extradited to the Gestapo. Against all rules, she had a notebook with her containing names and addresses of Dutch-Paris members. She was brutally interrogated by a guard that held her head under cold water until she nearly drowned. Under torture she revealed many names of key members of the underground network.
As a result, a large number of Dutch-Paris members were arrested. Most were detained in the Fresnes prison in Paris, after which they were shipped to various Nazi concentration camps. 40 members did not survive the captivity, or died later from the effects of captivity. Jean and many other top members managed to escape because they were always on the road, and were cautious not to stay for too long in one place. Unfortunately Herman Laatsman did not manage to flee in time, and was arrested and tortured before he was shipped to a concentration camp. After this big blow to the network, they managed to continue the work on a small scale until the end of the war.
The network spread from the Netherlands over Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland, and consisted of a serie of independent operating escape lines that were knotted together. At the summer of 1943, the network was at its full strength.
The escape routes had a relay race character, which had the ability that as well as on the journey out as on the return trip smuggled documents could be taken along in a coordinated manner. Because the escape lines operated independently, they offered a solution to the ever-changing travel conditions and hiding places. Additionally couriers were always familiar with the route, and their journeys were comparatively short.
The journey to Switzerland went from the Netherlands to Brussels, then Paris, Lyon to Annecy, and finally cut through the Alpine Mountains to the Swiss border. Alternatively, the journey to Spain went from Paris to Toulouse, and led through the Pyrenees to Andorra, and from there to the Spanish border. In addition there were a number of alternative passages, like a route that connected Lyon to Toulouse, and another that led from Lyon to Perpignan via Avignon.
For the London-based Dutch government in exile it was very important to know what was going on in the Netherlands. Conversely, people in the Netherlands wondered what plans their government had intended for them. Information gathered by the resistance, that was obtained from espionage activities was micrograph recorded, and then hidden in all kinds of objects (pencils, shoes, etc.), preventing them from discovery when body searched. The lines that were used for escape were similar to the message lines, although the smuggling of documents mainly ran via Switzerland. This made Dutch-Paris part of the so-called Swiss Way - A. In Geneva, the documents were collected by Willem Visser 't Hooft who was working for the World Council of Churches being established, and send to the Intelligence of the Dutch government in London.
From his seat in neutral Switzerland, Willem Visser 't Hooft managed to stay in contact with churches in the occupied territories and additionally played an important role in obtaining funds for Dutch-Paris from the London-based Dutch authorities in exile. Beside the help to refugees, the next most important activity of Dutch-Paris was the repatriation of allied pilots that were downed in the Netherlands and Belgium. Since the escape route to Spain was well guarded and very dangerous because of precipices, slipperiness and snowfall, the fees that were charged by mountain guides and providers of shelters on the way through the Pyrenees were very high. To compensate for these high costs, the Allied authorities rewarded the network with a fee for every soldier that fled to Spain. Since the funds of the Dutch authorities were insufficient in itself, the extra reward from the Allied authorities made it possible for Dutch-Paris to expand their support to needy refugees.
One of the biggest successes of Dutch-Paris was the help to Bram van der Stok, which was one of the three Allied pilots that managed to make a successful "home run" to England after the escape from Stalag Luft III. The two other Norwegian prisoner of war were Per Bergsland and Jens Muller which managed to reach neutral Sweden from Denmark by boat. All other escapees were captured, of whom later 50 were shot as a retaliation.