Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Andrée de Jongh and the Comet Line

One of the most successful World War II rescue operations was created by a 23 year-old woman named Andrée de Jongh.
Andrée was born in 1916 in German-occupied Belgium and was raised in the shadow of the Great War.  Long before she reached adulthood, De Jongh’s father, a schoolmaster, made certain his daughter was well-versed in Belgium’s wartime history, its villains and its heroes. Topping the list of the latter were two women executed in Brussels by the Germans: Belgian spy Gabrielle Petit and British nurse Edith Cavell.
Gabrielle Petit
Andrée’s admiration for Cavell was so great that after becoming a commercial artist, she also trained as a first aid worker. And when the Nazis invaded and occupied Belgium in the spring of 1940, Andrée became motivated to emulate Cavell in an additional way: resistance work, specifically the rescue of Allied servicemen.

French propaganda poster depicting Cavell's execution.
During the First World War, Cavell had facilitated the escape of Allied servicemen from German-occupied Belgium and France by hiding them in her Brussels clinic, then arranging their escape across the guarded border between Belgium and the neutral Netherlands. Andrée had a more difficult task: Belgium was now surrounded on all sides by German-occupied territory. She decided to commence an enormously ambitious project: a 1,200 mile escape line that would take trapped servicemen from Belgium through occupied France, by way of safe houses along the route, and then across the Pyrenees Mountain range into neutral Spain.
Although the operation’s trial run ended in failure, Andrée refused to quit. Instead, she decided to ask for British assistance. But when she appeared at the British consulate in Balboa, Spain, with three rescued Allied servicemen, the official didn’t believe that this petite, youthful, neatly-dressed young woman was a resister who had just traversed the wintery Pyrenees peaks. Rather, he suspected her of being a German spy. But Andrée eventually won him over before also gaining the support of MI9, the wartime intelligence organization tasked with rescuing stranded British servicemen.
While there were many Belgians involved in Andrée’s operation – termed the Comet Line for its unusual swiftness -- Andrée made 32 round trips on the line, personally guiding 118 servicemen to freedom. But on January 15, 1943, during her 33rd trip, Andrée  was betrayed into the hands of the Germans.  She admitted responsibility for the entire operation but because of her youthful appearance they didn’t believe her. However, because she wouldn’t betray anyone else, they sent her to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Photo taken shortly before her arrest.
The Comet Line continued to run in Andrée’s absence, ultimately rescuing approximately 700 Allied airmen. Andrée managed to survive the war and received multiple awards from Belgium, France, Great Britain, and the United States. After regaining her health, she became a nurse and worked in various leper colonies in the Belgian Congo and Ethiopia. When her eyesight began to fail, she returned to Brussels where she died in 2007 at the age of 90.
In Andrée’s Washington Post obituary, Peter Eisner, WP editor and biographer of the Comet Line, claimed it was “the greatest of escape lines in Europe in numbers of rescues as well as the most sophisticated, longest operating and most successful."  The value of Andrée’s work, Eisner stated, “went beyond the individuals she was saving. She gave hope to aircrews in England before they took off that there was this angel of mercy working in occupied territory that had a complete system working to find them. It was a great psychological boost."

Novelist Kristin Hannah claims she was inspired to write her recent best seller, The Nightingale, after encountering Andrée’s story. Read the interview here:

Andrée is one of the women featured in my young adult collective biography (geared for readers 12 years and up), Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue (excerpt:

The stories of Andrée's First World War inspirations, Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit, can be found in my second YA collective biography, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Spies, Soldiers, and Medics (excerpt:

Airey Neave, an agent of MI9, wrote a biography on Andrée called Little Cyclone: The Girl WhoStarted the Comet Line.

Finally, the book SilentHeroes: Downed Airmen and the FrenchUnderground, by Sherri Greene Otis, contains a lengthy, detailed section on the Comet Line.



Thursday, March 24, 2016

Corrie ten Boom and the Dutch Resistance

Corrie ten Boom in 1915
"After more Jews found their way to the Beje, Corrie realized that she needed extra ration cards, the only means by which people in Nazi-occupied countries could buy food. A man named Fred Koornstra kept Corrie supplied with extra radion cards. His developmentally disabled daughter had been attending Corrie's church services for 20 years and he worked in the Food Office, where ration cards were issued. Corrie shared these cards with others who were sheltering Jews and other refugees. Soon the Beje became the center of a network of local Resistance workers.
The Beje became a permanent home for several Jewish refugees and a temporary one for many more (never more than 12 at one time) who would pass through on their way to find a safer hiding place out in the country.
Members of larger Dutch Resistance network heard about the refugee work at the Beje and sent an architect to create a secret room adjacent to Corrie's bedroom, big enough to hide all the refugees living at the Beje at any one time. then an electrician was sent to install a buzzer warning system that would alert everyone to go to the secret room in the event of a Gestapo raid."
From "Corrie ten Boom: Watchmaker, Rescuer, Reconciler" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

US Army nurse veteran of the Ardennes Campaign recalls VE Day and beyond

Muriel Phillips Engleman, US Army nurse, next to a pillbox in Liege, Belgium, October, 1944, while waiting for the construction of her unit's tent hospital.
She and her unit would soon nurse Battle of the Bulge casualties.
I asked Muriel for her memories of VE Day and this is what she sent me:
"One word sums it up--we were euphoric. We knew it was coming but when the final realization of the signing of Germany's surrender set in, we couldn't contain our relief, at last the killings were over! The local Belgians swarmed around our hospital yelling "Fini la guerre!" (the war is over).

And amidst my memories of that day are also feelings of guilt because of an  unkept date I had made with a recently released American POW officer, a patient in our hospital, who asked to see me that night in our officer's club tent and I agreed. However that afternoon the colonel of our hospital offered the use of a truck to take the nurses to the large officer's club in Liège to celebrate and I dearly wanted to be with my buddies, the women I had worked with through thick and thin the past three years, to celebrate with them. I never had a chance to contact the officer who wanted to date me that night and hopped on the truck along with the other nurses. Of course I felt guilty for "standing him up," especially after him being a POW of the Germans for several months and he was so happy to be free and dating an American woman.

Then, a few days later, when  reality of the war being over settled in, came the haunting thoughts that the war with Japan was still going on and instead of heading for home, we'd end  up getting shipped to the CBI (China, Burma, India Theatre of Operations)...

The months between May and August: in June we received orders to move back to Chalons-sur-Marne in France and run a hospital there in an old French riding caserne, and I was working with 600 Kraut POW's. They figured that because i was Jewish I could speak Yiddish, similar to German but of course, I couldn't speak a word. I did learn how to say "haben zie schmertzen?" (have you pain? and" Vo is die schmertzen"--where is the pain. The patients were between the ages of 14 and 67, and the big blonde arrogant SS Troopers weren't so arrogant at this point. Chalons was a horrible dust bowl  town, nothing to do on our days off unless we took an overnight and hitched a ride on a truck to Rheims , the champagne center and there was a nurses R & R building there, and shopping and sights to see.

In Sept. they sent us on a week's leave just to kill time and I went to Switzerland and then they moved us to a staging area to get ready for the trip back to the U.S. and the waiting was horrible, nothing to do in these staging areas, usually out in the boondocks, read, stay in bed, nothing much to explore or transportation for exploring and the  rumors flew thick and fast.
Our luggage was sent to Marseille but we finally left from le Havre (and our luggage arrived there eventually also) and we sailed out about mid Nov. for the  U.S. Slowly passing the Statue of Liberty about  6;30+ a.m. was the most beautiful sight in the world and there wasn't a dry eye aboard that ship of thousands of returning servicemen and women."

Muriel has written a memoir, which includes eleven chapters regarding her wartime experience, called Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock. Her story is also included in the young adult collective biography, Women Heroes of World War II.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Noor Inayat Khan: The Gestapo Closes in

The Gestapo knew there was a radio operator in Paris, but for months Noor successfully eluded them. They failed to track her down because Noor was careful to transmit from many different locations and because she transmitted very quickly. She also possessed a keen intuition that alerted her to the dangers of being followed or the overtures of too-friendly strangers.
Noor's fellow agents knew that the Gestapo was closing in on her and urged her return to London. But she refused to leave until they could send a replacement. Once she was assured that this would happen, she would make plans to return...
Excerpt from "Noor Inayat Khan: Royal Agent" from Women Heroes of World War II. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

A very special History Day project

Cinthia, Mariah, and Victor

Janet Kelly’s email took me by surprise. Kelly is a middle school teacher who coached a three-student team through an impressive History Day project, using my book as the foundation. Of the 26 women featured in Women Heroes of WWII, Ms. Kelly's students decided to focus on Josephine Baker, Irene Gut, Nancy Wake, and Sophie Scholl. “They have cut out four women's silhouettes out of wood, and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle” Kelly told me. “The pieces stand up when they are put together, but fall down if they are apart. They wanted to demonstrate that these women, and all the others like them, had accomplished much as individuals, yet the real power is what they did together as a collective whole.” She went on to explain that the kids knew nothing about WWII before beginning the project. “One of them told me that WWII was fought so girls could wear Levis to school” Kelly said. The following questions they sent to me via their teacher proved that they’d learned something during the project:

“How important were the resistance groups to the war effort?”

“Why would the Nazis have treated Sophie so badly?”

“What do you think would have happened if the Nazis would have won the war?”

“Do you think we are on the right track with how the exhibit is put together?”

“Were there reforms in Europe that happened because of the Allies winning the war?”

“Do you think the artifacts are a good idea?”

I won't take up space here with my answers because because the point of this post is to exhibit the impressive amount of thinking that was stirred in these students. I’ve had many inspiring moments since I commenced the writing of Women Heroes but I’d say that my correspondence with Janet Kellly will always be very close to the top. Here are her final comments: “You have had a major impact on these kids. I think your book is beyond inspiring...what a legacy to leave future generations. I think the way it is written and illustrated make the information easily accessible and memorable. I plan to keep it in my library, and will eventually donate it to the school library. Thanks again for your willingness to help us.”

There was a spot for "artifacts": food representing Irene Gut . . .

A suitcase representing Sophie Scholl . . .

And tap shoes representing Josephine Baker.

I had to include this -- I've never been quoted in a school project before. :)

Great job, kids!!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Marlene Dietrich: Tireless German entertainer for the American troops in Europe

Marlene Dietrich behind enemy lines.
Courtesy of Marlene, Inc., from the Marlene Dietrich Collection, Berlin.

Marlene was frequently in serious personal danger. Gunfire and the sound of exploding bombs often provided the backdrop to her songs. More than once, her shows had to be stopped either because the soldiers received orders to "move out" or enemy fire had come too close to the stage. But Marlene didn't care; she was a tireles and determined entertainer.  She would often urge her fellow USO entertainers to drive as close as possible to the front lines of battle, do a short show for the servicemen there -- just a few songs and jokes -- and then drive back as quickly as possible.

The most dangerous event that Marlene experienced during the war occurred when she was traveling with a division of U.S. soldiers into the Ardennes Forest and entered a crucial battle of World War II: the Battle of the Bulge . . .

Excerpt from "Marlene Dietrich: The Only Important Thing" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Stranger at the door: Magda Trocmé

Magda Trocmé with her family in the late 1930's
Trocmé family collection

Magda Trocmé, the wife of the Protestant pastor André Trocmé, lived with her family in the small French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. She was cooking dinner one evening when she heard a knock at the door. Who could it be at that time of day? When she opened the door, she saw a woman covered with snow, shivering with fear and cold. The woman asked if she could come in. Magda guessed that the woman must be a Jew. She also knew that it was illegal to hide Jews.

Opening paragraph from "Magda Trocmé: Wife, Mother, Teacher, Rescuer" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.