Towards the start of World War Two, France was attacked, and part of it was occupied by the Nazis. The Northern and Western parts of France were under the Nazi regime and therefore had to adhere to their laws. The other parts of France, named Free France, were controlled by the much hated Vichy Government. They took heavy influence from the German government, and there wasn’t really much difference between the two.

A map showing the German-occupied parts of France, as well as the 'free' parts, under the control of the Vichy government.

The quality of life for everyone living there was extremely low, and it was much worse if you were Jewish or Communist, Jews in particular. Almost immediately, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star with the word ‘Juif’ on it, which is French for Jewish. If you had this badge, you were not allowed to work in professions such as teaching, journalism, legal professions, etc.

As the war went on, Jews got less and less privileges, and eventually, all Jews living in France were required to be sent to concentration camps in Germany. Thankfully, France had one of the highest survival rates for Jews in WW2, which was 75%.

The badge that Jewish people had to wear in both Nazi France, and Free France. The word on it, 'Juif', is French for Jewish.

One law that the Nazi and Vichy government both had was that allied pilots that had crashed, and any other soldiers that happened to make their way into France, were to be taken prisoner, or worse, killed. If a plane was seen going down, the police would not stop searching until they found the pilot, dead or alive. Most French citizens saw this law, and most others as unjust, and rightfully so, however, there were only a small number of people who would do something about it.

These people were known as passeurs. They would take these airmen, and hide them in a number of safe houses, all over France. This group of people were sponsored by the Allies, mainly the British MI9. These people were both men and women, however, as most men were out fighting for France, or had been captured by the enemy, there were a lot of female passeurs.

The pilots would be taken from safe house to safe house, along things called lines. These were basically just the paths that the airmen would take, to try to get somewhere they were safe. At every step along the way, they were being aided by locals, risking their lives for someone they didn’t even know.

Three major lines were the Comet Line, the Pat O'Leary Line and the Marie Claire Line; however, there were many more. The biggest one of the three was probably the Pat O’Leary line. It was focused around the Mediterranean coast. All three of these lines involved crossing from France, into Spain, via the Pyrenees mountain range, and then getting to an allied embassy in Spain. Crossing the Pyrenees was no easy feat. Not everyone who begun this trek came out alive. You had to deal with freezing cold temperatures, lack of food, steep inclines, while always staying alert for German patrols. Most lines during WW2 involved crossing the Pyrenees, however, some lines were designed to smuggle people into Switzerland, and then back to their home country, or directly across the water, straight to England.

A map showing some of the escape routes that the passeurs took to get Allied soldiers out of France.

The Comet line was another major line. It involved getting the pilots from wherever they were found, to the Pyrenees, along the Atlantic coast, and then getting them across the mountains, and into the city of San Sebastián, where there was a British embassy during WW2. A woman named Andrée de Jongh formed this line. Although she was born in Belgium, she mostly helped soldiers stuck in France during WW2.

During the war, Andrée escorted 118 Allied soldiers into Spain. Eventually, she was caught. She was taken to Fresnes prison in Paris, and later to Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Mauthausen concentration camp after that. Despite all this, she lived to tell the tale. After the war, she moved to various African nations, such as the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC), Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Senegal, working in hospitals.

Eventually, Andrée moved to Brussels for retirement. She passed away peacefully in Brussels on 13th October 2007, at age 90. The novel ‘The Nightingale’ by Kristin Hannah, first published in 2015, and ‘The Postwoman’, first published in 2018, were both based on Andrée’s life, and her great achievements and selflessness during WW2.

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