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The Freedom LineThe Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II
By Eisner, Peter
William Morrow & CompanyISBN: 0060096632
Stopped at the BorderDédée. Urrugne, France. January 14, 1943.
Freezing rain crackled on the tile roof of the farmhouse in the French-Basque village, just a few miles from the Spanish border. There were six of them: three disoriented British airmen; Dédée, the Belgian woman who led the Comet escape line; Florentino, their Basque guide; and Frantxia, who owned the little whitewashed homestead some yards from the dirt road. They had been waiting all afternoon for the weather to improve, but night descended; and the rain kept coming down. The wind rattled the windowpanes, and the gray fog was dissolving into night.
Dédée had led the airmen on the express train down from Paris to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a Basque fishing village. They'd walked two hours to Frantxia's house in a heavy rainstorm. It had not stopped raining. The airmen were depending on Dédée as their lifeline to get back to England. She was small and slender, and very attractive. She marched with a determined gait as she coaxed them along the sodden paths, and she was also the only one of their guides who spoke English. Dédée looked at them with a penetrating, piercing gaze.
You must be ready to move quickly at any time, without question.
We will tell you when it is safe to go.
Almost always, the escape plan was to follow the hilly goat trails that led through the mountains to the Bidassoa River, the dividing line between France and Spain, not four miles away. These were the old byways known only to the Basque shepherds and the smugglers who packed all forms of contraband over the Pyrenees back and forth across the border. The men coming across told them the Bidassoa River was a flooded torrent. It was too dangerous to cross the river, which meant that the only way to Spain involved a five-hour detour and a risky crossing on a low suspension bridge. That road would be illuminated and was watched by German and Spanish patrols.
Dédée tried to hide her distress, but her furrowed brow was bathed in the flickering light. She'd decided to leave her father at another safe house back along the seacoast and now she feared for his life. The plan had been to bring him here and then cross over to Spain. But he was fifty-eight years old and she didn't think he'd be able to manage under these conditions. She'd kissed him good-bye, promising to come back and fetch him when the weather opened up.
Dédée had misgivings and was feeling more responsibilities than ever. She had finally convinced her father that he could no longer stay in Paris, because the Nazis were on his trail; it was time for him to escape to England. There had been two close calls in the last year, and many of their friends were arrested. It was only a matter of time before the Gestapo would track him down. Reluctantly, he'd agreed to go with her on the next mission south to Spain, as they smuggled another group of airmen to safety.
Florentino, a huge, chisel-faced sort from the mountains, glowered and said nothing, pacing the length of the floor. He knew the mountains; he warned Dédée against chancing the trip when it was raining and the river was high. When the relentless winter rain muddied the dirt paths, the passage was perilous even for him. They would have to crawl in the muck over rocks and boulders, hugging the paths that wound up the hills with barely enough room for a man to avoid sliding off the edge of a cliff. There might even be ice in the higher elevations. The rocks were slippery enough even without ice; legs would be broken, and he was the one who would end up carrying out the injured person on his back. Last year, one of the women guides did break her leg when she slipped and fell in weather not even as bad as this. Florentino carried her for a while, and then fetched a mule and took her to a safe house,where a doctor set the fracture. They were lucky that night to have been on the Spanish side: the Gestapo didn't cross the border on patrol, although the Spanish guards were almost as dangerous.
There were sudden gusts and the raindrops slashed at the windows. The wind had blown the door open a while earlier and gave them a fright. Now, one of the dogs was barking.
Donato is here, said one of Frantxia's three little boys, running in from the storm.
Donato was a farmhand who once worked at this house and was now with a neighbor down the road. He came to the door, peering inside at Florentino and the pilots. Several months ago, Donato had come along with them as a guide over the mountains, but Dédée hadn't trusted him and never asked him along after that. Donato was speaking with Frantxia, in Euskera, the Basque language. Dédée didn't understand a word, but she saw greed in his smile and betrayal in his darting eyes. Perhaps he held a grudge because she'd chosen Florentino and not him as their guide. Donato left and the dog quieted down.
In the dark, everything was uncertain. It was too risky to move the pilots back to town. They could speak neither French nor Euskera nor Spanish. Even disguised in local dress, they would be found out. They were trapped.
I will stay here with them, she told Florentino. You can wait for us at Kattalin's house.
Kattalin, the widow, lived in the village by the sea where Dédée and her group hid Allied airmen after guiding them south. She had a little house on a cobblestone street that dipped down toward the bay. It was just off the main highway, a few miles north of Spain ...Continues...
Excerpted from The Freedom Line by Eisner, Peter Excerpted by permission.
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