Tuesday, August 16, 2022

1941: Hiding from Nazi Soldiers in a Labyrinth Under a French Convent

 So there is one story from my grandfather's oral testimony that is very exciting: When they were crossing from occupied to unoccupied France, they spent the night in a convent in or near Besançon. And during the night, the nuns took the men who were hiding there and took them into some sort of underground labyrinth to hide from the German soldiers. Here's how he described it:

         All right, so they took a … he gave me a false identity card, the man.  And in the train, first there was a control between Belgium and France, German control. Okay, so we passed it easily.

     And then to get unoccupied France, we – the train didn’t go – we had to go out, and be guided by a guide in the countryside. The guide was subcontracting from our guide who was supposed to get from France, from Belgium to France, from France to Spain, from Spain to Portugal, and then we go from Portugal to America, and my friends, they go from Portugal to the Congo.

    Well so we are told to spend the night in a monastery – sisters – monastery, and I don’t know what happened over there, but there were Germans were suspicious.

     So, they – I don’t know what happened to Mother and to Lillian, to Roma and to Lillian – but me, and many, many, many other men – the sisters came in a hurry and say, “Let’s walk,” – and we walk underground in some sort of a maze; labyrinth. Labyrinth, maze – is the same?  And going for hours and hours, and they told us we are walking that way, so as the Germans, who will go wherever they wanted, will never find us because we kept walking. And then after a few hours, we stopped and I slept somewhere, and in the morning we went. 

     Well, we went through; it was in Besançon.  It was in the French city of Besançon, and from there we went to … I think to the city of Artois by walking. 


It kind of reminds me of the scene in The Sound of Music where the sisters hide the von Trapp family.  It's interesting that my grandmother was separated from my grandfather that night.  I wonder if they just hid my grandmother in a cell in their dormitory, and pretended she was a nun? She had a 17-month-old daughter so maybe not. 

After trying and failing to figure out which French convent in or near Besançon has an underground labyrinth, I wrote to the Museum of the Resistance and Deportation in Besançon to see if they might know.  It took awhile, but I just heard back from them (translated via Google Translate):

Bonjour Madam,

Thank you for your message, which we read without problem. On the other hand, it is difficult for us to respond to your request because we do not know of a sufficiently large underground to correspond to your grandfather's description. At the time, there were indeed several monasteries known in the region such as Acey, Grace-Dieu, Mouthier, Baume les Dames, Luxeuil. Given that your grandfather came from Belgium and therefore from the north or north-east, it would be logical for the place you were looking for to be in Haute-Saône. I am thinking in particular of the former abbey of Bellevaux. There is also Montbenoît and Saint-Hippolyte. There would also be a long underground of several hundred meters on the side of Geneuille. We would have to know if it was a long underground, or rather a space like cellars forming a labyrinth. Did they then come out to walk uncovered to Besançon and if so for how long?

I had been looking up the various convents they mentioned, trying to figure out as best I could, whether any of them seemed like good candidates. I was able to eliminate at least one, because it was held in private ownership and wasn't in use as a convent in 1941.  Before I could respond with further questions, they wrote me again this morning, with more info and what I think is a far better candidate:

Bonjour Madam,

Following a call that I launched around me, I had the answer of a woman who did research on the undergrounds of Geneuille. I send you what she wrote to me. In addition there were also large underground passages leaving the Citadel of Besançon and probably joining the cloister just below. But was your grandfather outside or inside Besançon? That's what you should know. 

We found the entrance to the underground at the level of the former convent of the Chapter of Geneuille built in 1724 and the church of Geneuille (attested since 967 linked to the Chapter of Saint John) about 300 meters away in a straight line. No excavations having been made in this village, there is no archaeological evidence.

The nuns of the convent used it to reach the church without getting wet.

On Saturday 22/10/1870, the Prussian troops invade Geneuille: the Prussians searched in vain for the mayor of the time to shoot him but André Toussaint was able to hide in the underground. He never wanted to say where he had taken refuge and he died 6 months later with his secret.

The inhabitants of Geneuille have all heard of this underground without anyone being able to locate it.

It was during the renovation of the residential building that replaced the convent that the entrance to the underground was discovered. The first occupants lived there for 50 years. It was the investor who was alerted by his architect to the abnormal width of a cellar wall. The entrance was sealed off and the meter-wide hallway never explored.

The first garden to cross to go from the underground entrance to the church is 1 rue de l'abreuvoir. On the door, there is an engraved stone from 1727. Immediately after its portal, on the right, perpendicular to the axis of the underground, just below ground level, there is a rectangular room the size of a big car and about 1m90 high. It is entirely in stone, with no visible opening and no starting gallery.

Continuing in a straight line towards the church, you come across the Lyautey vault. Historically (until the construction of the new cemetery in 1878), there was a cemetery all around the church but only these few tombs remain, at the foot of the bell tower.

Not far in Chaudefontaine, there was archaeological research in 1996 which led to the discovery of a Roman road considered important because it could come from Lugdunum (Lyon), touching Vesontio (Besançon) crossing the countryside in front of In Marcaleo (Marchaux in 967) to very probably reach Epomanduodurum (Mandeure) via Rubeomonte (Rougemont) and the site of Loposagio (Luxiol).

 The Via Francigena passes through Geneuille.

Digging underground in waterlogged land is technically difficult to say the least. I don't believe that the undergrounds were dug but that there were corridors built which were buried to hide them, on the principle of what was done at the citadel.

So, if I'm reading this correctly, there are two possible locations, one within the city of Besançon, connecting the ancient Citadel of Besançon, to a nearby cloister (maybe St. Jean's Cathedral?). 

Citadelle de Besançon

And the other possibility for the convent that hid my grandfather in their underground tunnels was Église de la Nativité-de-Notre-Dame de Geneuille.  Geneuille is about 14 km north of Besançon, and is logically on the way from Brussels to Besançon. It had secret tunnels that everyone in Geneuille knew existed (like, for centuries), but no one ever found, until an entrance was recently discovered.)

 Église de la Nativité-de-Notre-Dame de Geneuille

If you like maps. This one shows the Geneuille church at the far north end, and the Besançon Citadel on the south. I had initially thought they were connected by long tunnels, but upon re-reading, I now think they are unrelated. Just two separate locations that had tunnels, one inside Besançon, one outside of it.

I'm leading toward the Geneuille location, as there was a strong German presence in Besançon particularly in/around the Citadel during the war, and it seems foolhardy to have stopped there.

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