24 January 2008

Faking Flemish to Freedom, 1941

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 192-193:
The complexity of the mechanisms by which men were released [from German captivity], and the extent to which those mechanisms could be manipulated, was illustrated by the release of Flamands in February 1941. In extending the definition of Flamands to those from northern France who spoke Flemish, the Germans created a new category that did not bear any relation to prisoners' existing bureaucratic status. Men had to prove that they spoke Flemish by appearing in front of a 'linguistic commission', which contained a Belgian civilian (presumably one who was politically sympathetic to the Germans) and a German officer. This opened opportunities for enterprising prisoners. Jean Legros, a French speaker from Belgium, was able to learn enough Flemish to pass the test. His brother, who spoke no Flemish, came into the room immediately after him and Legros got his release simply by saying, 'That is my brother.' Legros also gave language lessons to prisoners from northern France who hoped to secure their release in the same way. At the other extreme was a Flemish-speaking prisoner from northern France in a work Kommando of Stalag XVIIB in Austria. The prisoner in question was illiterate and spoke poor French. It is easy to see why he had not been repatriated. Isolated in a work Kommando and unable to read circulars or to understand much of what his comrades said, he probably had no means of knowing about the possibility of repatriation.

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