THE CHABOT/AMBACH FAMILY
Interview with Charlotte Ambach, April 30, 2002, Green Valley, Arizona; August 3, 2002 by telephone; revised August 19, 2002. By Bruce Bolinger, Grass Valley, California
Elise Chabot, known as “Lies” (pronounced “lease”) in the family, was born May 3, 1888 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the daughter of Jean Joseph Marie Chabot and Maria Ledeboer. The Chabot name was French, the result of their French Huguenot ancestors having fled France for Holland in the 16th or 17th century. Lies Chabot’s father, Jean Joseph, was a wealthy businessman in coal and steel in Rotterdam who became an art collector. Lies met her first husband, Gerhard (Gerd) Pagenstecher, a German studying to become an opera singer, in Vienna where they were both students. Gerd had a beautiful voice. Their marriage, in 1911, produced three sons, Fred, born in 1912, and the twins, Dick (Cord Baldwin) and John (Jorn Rolf), in 1918. Gerd never saw his twin sons, his death in 1918 occurring shortly after their birth. He was an officer in the German Army in WWI and was killed on one of the last days of the war.
Lies’ second marriage was to Georg Ambach, also German. They had met in the Netherlands where he had been the director of a chain of department stores. Georg had a son, Werner, by a prior marriage. The marriage of Lies and Georg resulted in fraternal twin daughters, Elise-Charlotte (known as Charlotte) and Madelon, born in Hilversum, Holland, on July 4, 1922. Within the family the sisters were known as Lotti and Lonni. Hilversum is located a few miles southeast of Amsterdam and was one of several towns outside of Amsterdam popular with commuters who didn’t want to live in Amsterdam itself. Pursuing career opportunities, Georg Ambach moved his family first to Dortmund, then to Frankfurt, where he became the administrative director of the liberal daily newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, a newspaper “esteemed even abroad as a great source of industrial and business news.”1
Charlotte’s love of classical music came from her parents. Georg had a library of the scores of Bach’s cantatas, which would be performed on Sundays. Instead of church, Georg would be at the musical performances following them on his scores.
Impact of the Nazi Seizure of Power
With the Nazi seizure of power, Lies and Georg, who were anti-Nazi, were confronted with having to decide what would be best for their family. For one thing, they had many Jewish friends. (The Frankfurter Zeitung had been founded in 1866 by Jewish investors. In 1933 the Jewish family which was the principal shareholder in the newspaper was forced to transfer its shares to the I.G. Farben and Bosch firms, and there were management changes.)1
Lies wanted to take the family back to the Netherlands. Georg was unwilling to move there because of his career. (“What am I to do, sell my own newspaper on street corners?”, he said.) They divorced by mutual consent and agreed that Lies would take their two daughters out of Germany. Charlotte said that her father definitely was not pro-Nazi and was never a member of the Nazi Party; he simply accepted the situation because otherwise he couldn’t make a living. Being CEO of the Frankfurter Zeitung was not at all easy, she said.
As it worked out, instead of going back to The Netherlands, Lies took her daughters to Brussels, partly because that was where Lies’ father and stepmother lived. It was about 1934 or 1935 when they made the move, and the two girls were 12 or 13. Lies’ mother had died some time prior and her father had remarried, to Petronella van Raaders. (See the photo below of Lies copied from her police file as a foreigner living in Belgium.)
Lies first enrolled Charlotte in a French-speaking school in Brussels. But concerned about Charlotte’s lack of fluency in French and difficulty in keeping up with the class work, Lies transferred her to the Deutsche Schule.
Madelon had been very affected by her parents’ divorce. She adored her father, while Charlotte felt the same way about her mother. Madelon felt some resentment of her mother because of the divorce. Georg had worked in England for years before meeting Lies and had spoken of it often. As a result, Madelon dreamed of going there. When Lies offered her the chance of going to an English boarding school in Beaconsfield, England, Madelon was delighted.
The BDM and the Deutsche Schule
In Germany, Lies and Georg had let their daughters go their own way as far as religion and politics. Although Charlotte was influenced by her parent’s anti-Nazi views, they had not opposed her pursuing her own views. Charlotte wanted to join a youth group and the first one to suggest itself was the BDM, Bund Deutscher Mädel, or League of German Girls, a part of the Hitler Youth, or Hitler Jugend, the umbrella organization of German young people’s organizations. To her, at the time, it was comparable to the Girl Guides in England. However, the BDM sought to make all German girls faithful followers of Nazi ideas.2 Charlotte remained a member of the BDM even after she enrolled in the Deutsche Schule in Brussels. A favorite teacher of hers at the school, Mr. Stroebel, was the school’s Hitler Youth fuhrer.
At the Deutsche Schule she heard a tirade against the Jews and was taught that she should not be friends with them, and yet she had Jewish friends. She was also told she could not be friends with one boy in particular, a nice boy, she says, half German and half Belgian. Charlotte couldn’t understand the reason for the prohibition. Later she learned that he was homosexual.
In 1936, at age 14, Charlotte was given a school assignment in which she was to write what she thought and believed, a curriculum vitae. In spite of what she was being taught, she couldn’t see why she couldn’t be friends with Jews. In her CV she said she preferred to be a “human being” rather than a “Volksgenossin” or “Volk Comrade” (a form of address used during the Third Reich that was racist and excluded Jews and non-Germans3). Making a clean break, she wrote a letter to Stroeber, resigning her membership in the organization and returning her membership card.
The BDM organization at the school could not admit to Berlin that it had lost her as a member. They tried inducements to get her to change her mind, including the offer of a trip to Germany, which she declined. Then one of the other students found her membership card lying in the school hallway and returned it to her. The transparent attempt to make her change her mind was obvious to Charlotte who took the card to Stroeber and asked why he hadn’t sent it to Germany.
With that, the school wanted to talk to her mother. Having gone home for lunch, Charlotte was told by her mother that she was not to return to the Deutsche Schule. It was obvious to Lies that the school was going to pillory Charlotte. Lies pulled her daughter out of the Deutsche Schule and enrolled her in a good Flemish school, since Charlotte spoke Dutch. Like most Europeans, the family was multi-lingual. They spoke German first, Dutch second, followed by some English, and French last. And Charlotte found a group of British Girl Guides to join in Brussels.
War Breaks Out—September 1939
In the summer of 1939, Charlotte and Madelon had gone to Frankfurt to see their father, who was planning to take them on vacation to Vienna and Budapest. While the girls were with their father, Lies was at a mountain spa near Frankfurt. A courageous woman, she told all the foreigners to get out of Germany because there was going to be a war and it would be too dangerous to remain. This immediately attracted the attention of the Gestapo. Georg’s devoted secretary, Leisl, reached Lies at the spa, said that the Gestapo had been making inquiries about her at the Frankfurter Zeitung, that she was in danger, and had to get out of Germany. Until arrangements could be made for her escape, Leisl hid Lies in her own apartment. To alert Georg and the girls to Lies’ situation, Leisl wrote a letter to them in Budapest saying that their mother was “sick” and that they had to return to look after her.
Within a day Lies, Charlotte, and Madelon were on a train for Brussels. It was September 1939. [Germany invaded Poland on Sep. 1, 1939.] In their compartment on the train a man sitting opposite them was a courier from the Belgian embassy in Berlin. While the train was sitting in the station in Aachen, the last major German city before crossing into Belgium, he and Lies were talking freely about the political situation, in spite of the fact that there were Gestapo walking around on the station platform. Frightened, Charlotte and Madelon shushed the two adults. When the train finally reached Belgium they were happy that they had escaped.
Charlotte’s Brothers—On Opposite Sides
Charlotte’s four brothers ended up on opposite sides in the war. John and Fred served in the U.S. Army, while Dick and Werner were in the German Army. Fred, the oldest, had been studying medicine in Holland. After two semesters he was fed up with classes. He bought two autos, an enormous Minerva and a Hispano-Suiza, and, with a friend, they pooled their money to start a business called the International Touring Office. The idea was that they would hire themselves out as gentlemen chauffeurs and take rich families on vacation trips. But the friend absconded with all the money and with one of the cars, leaving Fred marooned. Lies went to see her son in Holland and suggested he go to the U.S. Thus, Fred was shipped off to the Double Arrow Ranch in Montana, initially as a paying guest, in about 1937 or 1938. John, who had completed high school and gone to Berlin to learn to fly gliders, gave that up and returned to Brussels. Finding the idea of the horse ranch appealing, John went too. But when the war began the two brothers could no longer get any money from home. Instead of being guests, they became employees of the ranch. John loved his experience working with horses, so much so that even now he gets tears in his eyes when he describes how he could get horses to do what he wanted. By contrast, Fred detested them. The ranch was owned by the Boissevain family, also French Huguenots, who were related to Lies’ friends. Proud of their heritage, they had named the cabins of the ranch for Huguenots.
In spite of the hostile relations between the U.S. and Germany before the war, Fred and John had had no trouble coming here using visitors’ visas, because they had the money to pay their way. After the U.S. entered the war, the two were drafted into the U.S. Army, in spite of their being German nationals. Fred served in the South Pacific but did not see combat. John served in Iceland as a master sergeant, where he came down with chicken pox, much to the amusement of the other men in his unit. In 1944 John married an American girl, Julia, went to college on the G.I. Bill, and settled with his wife in Lansing, Michigan. They later moved to Green Valley Arizona, where Julia died three years ago. Fred returned to Europe where he married a Belgian girl, Milou Testar, before returning to Montana.
Charlotte remembers her brother Dick as being very mechanical. At five or six years of age, after he had been admitted to a Catholic hospital as a patient, his mother came to see him and found him gazing at a cross on the wall. Lies asked Dick what the cross meant to him and he explained that by adding some more pieces it could become an airplane. Using plans for ships and planes, he would make his own models, and he was an inventor.
Remaining in Germany, Dick first served in the Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labor Service. Designed originally to combat unemployment among young people, the RAD was expanded to include all young men between 18 and 25 and was used for farm labor, constructing the Autobahn, and building the West Wall. By 1934 a half-year of service had been established (Charlotte recalls the time of service as being one to two years). When the war broke out, the RAD came under the control of the Wehrmacht, which benefited from the RAD’s paramilitary training.4 From the RAD, Dick went into the German Army in 1939. He was a simple soldier.
Part of Dick’s military service was on the German-occupied Channel Islands. He was responsible for the care of the Army’s horses, which, in his case, produced a disgust for the animals. While in the Army, Dick would visit his mother and sisters in Brussels. In 1941 and 1942, during the visits, their conversations would turn to how he could get out of the army.
The first time Dick visited his mother and sisters wearing his uniform it had been several years since the family dog, “Racky”, a Sealyham terrier, had seen Dick. The Sealyham terrier was a type of dog loved by Charlotte’s father. Racky had a hatred of the German uniform. Given the opportunity, he would pee on a neighbor who was a German officer. When the dog saw Dick he walked around him, sniffing him, with his hair standing up, not knowing whether to be antagonistic or friends. When he finally realized who Dick was, he began howling with delight and threw himself at Dick, as if to say “how could I have not recognized you?” The family was “bowled over” by the dog’s behavior.
Dick made his plans to desert. It had to be done in such a way as not to place his mother and sisters in danger. The desertion could not occur from her apartment. After one of his visits to Lies in Brussels, he made a dry run. He reported in as scheduled at the train station where he presented his papers. Pretending that he had left something in the café, he left the station to get it, only to return in time. On the next trip to Brussels, however, after checking in at the station for his return trip to Germany and then leaving the station, he did not come back. It was 1942 or 1943. He returned to his mother’s apartment and Lies arranged for a place for him to stay. To help his disguise, Dick grew a beard (it came in red). Much of the time that he was hiding from the German Army he spent living at a small hotel in Brussels. Lies paid his hotel bills and provided him with pocket money. He carried false ID made for him by Eduard Veterman (see discussion of Veterman on page 15 below). From then on Charlotte would occasionally see Dick in a restaurant or at the home of friends. As a result of his desertion, a German Army officer arrived at Lies’ apartment to ask about him. Lies pretended that she knew nothing of his whereabouts and that she was quite worried about him. During the conversation she felt that the officer, whom she found likable, knew perfectly well what had happened. In the future, Dick only visited his mother after checking with Ernest Van Moorleghem as to when it would be safe. (For more on Van Moorleghem, see below.)
Eventually Dick was arrested. He had gone to the home of Lies’ friend, Nel Van Gellicum, who had been arrested at almost the same time as Charlotte and Lies, where he was arrested. With his false identity papers, the Germans did not know who he was but they realized the papers were false. In spite of beatings he would not tell them his real identity. Charlotte said that finally the Germans “nearly beat him to mush” and only then did he admit who he was. His arrest had to have taken place in late November 1943.
All three were imprisoned at St. Gilles Prison, the main prison in Brussels. At St. Gilles the prisoners were allowed to go to chapel. Whatever their religious beliefs or lack thereof, they would go just to have the outing. In the chapel the prisoners were segregated from each other. Some were separated by a wall that allowed only their faces to peer out at the other people in the chapel. Some only had a half wall separating them from the rest, while the remainder were in open seating areas. Lies and Charlotte were in the seating areas with the half walls, one in one and one in the other. They glanced to the left as additional prisoners were brought in and suddenly saw Dick. Lies fainted. Because of the partitions, Charlotte was unable to go to the aid of her mother and it was another prisoner who helped Lies up.
On September 1, 1944, the Nazi commander of Belgium signed an order directing that the 1500 prisoners in the St. Gilles Prison be shipped to Germany. By then Lies and Charlotte were already in prison in Germany but Dick was still at St. Gilles. In the wee hours on September 2, the prisoners of St. Gilles were ordered out of their cells, taken in trucks to the main train station, and placed in cattle cars. There followed the famous incident of the “Nazi Ghost Train”, or “Phantom Train”, where the Belgian Resistance sabotaged the German effort to deport the prisoners. Although the train ultimately was returned to Brussels and the prisoners freed on September 3, at the time all this was happening, the prisoners had no idea of what their fate would be. Dick did not wait to find out. He and others tore up the planking in the floor of their cattle car until they had made a hole large enough to escape. (Although prisoners would have been searched upon arrival at St. Gilles and their personal clothes replaced with prison issue, sometimes prisoners would still manage to fashion tools. The prisoners in Dick’s car may have had such tools and using those and their own hands tore up the planking.) With the train constantly starting and stopping, going forward and then back, Dick said, “The next time we stop, let’s go through.” Typically there would be an SS guard on each car of the freight train. Some may have fled or simply didn’t want to shoot escaping prisoners. In any event, in spite of being weak from hunger—Dick was a big man and the rations had been skimpy—he got out of the train and walked back to Brussels, through the city, and on to Ixelles, a neighborhood in the southern part of the city. There he knew that Madelon’s in-laws would help him. Charlotte says that other prisoners on the same car and on other cars made their escape the same way, long before the main body of prisoners was freed by the International Red Cross on September 3.
Dick later married Kathe and they had one son, Gerhard (Gary), who lives in Montana.
Charlotte’s brother John, on April 21, 2002, after having lost his first wife, remarried at age 85. His bride, Beatrice Sampe, was 73. The ceremony took place in Green Valley, Arizona where Charlotte lives. Fred first settled in Montana, then moved to Brussels where he died over ten years ago. Dick is still alive but suffers from continuous little strokes and lives in a convalescent home.
Werner, Charlotte’s brother by her father’s first marriage, was shot by a sniper near the end of the war. The bullet entered his cranium, exiting from the other side. The injuries left him in a coma for months. He had to re-learn to walk and talk. After the war he married but never had any children. Charlotte would visit him every few years. He died six to seven years ago.
The German Occupation of the Low Countries
In the early hours of May 10, 1940, German forces swept across the borders of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Madelon had finished her schooling in England and gone to Holland to study domestic science. But afraid that war would break out, Lies had told Madelon to return to their apartment in Brussels. Lies, having lost her first husband in WWI, had told her daughters many stories about that war. Charlotte remembers that at about 4:30 or 5 a.m. on May 10 she and her sister were standing at the window of the apartment rejoicing that now they could learn what war was really all about. They were 18.
The Ambachs knew a young man who had a car, and Lies paid him to drive them to France. Thus they joined the throngs of refugees fleeing the German occupation. Each of the women took a small suitcase containing her most important papers and possessions. They piled dresses and coats on top, and headed off to France in the car. At the French border they were stopped. Because Charlotte and Madelon had German passports, they were arrested, and put with a lot of other German nationals—mainly Jews—in a barn where they made beds for themselves out of hay. Lies would not leave her daughters so she insisted upon joining them in the barn. The French officials in charge of the prisoners in the barn were replaced by the British and they by the Germans. The young man with the car had not stayed around to see what became of the women. The Germans released the prisoners and Lies and her daughters returned to Brussels.
One day Charlotte came home from her secretarial job to find her sister quite excited. There was a young man there talking with her mother. He was Eduard Cleeren, a Belgian Army officer, who had escaped to England after the Belgian surrender. There he had been trained and then parachuted back into Belgium with orders to set up a Resistance organization. He asked Lies if he could use her apartment as a safe house and as a place to hold organizational meetings a few hours each week. On those occasions, Lies and Charlotte would retire to their bedrooms so as not to see the people; the less they knew the better. Nevertheless, Charlotte realized what was going on and asked if she could help. Cleeren assigned her to fetch certain papers.
“Minor Espionage” in the Todt Organization
One of the most important organizations in Nazi Germany was the Todt Organization, named after its director, Fritz Todt. Established in 1938, it specialized in the construction of military facilities and rebuilding streets, bridges, and railroad lines destroyed in the fighting. It was particularly active in the occupied countries and employed hundreds of thousands of civilian workers as well as slave labor and POW’s.5 Charlotte remembers it confiscating from Belgium whatever the German war machine needed. Offered a job as a stenographer in the Todt Organization in 1942 or 1943, she asked Cleeren if she should take it. He recognized that this would be an opportunity to collect intelligence for the Allies and urged her to accept it and get as much information as possible. Thus, while typing memos, Charlotte would make an extra carbon copy for Cleeren. For example, by this means she could provide him information on cranes that had been confiscated from Belgian or Dutch ports, where trains were going to and coming from, and so on. She describes her duties for Cleeren as “minor espionage”. (See photo below of Charlotte .)
Madelon had been recruited by a Resistance organization that specialized in helping people accused of being anti-Nazi. Hired to sort letters denouncing people as being anti-Nazi, she sought to shield people by making the letters “disappear”. She probably saved the lives of several people, according to Charlotte. Little by little, they became more and more involved in the Resistance.
A lot of Charlotte’s friends were confused about where her sympathies lay. They all knew that she was German and most knew she was anti-Nazi. But some didn’t know and thought she might be able to help them due to somehow having an entrée to the Gestapo. Charlotte did not always know what someone believed about her and why.
Eventually Charlotte’s boss at the Todt Organization said it would be best if she left since she wasn’t in sympathy with Hitler. She liked her boss and didn’t think he was a rabid Nazi.
The Bar Incident and the Man on the Tram
On one occasion Charlotte was at a bar with friends when the Gestapo conducted a random raid, picking up everyone in the place. Because she was German and could prove it by her papers, Charlotte was released. A Gestapo agent asked what she was doing there. She responded, “I was just having a drink.” Sympathetic to her plight, he said, “If you have any trouble, see me.” Some of her friends at the bar were not as fortunate. Jan Wannee, a Dutch courier, spent three months in St. Gilles Prison, while others, including her friend Pierre Alexandre, spent three to four days. (Wannee’s file from the National Archives mentions an arrest on Sep. 27 or 29, 1943 but that one resulted in his being condemned to death, so her recollection must be of an earlier arrest.)
A few days later she was riding on a tram on her way home. Sitting opposite her was a German soldier in uniform. A Belgian, trying to make his way through the crowded tram and having to step over the seated German, must have touched the man’s uniform. Indignant, the German demanded to see the Belgian’s papers. Although the Belgian got off at the station before hers, Charlotte got off at his stop and followed him home. After he had gone into his house, she rang the bell. When asked, “What do you want?,” she said, “To talk to the man who just came here about the incident in the tramway.” When he appeared, she gave him a card on which she had written the name of the Gestapo agent, with the note, “Can you please help this man?” Several days later she received from the Belgian a big box of chocolates (something impossible to find in Brussels in those days) and a big bunch of flowers, an expression of gratitude from the Belgian. Charlotte said the German on the tram was a simple soldier who thought he could throw his weight around.
Ernest Van Moorleghem; Assisting Escapees
Eduard Cleeren had told Charlotte that if anything happened to him she should contact one Ernest Van Moorleghem, and he provided her with Ernest’s address. (Only the previous day Eduard had nearly been caught on a train carrying a radio transmitter. He passed it off as nothing more than an EKG device intended for medical purposes.) When Eduard did not show up at a rendezvous, she waited a week or two and then contacted Van Moorleghem. (Eduard survived imprisonment, returned to Belgium, then emigrated to Canada. Later he had a reunion with Madelon Frisque. They subsequently lost track of him and don’t know if he is still living.)
One day Petronella (Nel) Van Gellicum (see photo below), a friend of Lies, called her about someone who was coming, a political escapee from the Netherlands. Lies sent Charlotte, explaining to her that the man was H.P. Linthorst-Homan, a high-ranking official in the Dutch government. (After the war he became the governor of the province of Friesland, serving from 1945-1970.6) They had to devise a way to evacuate him to England, which they did, using an escape route similar to that used by many Allied fliers, through France and Spain. Then two or three more came. One had been in the Dutch Resistance but the Germans had learned about him (in the parlance, he was “burnt”).
One escapee presented a particularly difficult case. He was a young unmarried man who wanted to bring his girlfriend along with him to England. They told him flatly that she could not be included. When he was halfway to Spain, he threatened blackmail—either the girlfriend came or he would reveal their escape operation to the Germans. The girlfriend came.
Ernest Van Moorleghem was a police officer—an officer, not a cop, Charlotte said—and took care of getting people out of Belgium.7 By the end of 1942 and especially during 1943 they were handling the escapes of Allied fliers. The greatest numbers were at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944.
Charlotte and Ernest fell madly in love with each other. By 1943, Charlotte had turned 21; he was 29, and married. Charlotte calls him her fiancé but acknowledges that he wasn’t really. She describes Ernest as “very bright, intelligent, dedicated, and loyal.” The depth of her feeling for him is demonstrated by the presence of his photograph (see above) in her living room, with a ribbon of the Belgian national colors across the lower left corner. She never married. The file on Ernest in the National Archives reveals that he assisted 55 Allied fliers before his arrest. The National Archives file on Jan Wannee contains a report by Wannee written after the war, which mentions the important role played by Van Moorleghem.
Another Gestapo raid of a bar where Charlotte was present put her at real risk because she was carrying two incriminating documents. Shoved into the back seat of the Gestapo car with two other prisoners, and while the attention of the Gestapo agents was elsewhere, she slipped a small piece of paper, measuring about 1 ½ to 2 inches square, containing important names or facts, probably having to do with troop movements, into her mouth and swallowed it. The other document, a small photograph of about the same size of a German Air Force emplacement intended for London, she crumpled up between her fingers and then dropped onto the street when they got out of the car.
Nel Van Gellicum, who had passed on to them the high ranking Dutch official, was also arrested. Her arrest was discovered by Charlotte’s brother Dick. The Germans had left someone in her house in wait for whoever might turn up there.
Procedure for Delivering Fliers
Charlotte believes it was Alphonse Escrinier who would telephone them with the information on when and at what train station a flier would arrive. She never met Escrinier but knew his voice. In spite of the risk of wire-tapping by the Germans, no special codes were used, but they did use aliases. In all probability it was Escrinier who called to let her know when Eugene van der Heijden was delivering a flier, which, according to van der Heijden’s file in the National Archives, he did personally on three occasions. Escrinier would also call her to leave messages for or pick up messages from Van Moorleghem. She recalls getting many phone calls from Escrinier. Charlotte remembers meeting him once or twice after the Liberation but isn’t sure when.
Charlotte vaguely recalls some system of warnings—some object in a window or an open or closed window—used to warn off people who were coming to their apartment, when necessary. As for Eugene Van der Heijden, she doesn’t recall any special signals used for him.
Notwithstanding Charlotte’s seemingly phenomenal memory for these events, she says that, during her service in the Resistance, as soon as something was over and she no longer needed to know about it, she would forget it. The importance of this for security speaks for itself. The members of the escape organization tried not to know each other; not to see each other. She would take a certain step that was needed, but not the next. “We tried to forget things,” she said.
When van der Heijden or one of the other guides would come, typically they would have a cup of tea or coffee and talk for a half-hour or an hour. There might be messages waiting for them. This was an opportunity for Charlotte and her mother to talk with the guide while providing refreshments for the fliers. If the flier was being brought from the Gare du Nord, the North Station, the guide would have had to cross much of the city with him by tram. With their apartment being in Ixelles, formerly a separate city, but by then a commune on southern outskirts of Brussels, it was a considerable distance from the Gare du Nord. (The Brussels subway system was not built until after the war.)
Asked why the comings and goings of the fliers didn’t attract the unwanted attention of their neighbors, Charlotte said that she and her sister were young and they passed the fliers off as friends. In addition, they had no problem with collaborators in their neighborhood. However, it was one of the fliers, a tall Texan, who presented a real problem for them. While standing at their widow looking out at the street he saw two swankily dressed German officers passing by. He wanted to jump out of the window and kill them then and there. The women had difficulty holding him back. Another flier kept checking the top of the coat rack in the vestibule, leaving them puzzled as to why. It turned out that he had bought a pair of klompen (painted Dutch wooden shoes), stored them there, and was worried that someone might take them; they were to be the souvenirs of his escape. Charlotte remembers an escaped French prisoner of war, a professional cook, Auguste Garry, who asked if he could cook them a meal while he was at there. (The POW, Garry (see photo above), is listed in Ernest Van Moorleghem’s file in the National Archives.)
After the fliers were delivered to their apartment, it was not just Ernest Van Moorleghem who moved them on to their next stop. Sometimes it was Willem Schmidt, sometimes Charlotte. (The spelling of Schmidt’s last name is as it appears in Eugene Van der Heijden’s National Archives file. Charlotte Ambach calls Schmidt “Guillaume,” the French version of his first name.) But the Service EVA Resistance organization to which she and her mother belonged was sufficiently compartmentalized that she never knew anything about the fish market of Prosper Spilliaert and Spilliaert’s wife, Yvonne De Rudder, to which it appears that most of the fliers were taken. And Charlotte said she has no way of knowing if anyone other than Ernest guided them to it. She also said that she never met Gaston Matthys or Charles Hoste, two of the Service EVA’s leaders.
One RAF flier had a stomach problem. The pull of his parachute opening when he bailed out had burst something and he was bleeding internally. They enlisted the help of Dr. Israel de Winter, a Jewish doctor, who operated on him. Mariette Merjay, a nurse and member of the organization, looked after the flier for a long time. (Charlotte thinks he was probably the flier by the name of Hawthorne who is listed in Lies’ file at the National Archives.) (See the listing of Dr. de Winter among the other defendants in the Luftwaffe criminal trial of Charlotte and Lies.)
The Chabot/Ambach Apartment – 4 rue Jules Lejeune, Ixelles
Where they lived at 4 rue Jules Lejeune, in Ixelles, the neighborhood residences consisted of apartment buildings, ranging from petit bourgeoisie to bourgeoisie, according to Charlotte. Housing in European cities then, she says, had a greater economic mixture than in American cities now. They had been living there for three to four years, their previous residence having been the Residence Palais (Palace), a Swiss-built apartment building covering a city block where Lies’ father and stepmother had lived.
The apartment building on rue Jules Lejeune looked out on the Place Charles Graux where several small streets intersected and a main street, Chaussee Waterloo passed by. It was a short walk from there to the Avenue Louise where they could catch a tram to the city center, the North Station where many fliers arrived, or to Schaerbeek where the Fish Market was located. A few blocks beyond the Avenue Louise was the Rue Vergnies where Ernest Van Moorleghem lived.
Located on the third floor (Europeans would have called it the second, with the first being the ground floor) (see the above photo), the apartment consisted of a vestibule, sitting room, and dining room, plus three bedrooms–the master bedroom for Lies, a small bedroom for Charlotte, and a spare bedroom. A corridor ran most of the length of the apartment starting from the vestibule in the front. On the right side of the corridor were, first, the French doors from the dining room, then the spare bedroom, and, lastly, the master bedroom. The windows of these rooms looked out on rue Jules Lejeune and provided a means of watching for arriving fliers, Resistance members, and the German police.
On the left side, from front to rear, were the doors to the kitchen, the large bathroom, a tiny toilet, and, finally, Charlotte’s bedroom. All their windows provided a view of the courtyard. Charlotte’s bedroom was across the hall from Lies’. The French doors of the dining room were directly across the corridor from the kitchen door. In Charlotte’s bedroom was a basin recessed into the wall. The kitchen had a door opening onto a small balcony that provided access to the service elevator. (This description is based on the author’s visit to the building. The service elevator no longer is used but otherwise everything remains the same. Note the floor diagram several paragraphs above.)
In addition to the stairs, there were two elevators, the passenger elevator next to the circular staircase, and the already mentioned service elevator. The fliers typically came up either. On one occasion, fearing a raid, they had three fliers go to the balcony to hold the service elevator in case it became necessary to use it to escape.
The apartment was attractively furnished. Charlotte mentions beautiful Persian carpets and paintings. She has a photo taken during that period which shows an original painting by the Dutch Golden Age painter Anthonie Palamedesz on the wall above their fireplace (see photo above), silver bowls on the mantelpiece (the mantelpiece had been made by Madelon’s husband, Emile Frisque), and a bookcase filled with books to the right of the fireplace. (The Palamedesz painting is still in the possession of Madelon’s family. A small table that was to the right of the fireplace is still in Charlotte’s possession.)
Eduard Veterman, False Identity Documents
One of Charlotte’s friends was Eduard Veterman. He played the violin, painted, and wrote—he was an all-around artist. Veterman and his wife had one child. Because they were Jewish, they had arranged to place the child with a Catholic family. Veterman’s wife’s name may have been Sarah. Charlotte had been directed as to where she would meet Veterman. When she knocked at his place she heard a voice call out, “Come in.” When she entered, the room was empty. Only then, when he spoke again, did she realize he was in another room above and behind the one she was in. Charlotte and Veterman became immediate friends, with Charlotte calling him “E” (pronounced “A”.). For security reasons, he had adopted a false name from the population register.
One of Veterman’s responsibilities was making false Dutch identity cards and other false documents. As far as Charlotte knows, he did not make them for Van Moorleghem. One of the problems they faced in making false ID’s was getting the watermark onto the paper, but somehow Veterman managed it. Although there may have been other sources for false ID’s, Veterman is the only one Charlotte was aware of. Some escaping fliers were the recipients of the documents he had prepared.
Charlotte recalls their using public “Photomatic” booths to produce photos for false ID’s. Hers and Van Moorleghem’s were made this way.
Malavasi, W. Schmidt, and the Arrest of Chabot and Ambach
Shortly before their arrests, Guillaume (Willem) Schmidt said to Charlotte that he was not sure whether, if he were arrested, he would be able to withstand the torture and not divulge the escape organization. Looking back on it, she wishes they had taken action to transfer him from his duties.
November 15, 1943, the King’s birthday, was when Charlotte was directed to meet Guillaume at the North Station to pick up Nello Malavasi, a member of Tom Applewhite’s crew. (Judging from Eugene van der Heijden’s “War Memories”, Eugene learned of Malavasi from a border policeman. He, then, may have told Charlotte about Malavasi when he delivered Tom Applewhite to her on Nov. 14. She agrees that it was when Applewhite was at her apartment that the decision was made for her to get Malavasi the next day. However, her impression was that it was Guillaume who told her.) She was waiting in the main part of the station for the two men (she couldn’t get on the platform for the train because of ticket controls). She saw Guillaume walking toward her with a man wearing blue denim coveralls. Guillaume waved hello and she returned his wave. All of a sudden the man wearing the coveralls shoved a pistol in her face and shouted, “Hande hoch!” Later she learned that Guillaume had tried to wave her off but she hadn’t realized what he meant. (See photo of Guillaume (Willem) Schmidt below.)
They were taken into a small room where there were papers to be signed and then marched out. Two men were with her and two with Guillaume and maybe one or two more. Put on a train for Antwerp, she and Guillaume were imprisoned there. Because it was after dark she didn’t see much and doesn’t know whether it was the prison at Breendonk outside of Antwerp or another location. She did see Guillaume during the interrogation. Later she was taken from Antwerp to Laeken in a comfortable car by the GFP. The men were emphatic that they were not the Gestapo; until then Charlotte had not known the difference. (However, the file of Ernest at the National Archives makes it appear that they were the Luftwaffe police.) There she was taken to the bathroom. The men “were all so nice”. She was given a sandwich with sausage and cheese, a glass of wine, and coffee. While she was in the interrogation room at Laeken she was allowed to see Ernest, who had been arrested at his home the same day, and they embraced briefly. It was apparent to her that the Germans were playing “good cop (Gestapo) /bad cop (GFP or Luftwaffe)”. She thinks that there was a terrible fight between the two German agencies and that the Gestapo had been on their trail and did not want them arrested yet. Their arrest by the GFP (or Luftwaffe police) cut short the Gestapo’s investigation. She also thinks it is likely that Germans thought that reuniting her, however briefly, with Ernest, would cause one or the other to break down and agree to divulge information in exchange for the release of the loved one. Charlotte saw Ernest only one more time, at the interrogation room at St. Gilles Prison.
When Charlotte did not arrive home on time with the flier, Lies knew that she probably had been arrested. It was their policy within the organization that if anyone did not arrive within five minutes of the appointed time, the meeting was called off. In fact, typically people attending a meeting would find a way to delay arriving until just before the time set for it to begin. If anyone arrived even one or two minutes late he or she would find the others had already left. Lies knew that she had to hide any incriminating documents before the GFP or the Gestapo arrived. Watching from the apartment window, she saw the police cars pull up and quickly took everything that she could find—probably including some of the carbon copies that Charlotte had made at the Organization Todt—rushed to the small toilet in the hallway and hid them on a window sill high up on the back wall of the toilet. Because the sill was so high up so deep, nothing on it could be seen by anyone standing below. So successful was she in hiding them that the papers were still there after Lies and Charlotte were liberated from prison in 1945.
Prior to her arrest, Charlotte had posted a sign advertising her bicycle for sale. When she and Lies were arrested, a Luftwaffe man was stationed in their apartment to arrest anyone who showed up. An innocent little man came to inquire about the bicycle and was arrested. During her interrogation the Germans confronted her with the terrified man. She asked them, “Why is he here? Oh you idiot, why did you arrest him?”
While they were imprisoned at Laeken, there was one German guard, whom they referred to as “Little Man” who behaved kindly toward them. There were nine cells, four on one side and five on the other. Charlotte was in one cell, Lies in another. In the evening “Little Man” would come to Charlotte’s cell and whisper to her, “Your mother wishes you ‘good night’.” Then he would convey the same message from her to her mother.
Their trial by a Luftwaffe military tribunal was held at the Palace Hotel near the North Station. The Luftwaffe officers were sitting at one table; she, Lies next to her, and the other defendants at another. Ernest was not present. (A document in Ernest’s file lists 12 defendants, including him, so it appears that the tribunal may have split them into two or more groups.) Their appointed defense attorney was so young that Charlotte felt he had never even begun to open law books. He had not even read all the records of their arrest and was trembling more than they were. He told them, “I can’t really defend you; you will be condemned to death.” The charges against them were read. Their defense attorney was called upon. He said, “I have nothing to say.” At the end of the proceedings the defendants were allowed to speak on their own behalf. Charlotte was first. The members of the tribunal made it clear that they regarded her as a “landesverrätter”, a traitor. Asked if she had anything to say, Charlotte responded, “No, thank you, I have no defense for myself.” Thereupon Lies stood up and said that Charlotte was so young, that she had been influenced by Lies, and that what Charlotte had done was her fault, not Charlotte’s. Charlotte was furious with her mother and regretted that she wouldn’t be allowed to speak for herself again. Speaking of her mother 60 years after the event, Charlotte said that Lies “was the most wonderful woman I met in my life; she was beautiful within and without.” A large photographic portrait of her mother hangs over the head of Charlotte’s bed.
They were condemned to death. It was June 2, 1944. Each was assigned a number beginning with “NN” (“Non nomen”, for “no name”, reflecting the intent of the Nazi government that these prisoners would disappear within the prison system.) Charlotte was NN 400, Lies NN 406. (Charlotte’s number appears on a framed document at the AFEES exhibit at The Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum at Savannah, GA.)
The list in Ernest’s file of defendants, in addition to Ernest, Lies, and Charlotte, lists nine others:
Dr. Georges Bray
Ghislaine Gaspard, born Puissant
Dr. Israel de Winter (Jewish)
Petronelle (Nel) Van Gellicum
Elisabeth Van Altena
Paul Van Cleef (Jewish)
When their Dutch Jewish friend, Paul Van Cleef, with whom they had worked, was sentenced to only five years because the tribunal couldn’t prove anything against him, Charlotte says, “they danced in the aisles that he was spared.” The Germans were furious that they were happy! (Charlotte was to see Paul after the war. During her time in prison she was to encounter several other Jewish women who had been in the Resistance and nevertheless came through unscathed.) Paul was much more important than she or her mother, according to Charlotte. He did many things for the Resistance, not only helping co-religionists and fliers to escape, he also gathered intelligence, traveling between the Netherlands and Belgium. He alone knows what he did. Many people haven’t the foggiest idea what he did, she says.
Within a month of their sentencing Charlotte and Lies were sent to Germany. They never were in a concentration camp, only in German prisons, probably because of their death sentences. During this interview, while examining a map of the Schaerbeek commune of Brussels, Charlotte identified the Tir National, a place she passed by very often, as the location of many executions of Resistance members. Asked why the Germans simply didn’t shoot her and her mother in Brussels rather than shipping them to prison in Germany, she said, of the Germans, “No, no, you have to be correct!”
Their first prison was in Bonn. While there, Lies wrote on the wall of the cell above the door, “For what does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul. Matthew 16:26.” A few months later, Madelon, who also had been arrested, was placed in the same cell, saw the quotation, and knew that her mother had written it. It was a saying her mother would use and the handwriting was her mother’s.
After Bonn they were shipped to Frankfurt. When they arrived there there were guards around them and police with vicious police dogs. They were told they were to be sent to Präungesheim, where the guillotine awaited them. They had to go through one room where there was a long table with men seated at it. They were directed through a door to another room where they were to wait for awhile. A man had been watching the doors, and when they came out he said to Charlotte, “You, come here.” Lies was in a panic about what might happen to Charlotte. But the man simply asked Charlotte, “Is your name Ambach.” When she said it was, he asked, “Does your father know that you are here?” “No,” she answered. He then asked, “Would you like me to let him know that you are here?” To her “Yes,” he said, “I will see what I can do.” Charlotte now thinks that he probably had worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung and probably had spotted her name on the list of prisoners. But apparently he never told her father, either because he couldn’t or wouldn’t. (The Frankfurter Zeitung was closed by the Nazi government in 1943 and her father took retirement.)
In Frankfurt they had to stay at a police prison. At first the authorities wanted to separate Charlotte and Lies but finally Charlotte was allowed to stay with her mother. Of this period, Charlotte said she felt as if she was in Dante’s Inferno on earth. The two women were placed in a cell that was black—there was no light—and very hot, so much so that the other women in the cell were wearing just bras and panties. The other prisoners asked what Charlotte and Lies were being held for. “Politische,” was their explanation. “And what are you here for?” they asked. “Wrong love,” was the response. At first alarmed that they might be in a cell with lesbians, Charlotte and Lies finally realized that some of the women’s offenses were simply romantic involvement with foreign workers. Others were there because they had played American jazz records; they had just wanted to have some fun. They were in their twenties. The next morning one of the other women recognized Charlotte. She had been a former classmate from her Frankfurt school. Charlotte and Lies never were sent to Präungesheim.
A few days later the two were sent from Frankfurt to Bonn, then to Jena, then to Cottbus, where they stayed for several months, and finally to Waldheim near the Czech border. The constant changes of prisons reflected the movement of the Allied armies. At Waldheim they had been sleeping 11-12 a cell in a cell intended for two. To make the most effective use of the space, they put straw mattresses one way and slept on them the other way. By then some prisoners were being released because of overcrowding, including common law prisoners and foreigners with short sentences. Since they had been condemned to death, Charlotte and Lies remained. While in prison to occupy their time they did embroideries. A sample of Charlotte’s work is on display at The Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum at Savannah, GA.
It was in Waldheim where they were liberated by the Russians. They had been hearing the sound of artillery since April 13, 1945. On May 6, Charlotte heard the doors to the cells being opened–by a Russian soldier who had obtained the keys. When he came to their cell, all she saw was his sleeve because he was instantly mobbed by the women wanting to embrace him. Charlotte’s mother had lost 80 lbs. since their arrest. Before leaving the prison, some of the inmates examined the prison files relating to them. Charlotte learned that she, Lies, and the others in her group were scheduled to have been executed May 22. (To see a list compiled by Charlotte of songs the prisoners sang to keep up their spirits, click here.)
Madelon and her husband Emile Frisque had also been arrested. He was in one of the camps in Belgium when he was freed. He was sent as one of the officers in charge of repatriating Belgian prisoners, and combined that with a search for Charlotte, Madelon, and Lies. After Madelon was freed, she had the satisfaction of arresting a Nazi officer who was a German nobleman.
The Nazi government had revoked Charlotte’s citizenship, making her “apatride”, or stateless. The Belgian government offered her and Lies Belgian nationality “on a silver platter”. Even now, twenty years after coming to the U.S., Charlotte is still a Belgian citizen.
Because Lies’ first husband, Gerhard (Gerd) Pagenstecher, was German, she had become a German citizen, but his death in 1918 may not have restored her Dutch nationality. Then she married Ambach, another German. In 1944, Charlotte’s Dutch grandfather died, leaving a considerable estate. When Charlotte and Lies returned from prison, things were very unsettled. Lies had money in Holland but couldn’t get any of it, so friends loaned her money until she could get her own. Finally, the inheritance was settled and she was due to receive it. It involved a fair amount of money and possessions. In the meantime, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands came to Brussels to award Dutch decorations. Lies received the “Ridder from Orange Nassau”, a Dutch knighthood, with grateful acknowledgement of what she had done. Incredibly, at the same time some Dutch government functionary, “a pen pusher” as Charlotte describes him, confiscated the inheritance because Lies was an “enemy” citizen! Fortunately, Charlotte’s grandfather had someone who looked after his business affairs, Gijsbertus Rog. Lies phoned him and the next day Roog was on a train to see Nissing of The Hague, the best attorney in the Netherlands. Nissing gleefully took on the case. He was almost “jumping for joy” to represent Lies who, on the one hand, had been personally decorated by the Queen and, on the other hand, had had her property confiscated by the Dutch government. Nissing asked only to have his expenses reimbursed. Lies received her inheritance.
When Charlotte and Lies returned, their paintings in the apartment were still there. However, Charlotte’s grandfather’s collection of paintings was plundered. She thinks most went to the private collections of Hermann Göring. After the war, one 17th century painting of a soldier was returned by the German government and hangs in Utrecht. Charlotte thinks most of the others were recovered after the war.
Lies and Charlotte had had to deposit their personal belongings at the prison in Brussels, including Lies’ jewelry. Because the two women were deported to Germany, none of those items were returned. Jewelry back in the apartment may have been confiscated.
Lies had given her power of attorney to the family of Madelon’s husband, Emile Frisque, so that the Frisques could provide them with money in prison to buy extras that they needed. But because Charlotte was German, because the Frisques thought that Lies and Charlotte would never return from Germany, and because their apartment had to be freed for new renters, the Frisques had taken their clothes and furniture and distributed Lies’ property. Charlotte and Lies found that Emile’s sister had written on the under sides of their furniture the names of various family members who were to get the pieces. One use of their property Charlotte did not begrudge. Her nice fur coat had been cut up and altered for her niece. But she and her mother had also lost their beautiful Persian carpets thanks to the Frisques.
For her service in the Resistance, Charlotte was made a Knight of the Order of Leopold II and awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the Belgian Medal of Resistance, the Belgian Commemorative Medal with Crossed Swords, the Belgian Cross of Political Prisoner with four stars, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, The Netherlands Silver Medal of Gratefulness, and the British King’s Medal of Courage. The medals, along with one of her mother’s, are displayed in a case in the hallway of her home in Green Valley.
When the Nazis closed the Frankfurter Zeitung in August 1943, Charlotte’s father, Georg, decided to take his retirement. Most of the other employees, those not arrested, went to work for the Frankfurter Allgemeiner.8 Although Ambach was in Frankfurt most of the war, to avoid the bombings, he lived in a small village in the mountains. One of his residences in Frankfurt was destroyed by the bombings, so he had to move. After the war he returned to Frankfurt. He worked for U.S. Army officers for a time, then became a tour guide and went with tour buses to Italy. During an operation for prostate cancer in the 1960’s, he died. Charlotte believes his heart gave out. She attended his funeral.
Post-war Contact with Fliers
Madelon became a good friend of one of the fliers, Hutchinson, after emigrating to Canada. She was driving through Toronto and recognized the name of the street where he lived. Madelon had a farm in Uxbridge. Hutchinson and his wife visited Charlotte in Green Valley.
Links for Additional Information About Charlotte Ambach
- Interview of Charlotte Ambach by Lynn David in 1997: http://airforceescape.org/charlotte-ambach-interview/
- List of airmen helped by Charlotte Ambach: http://airforceescape.org/charlotte-ambach-interview/airmen-helped-by-charlotte-ambach/
- Decorations received by Charlotte Ambach: http://airforceescape.org/charlotte-ambach-interview/decorations-received-by-charlotte-ambach/
- Embroideries and Handicrafts Made by Political Prisoners Awaiting Execution: http://airforceescape.org/charlotte-ambach-interview/embroideries-and-handicrafts-made-by-prisoners-awaiting-execution/
- News clippings about Charlotte Ambach in English and Dutch. Click on the following pdf file to view them: Articles in English and Dutch about Charlotte Ambach.
- Indictment and Order to Arrest Ernest van Moorleghem, Elise Chabot, and Charlotte Ambach. Click on the following pdf file: Ambach – trial of Van Moorleghem, Ambach, Chabot.
- Military Court Verdict, Criminal Case Against Willem Schmidt, Johannes Oudemans, Jan de Konink, Theodorus Vogels, Jeanne Willems, Petrus van Geel, Edouard Coster, Madelon Frisque, and Emile Frisque. Click on the following pdf file: Ambach – trial record .