I learned about this book on Twitter when a lady I’ve met there, Pauline, from Scotland, tweeted about it. I’d never heard of this Scottish priest and her tweet piqued my curiosity. I found the book online and ordered it. I didn’t have a chance to read it right away, and now that I have, I wish I’d made time earlier as it’s truly a lovely, well-written book by an absolutely brave, caring and gentle man who did extraordinary things during WWII to aid allies, soldiers, sailors and private individuals to escape from the Nazis in France.
The Reverend Caskie was from Scotland—Islay—but was the priest of the Scottish church in Paris before and at the time of the German invasion. On the eve of the invasion in 1940, he led his flock in the last Sunday service, packed a bag and left the city on foot. He prayed along the way for the safety of his fellow evacuees as well as the people who had no choice but to stay behind as the enemy closed in.
He made his way to Marseille with some harrowing moments such as being strafed by German pilots along with thousands of other refugees. Many fell dead as they ran. He was also suspected of being a spy and surrounded by angry villagers in one town as he bought a bicycle and didn’t realize it had an iron cross on the back of it.
Once he made it to Marseille, with the aid of a friend, he found a place to stay. In that home, he prayed about what he needed to do. A Voice came to him that clearly called him to give assistance to the people who were in need. He made his way to the American consulate as it was still open and was told about the abandoned sailors’ mission building. He then went to the local police station to get permission to use the building to help stranded British civilians. He was given permission, but told if he helped one soldier or enemy combatant, he would be shut down.
What ensued was a tale of how this gentle man followed his special calling and helped anyone who needed it. How he raised funds to feed these people and how he was approached by the secret services to assist airmen and escaping soldiers into neutral Spain. He had to get civilian clothing for the escapees as well as false papers. He found places to hide them. He risked his life every day and saved quite a large number of men and women. Many of the townspeople of Marseille also aided in hiding these men and in getting supplies and clothing. It was a secret, yet community effort.
I read a book a while back about Nancy Wake, the famous Resistance fighter who was also in Marseille at the time and I was pleased to see some of the same people she worked with in this book. Ian Garrow and the Pat O’Leary group. Pat was actually a Belgian doctor, but during the war, he was an agent who posed as Irish. It was like finding old friends in the pages of this book. I like to think Donald and Nancy knew each other and supported each other’s missions.
Donald Caskie eventually ended up being betrayed and imprisoned. This part of the book was particularly moving. No matter what the Nazis put him through, he kept his faith, even carving Bible verses on the wall with his fingernail—which, he found out a few months later from a cellmate in a different prison, saved that man’s life when he was about to commit suicide.
This is a beautiful book and such bravery from one man is amazing. His faith pulled him through a difficult period of time and he is a true hero. Quiet, unassuming, and just getting on with the task. I highly, highly, recommend this one. It’s a tale of love, compassion in the face of unbearable cruelty, and how even one man (with divine guidance and some friends) can make a world of difference.