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The Zero Escape Line

June 22, 2018 - June 24, 2018

Charles Schepens, who died on March 28 2006 aged 94, ran an escape route through the Pyrenees during the Second World War and later became a leader in the field of retina surgery.

The son of a physician, Charles Schepens was born in Belgium and studied Mathematics before turning to Medicine at the University of Ghent. His interest in mathematics led to an interest in ophthalmic instrumentation and, after graduate research, he trained in eye diseases at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

In 1939 he joined the medical corps of the Belgian Air Force. After the Germans invaded, he was briefly detained by the Gestapo on trumped-up charges of owning a bus used to transport Allied pilots out of Belgium. He had been largely apolitical until then, but after his release he determined to do what he could to aid the resistance effort. At first he allowed his medical office to be used as a “letter box” for the transfer of sensitive documents such as maps, diagrams of troop movements and lists of escapees. In 1942, finding that he was again attracting the attention of the Gestapo, he fled with his wife and two children to France.

There, after making contact with the Resistance, he took the alias Jacques Perot and bought a defunct sawmill in the French Basque village of Mendive, bordering the Iraty Forest in the Pyrenees. After restoring the mill for operation as a lumber and logging enterprise, he used it as a front for a secret information and evacuation service.  Evacuees were assigned to manual labour outside the mill and given the means and the opportunity to slip over the border into Spain, from where they could make their way to Britain and other havens.

The enterprise also funnelled currency, underground literature and other materials in and out of the region. Schepens helped more than 100 people to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, including Belgian officials and resistance leaders, escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied pilots. The majority, however, were young Frenchmen escaping being drafted into German-run factories.

Schepens’s operation lasted until 1943, when a member of the Resistance revealed its existence under interrogation by the Gestapo. Schepens managed to flee over the border before he could be caught, but his family was placed under house arrest and a 100,000-franc reward posted for his capture.

The Germans hoped to set a trap for Schepens using his family as bait, but the plan was foiled when Schepens’s wife took her children and escaped in her turn across the Pyrenees. Nine months later the family were reunited in England.

Schepens returned to Moorfields where, in the immediate post-war years, he developed the indirect binocular ophthalmoscope, an instrument now routinely used to view the retina.

In 1947 he moved to America as a fellow in ophthalmic research at Harvard Medical School. Two years later, he became the founder director of the Retina Service at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. He later established the Retina Foundation at Harvard (now the Schepens Eye Research Institute).

Soon after his move to America, Schepens revolutionised techniques for retinal reattachment with the development of the retinal scleral buckling operation, and was credited with raising success rates in this technique from 40 to 90 per cent. Over the years, he and his team developed laser surgery, pioneered new equipment such as the Laser Doppler Flowmeter and trained several generations of retinal specialists, now practising around the world.

Schepens never spoke to colleagues about his work in the Resistance, and his role was discovered only by chance in 1983 when an American museum consultant called Meg Ostrum, on holiday in the Pyrenees, met a village priest who spoke warmly of a “Jacques Perot”, whom he knew to be a Belgian doctor living in Boston, and who had done great things in the village during the war. In 2004 she published The Surgeon and the Shepherd, about his wartime exploits. On March 21 this year, a few days before his death, Schepens was presented with the French Legion of Honour.

For more information about this event please contact  basquefreedomtrailsww2@gmail.com


June 22, 2018
June 24, 2018


Basque Freedom Trails Association