June 25, 2008

Running From Death

“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Prov. 24:11, 12).
2008 1518 page8 capN A TIME WHEN STANDING UP FOR justice could have meant the loss of your own life, one man did what was right, despite the consequences. He was a man whose moral principles and courage were guided by his love for God and humanity. His English name was John Henry Weidner [Johan Hendrik Weidner].
Weidner used to share with his wife, Naomi, a story of his childhood in Europe. As a little boy of about 8 or 9, he decided one day to run away from home. He didn’t really have a good reason, for he came from a loving family made up of his pastor father, his mother, two sisters, and a younger brother.
2008 1518 page8 linkOn his journey “away” he encountered a drunken person who scared him into rethinking his plans. As he trudged home, his family caught sight of him making his way back. Unbeknownst to him, he was about to be taught a serious lesson. In the time that he was gone, the family packed away his room. When Weidner returned and discovered his bed and belongings were no more, he was told that because he had decided to leave home his parents assumed that he didn’t want to be with them anymore and wanted to respect his wishes. After pleadings of remorse, young Weidner was accepted back into the family home, but told that with his room gone, he needed to sleep in the hayloft in the barn.

Weidner recalled that he dutifully went to bed in the hayloft that night and was terrified. It was dark, he could hear mice roaming around, and, worst of all, he was alone. Just when he thought he could stand it no more, he heard the creaking of footsteps climbing the loft. It was his father. He came to spend the night with his boy so that he wouldn’t have to face his punishment alone.

One can think that in that small but mighty lesson taught to Weidner by a loving father lay the roots for the acts of courage, altruism, and love that he freely participated in during the frightening years of the Nazi occupation of France that were to come.
Standing for Principle
Weidner was born into a Seventh-day Adventist home in Belgium in 1912. He was the eldest of four children born to Dutch parents. “Even when we were quite young, my parents always encouraged us, my sisters and me, to read the Bible and to believe that love was the aim of our lives,” he said.1 Because his father was a minister, the family was transferred frequently for new pastoral assignments.
While Weidner was living in Switzerland as a boy, the law mandated that all children attend school every day of the week, including Sabbath. Weidner’s father went to the authorities to explain the family’s religious convictions. He was rebuffed and told that if his children didn’t attend school, he would have to go to jail one day a week. “For seven years, I see my father going every week in jail because of his religious convictions. As a little boy, that impressed me, the idea that if you believe in something that is right, you have to be able to accept the consequences of it. That also helped me [make] a decision during the war: I wanted to help,” said Weidner.2
Weidner attended what is now Salève Adventist University in Collonges, France, just across the Swiss border from Geneva. His father taught Greek and Latin at the school. Growing up in Collonges had great advantages for Weidner in the work that he would one day undertake. As a kid, he climbed the mountains surrounding the campus and learned the ins and outs of the surrounding countryside and border crossing into Switzerland. That knowledge would later prove to be extremely useful.
After his time at Collonges, Weidner went on to study business and law at the universities of Geneva and Paris. Following his schooling, he entered into the textile business and became quite successful at it, setting up shop initially in Paris before branching out to other cities in France. At one point he counted among his clients the international fashion house of Christian Dior.
The Changing Landscape
By 1940, when Germany invaded France, Weidner had established his base in Lyon. It was there that he came to help organize the Dutch-Paris underground network that eventually assisted about 800 Jews, 100 Allied aviators, and many others who were escaping the tyranny and murder of Nazi oppression. Dutch-Paris eventually involved a network of more than 300 agents who essentially made up an underground escape line from the Netherlands through Belgium and France into either Switzerland (by way of the border crossing near Collonges), or through Andorra to Spain via a more dangerous path through the Pyrenees mountains.
2008 1518 page8Roger Fasnacht was a young campus administrator at the Adventist campus in Collonges during the time. The campus served as a pivotal point for Weidner’s Dutch-Paris operations and the moving of refugees into Switzerland. Fasnacht says: “Jean Weidner* was a great friend. Through his resistance network he sent us Jews and students we helped cross the border. We were a solid team with Jean Zurcher, Jean Lavanchy, Raymond Meyer, Frederic Charpiot, and Dr. Paul Toureille. Sometimes we received refugees at home, but there were two or three rooms in the Sources building [on the campus] to house them and we brought them at dawn under the bridge near the Archamp’s station to bring them to Switzerland.”3
During this dark period of world history, the Adventist Church in France was in crisis. In June 1940 the citizens of Paris were fleeing in droves in advance of the quickly approaching Nazi onslaught. The Franco-Belgian Union Conference was based in Paris, but packed up its offices to move its operations to the south, where it was widely believed the Nazis would not go. Weidner’s sister Gabrielle was secretary to Oscar Meyer, president of the Franco-Belgian Union, and John was part of the relocation efforts.
As the war progressed and the church in France became increasingly cut off from the rest of the world, it didn’t take long for John to respond to the atrocities and injustice facing Jews and other resistors of the Nazi regime. In 1939, a year before Germany invaded France, there were 300,000 Jews living in France. But by 1940, another 40,000-50,000 Jewish refugees had arrived in the country from Belgium and Holland alone.4
As an Adventist, Weidner’s faith moved to a difficult and courageous choice. Sadly, the response of some Adventists across Europe during this time period was not what it should have been, and the plight of the Jews and other oppressed persons often met with indifference. But for Weidner this was not an option. Mere sympathy alone was not an option. Action was necessary, and he chose not to ignore what he felt to be the correct call.
“When the war started, I thought as a human being, well, that’s a question: how to help people. I thought I had a way to help them. If a Jewish person could reach Switzerland or Spain, he was safe. Those countries were neutral. The big question was how to reach Switzerland from Holland. Everywhere there was Gestapo, the SS, the soldiers of Hitler. The borders were closed. The border between France and Switzerland was heavily guarded, because the Nazis knew that Jewish people tried to reach Switzerland. But I knew the border between Collonges, France, and Switzerland from my days in that college,” Weidner said.5
“In setting up an escape route, I tried to avoid the roads to find a passage from one side of the mountain to the other side, down the cliff. There, with the help of friends, we could watch during the night and then reach the border. We could avoid the guards, cut the barbed wire, and go into Switzerland. Not me alone. Along the escape line from Holland to Belgium to France to Switzerland, there were around 12 people at the end working with us.”6
Counting the Cost
To call participating in rescue work “difficult” is a huge understatement. Weidner said, “It was very dangerous to help Jews and it was not easy because it was so difficult to travel from one place to another. We had to find safe places along the way where people could sleep for one night or two and also ways to feed them. Then there were other problems: Where could we get false papers? Where could we find money to pay for papers and food? Where would we find people to help us? Could we trust the people we found? A good friend in Switzerland, W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, who would become secretary general of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, knew about our work, and he not only encouraged us, but he helped us, providing money and other kinds of assistance to us as we continued our underground work. In addition, we were able to get money, through Switzerland, from the Dutch government-in-exile in London.”7
Through Weidner’s work with the Dutch-Paris network, many Jews and Allied aviators were saved from certain death.
Weidner’s rescue efforts were not without serious ramifications. At one point, Weidner was at the top of the Gestapo’s most-wanted list. He was arrested and tortured on two separate occasions and said to be interrogated by the infamous Klaus Barbie in Lyon. Somehow, he always managed to escape, often in the most harrowing circumstances. In fact, Weidner’s last escape was the day before he was slated for execution.
2008 1518 page8During his incarceration in Toulouse, Weidner befriended a compassionate guard who noticed he had a Bible with him. Eventually the guard warned him of his impending fate, and Weidner was able to convince him to help him escape by providing tools to pick his cell lock and giving him a time frame in which he could slip out undetected. Jumping three stories to the street below, he landed without breaking a bone, and ran for his life to the safety of a Dutch-Paris associate’s house. From there, Weidner was able to continue his secret mission at the time, which was to be a trip to London to brief Allied commanders about Dutch-Paris’s work with Allied soldiers and refugees.
The rug was eventually pulled out from under the Dutch-Paris network, leading to a disastrous outcome that held great personal loss for Weidner. An operative named Suzie Kraay was apprehended by the Gestapo en route from Paris. Her assignment was to assist downed Allied airmen and to take food to them. In a small café in the train station she was approached by the French Gestapo. While going to headquarters for questioning, she committed a serious blunder.
Dutch-Paris operatives were never to carry contact information of any kind on any member of the organization. This measure was designed to protect all involved in case of arrest. Kraay, however, had a small notebook filled with exactly this type of precious information. To this day, it is not clearly understood why. In the process of her arrest, this crucial piece was discovered. Kraay was then interrogated and tortured into finally divulging all she knew.
As a result of this grave turn of events, nearly 150 out of 300 members of Dutch-Paris were arrested. Many of them were sent to concentration camps and never heard from again. Among them was Gabrielle, Weidner’s sister. The Nazis actually arrested her at the Paris Seventh-day Adventist Church during Sabbath morning services. Paul Meyer, brother of the Franco-Belgian Union president, was also arrested and deported. Gabrielle Weidner died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, days after the Russians liberated it. Meyer died in Dachau.
His Enduring Legacy
After the war ended, Weidner worked for the Dutch government (he had been made an officer in the Dutch army during the occupation), tracking down Nazi collaborators and bringing them to justice. However, after several years of being involved in this difficult work, Weidner decided to make a fresh start in America, and settled in southern California in the mid-1950s. It was there that he met his wife, Naomi, a nurse working at the time at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles.
In time Weidner embarked on a second career and started a chain of successful health food stores, known in the Los Angeles suburbs as Weidner Natural Foods. He and Naomi lived in Monterey Park, California, where he was active for many years in community and local church affairs.
Weidner’s wartime rescue efforts did not go unrecognized. For his courage he was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom, made a member of the Order of the British Empire, the Dutch Order of Orange Nassau, and given the Dutch Medal of Resistance. The French government awarded him the Croix de guerre and Medaille de la Resistance, and the Legion d’honneur. The government of Belgium also made him an officer of the Order of King Leopold. In addition, the government of Israel honored him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at the country’s national Holocaust Memorial in Yad Vashem. Weidner has a tree planted in his name there. He also participated in the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1993 as one of seven persons selected to light candles recognizing rescuers.
In the United States Weidner quietly went about his new life in southern California with little being said about his wartime record for many years. Bert Beach, a personal friend of John Weidner, says, “In his early years in the United States, he did not play up his war activities hardly at all.”
2008 1518 page8Weidner’s biographer, Herbert Ford, author of Flee the Captor, was instrumental in telling his story to the larger public. The book was published in 1966 after extensive interviews with Weidner. Ford was the public relations director of the Southern California Conference at the time and says, “I first learned about John’s story when I received a telephone call from Haskell Lazere, executive director of the Southern California office of the American Jewish Congress. He said there was to be a big celebration in West Hollywood in which a number of Gentiles would be honored for their World War II-time work in saving Jews from the Nazi program of extermination. It was the first I knew of John or of his rescue of Jews in World War II.”
Weidner visited Ford’s church to speak of his experiences soon after, and Ford was inspired to author the book, a process that involved spending more than 100 hours together talking about all of Weidner’s experiences in his rescue work. The book was well received around the country, and was updated in 1994. Weidner’s story has been researched and documented by other authors over the years as well.
“During our lives, each of us faces a choice: to think only about yourself, to get as much as you can for yourself, or to think about others, to serve, to be helpful to those who are in need. I believe that it is very important to develop your brains, your knowledge, but it is more important to develop your heart, to have a heart open to the suffering of others. As for myself, I am just an ordinary person, just someone who wants to help his neighbor. That is the aim of God for me: to think about others, to be unselfish. I am nothing exceptional. If I have one hero, it is God who has helped me to fulfill my mission, to fulfill my duties, to do what I have to do. But for myself, I am just a simple person. During the war, I did what I think everyone should have done.”8
John Weidner passed away in 1994 in southern California. His passing was commemorated with a memorial service attended by key leaders from the Adventist Church, the Jewish community, representatives of local government, individuals he rescued, and their families.
To have done what he did in living a life of courage and love in the face of horrific circumstances is something not many of us can comprehend. Yet his legacy serves to inspire us to do what we should in a world where similar injustice still occurs. Weidner did as Jesus would have done.
“And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21).
*French spelling
1Rittner, Carol, and Sondra Myers, editors, The Courage to Care (New York University Press, 1986), p. 58.
2Monroe, Kristen Renwick, The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice During the Holocaust (Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 102.
3Testimony from Roger Fasnacht, 2007.
4Kurt Ganter, Weidner Foundation president, from address given at the Phi Alpha Theta induction ceremony, Atlantic Union College, March 26, 2008.
5Monroe, Kristen Renwick, The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice During the Holocaust (Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 102, 103.
6Ibid., p. 103.
7Rittner, Carol, and Sondra Myers, editors, The Courage to Care (New York University Press, 1986), p. 59.
8Ibid., p. 65.
Wilona Karimabadi markets and edits KidsView, Adventist Review’s magazine for children. She is eagerly looking forward to interviewing John Weidner in heaven.