She was a very warm person,” remembers 80-year-old Colette Beach Witt. “A gentle person with beautiful eyes, very sweet, and tall.”
“And she became very friendly with my mother,” she adds. Along with the other young European secretaries working for the church in that office, an attraction to all things American and the chance to practice English drew the young woman to friendly visits in the upstairs apartment home of the Beach family. The downstairs area of the building was the headquarters of the Franco-Belgian Union offices in Paris, where Witt’s father served as president in the years before the Nazi occupation of France.
The gentle young woman with the beautiful eyes had a name: Gabrielle Weidner. She worked as a secretary to Elder Beach and other union leaders afterward—a devoted worker for God’s cause in that part of the world.
Bert Beach, former religious liberty director for the world church, who was a boy at the time, remembers her similarly. “She was just a really friendly, dedicated, Christian woman—very well liked by others,” he says. She was also a strong Adventist Christian who came from a family whose lives were rooted in their faith.
Gabrielle was born August 17, 1914, in Brussels, Belgium, the second child born to a family that included her older brother John, and younger sister Annette. Her father was a minister who taught Greek and Latin at what is now Saleve Adventist University in Collonges, France, where the young Weidners spent happy times exploring the mountains and valleys around the campus. The Weidner children were also industrious, lending their efforts—meager, as they might have been—to raising the finances for their education in Adventist schools.
In the late 1920s one could earn money by selling postage stamps from various parts of the world. Gabrielle’s brother John as a teenager wrote to fellow believers as far away as Australia soliciting stamps for his “business.” The Australasian Record carried these requests as well as updates pertaining to the effort. The money earned was to defray the costs of not only John’s school tuition but also that of his younger sister Gabrielle, and her success meant as much to him as his own. “I have been greatly touched by the kindness shown to my sister and myself from all over the world by the sending of stamps and by the questions asked,” he wrote in a letter printed in 1928. “I am glad to say that both my sister and I are attending the seminary. Our parents were quite satisfied with all our term-end standings. Gabrielle’s were splendid, and I am proud to have a sister of only thirteen years, the youngest but one of 120 students, who learns so well.”1
John’s caring attitude toward his sister extended far beyond the Weidner family circle and reached deep into the lives of many because of the dangerous times they found themselves living in. By the early 1940s, World War II brought with it horrific atrocities throughout Europe. And when war broke out with France caught in it,
the situation for Gabrielle and John—whose parents were in Holland by then—became increasingly difficult. John, who by that time was a young businessman and highly motivated by his Christian upbringing and a strong sense of what God believes is right, refused to stand idly by.2
Using his extensive knowledge of the French-Swiss border near the Collonges campus—acquired during the years the family lived there—John decided to help Jews and others in danger by helping them get into neutral Switzerland. Initially the effort was a solo mission, but friends and family soon began helping him. Eventually this grew into an underground network of some 300 persons known as Dutch-Paris. Using aliases and falsified documentation provided by key friends in high places, John was able to spirit many Jews and downed Allied airmen from Holland, to Belgium, then to France and on to Geneva and sometimes to Andorra.3 In time, this work put John on a list of persons the gestapo wanted.
It is not clear how deeply Gabrielle was involved; though it is believable she was not entirely in the dark about Dutch-Paris. There are those who believe John might have kept her out of it as much as possible in order to save her, while other accounts say she actually worked as a courier—relaying messages from John to others in the network. But what is known for sure is that during that time Gabrielle remained a faithful employee of the Franco-Belgian Union, serving as a secretary to North France Conference president Oscar Meyer and was listed as a licensed missionary in the 1943 Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. All this while the gestapo put 5 million francs on her brother’s head.
By June of 1944 the allies were on the beaches of Normandy pushing toward Paris and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe. For many during these war years, the end of hell was getting closer. But for Gabrielle, it was just beginning.
Dutch-Paris associates were under strict orders never to carry documentation that revealed names, addresses, or other identifying information on the network and any of its members. But someone did not heed that directive. A young associate named Suzy Kraay was caught and turned over to the gestapo. Besides information she divulged during the course of interrogation and torture, a small notebook filled with contact information on the organization was found on her person. As a result, nearly half of the 300 people working with, or associated with, Dutch-Paris—including Gabrielle—were arrested. According to her brother’s biographer Herbert Ford, John believed her capture was designed to use her as bait to lure him into the gestapo’s hands.
On the last Sabbath morning of February 1944 the gestapo went to the Paris Seventh-day Adventist Church where Gabrielle worshipped and asked for her. Identified by someone in the congregation, she quietly complied with their request to go with them to her apartment, which was in the same building as the union and conference headquarters at 130 Boulevard de l’Hopital, Paris. On hearing that Gabrielle was taken, her younger sister Annette soon followed. She arrived as Gabrielle was still with the gestapo. In an effort to keep them away from her sister, Gabrielle spoke uncharacteristically harshly to her, as if she didn’t know her, commanding her to leave. It was a move that saved the girl’s life.
Gabrielle was allowed to hastily gather a few personal things before she was taken to Fresnes Prison, on the outskirts of Paris, at that time the largest prison in France. During the war Fresnes Prison was used by the Nazis to incarcerate captured members of the French resistance, among others. Gabrielle would remain there from February until August 1944. She was able to survive conditions in prison, as she was allowed to keep her civilian clothes and received a substantial package of food from friends. Her health, according to Bert Beach, was never particularly robust, but in the prison she held her own. Exact details of the efforts to obtain her release on the parts of church leadership, friends, and of course, her brother John, are unknown to us. We also are not sure of the type of interrogation she was subjected to, but whatever secrets she may have kept were never divulged.
By mid-August the Allies were 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Paris, and the sounds of their approaching cannons could be heard in the city.4 Indeed, there was hope among Gabrielle’s friends and family that she would be liberated soon. But the Nazis had last-ditch plans. With the allied arrival imminent, many prisoners at Fresnes were executed in the days leading up to the liberation of Paris. Others were hurried to another prison—Romainville—to await transport to the east. Gabrielle was among them on what was likely the last transport from Paris to the death camps.
After a journey of several days she arrived via cattle car at Ravensbrück, near Fürstenberg in northern Germany. According to her Nazi-issued “personal-karte,” or personal card, she arrived at the camp on August 21, 1944. The Allies liberated Paris August 25, 1944.
Gabrielle stayed in Ravensbrück for a short time. It was the largest women’s camp in the Nazi system.5 Women were brought from all over Europe with the population consisting of many political prisoners—as Gabrielle was classified. Ravensbrück opened in 1939, and by the time she arrived, so close to the end of the war, the facilities were abominable, as there was massive overcrowding, horrific sanitary conditions, and widespread disease.
Gabrielle, along with other French prisoners with similar classifications, was soon transferred to Torgau—a subcamp of Buchenwald. Her prison registration card lists her as a “polit. Französin,” or French political prisoner. Her religion, interestingly enough, was not identified as Seventh-day Adventist, but by the initials “l.k.,” the meaning of which is not known. Additionally, her captors took meticulous record of her physical appearance, noting that, just as Colette Witt remembered, at five feet nine inches she was indeed tall. Gabrielle was described as having dark-brown hair, light-brown eyes, and in German, a “grosser Mund,” or large mouth, with all her teeth present and no visible scars. The emblem to signify her classification: an inverted red triangle with an F on it, meaning she was a political prisoner from France. And the home address noted: 130 Boulevard de l’Hopital, Paris—the headquarters of the Franco-Belgian Union of Seventh-day Adventists.
As a political prisoner Gabrielle was used as a forced laborer. In Torgau, women worked producing bombs and grenades as well as cleaning unexploded devices6—a work that exposed them to acids and fumes that weakened even the healthy. Proper nutrition and adequate clothing were nowhere to be found. She was soon transferred back to Ravensbrück in October. But this time Gabrielle was sent to a subcamp of Ravensbrück called Königsberg (Neumark), located on the grounds of an airport in what is now Poland. Königsberg opened its doors around October 20, 1944, and was populated with female prisoners transferred from the main Ravensbrück camp.7 Gabrielle arrived there October 29, 1944.
To say the conditions in Königsberg were terrible is woefully inadequate. The women were housed in barracks with no heat and slept on wooden bunks with paper-filled sacks for mattresses. Their “diet” was designed for starvation, and they wore nothing that would protect them from the harsh cold. Gabrielle’s health quickly deteriorated. At Königsberg, anyone too sick to work was moved to the infirmary—a place where the restoration of the health and well-being of prisoners was a joke. This is where Gabrielle spent the duration of her days at Königsberg.
Madeleine Billot was a friend of John Weidner’s. As a result of her involvement in another underground group, she was deported to Ravensbrück, where she came to know Gabrielle. After the war ended, she told John of his sister’s experience. “All the time Gabrielle gave a wonderful testimony of her faith in God. She was in the infirmary at Königsberg, and even there she was always encouraging the others.”8
By early February 1945 the Soviet army was quickly approaching the camp at Königsberg. Women who could still move were led away by the SS on a death march. Those who were too sick to go, like Gabrielle, were left to die. To try to cover their crimes in their hasty retreat, the SS set the barracks and infirmary on fire, but Gabrielle was miraculously pulled from the flames at the last moment. The Soviets liberated the camp on February 5, 1945.
But it was too late.
Gabrielle Weidner died in the Ravensbrück subcamp of Königsberg. Though some records state her death occurred on February 15, 1945, a published document containing listings of all Ravensbrück prisoners states her death occurred on February 6—both dates after the camp’s liberation.9 The actual cause of her death was never recorded.
Billot told John they buried his sister in a grave in Königsberg—one of the rare individuals to receive a dignified interment, if it could be called that. After the war, a search was initiated for Gabrielle’s final resting place through the Netherlands Tracing Mission. The result as of 1951: no grave found.
The ever-prevalent question of why God would allow bad things to happen to His people stands out in the sad story of Gabrielle Weidner. There are indeed answers, and right now only He knows them. But in heaven we, along with Gabrielle Weidner, will finally understand.
“ ‘Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake.’ Phil. 1:29. And of all gifts that Heaven can bestow upon men, fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is the most weighty trust and the highest honor.”10