During the Holocaust over seven million men, women and children were murdered including Jews, Gypsies, religious and political dissidents, disabled people and many other groups that were believed to be a threat to civil society. Most of the world looked the other way and allowed this to happen. However, we know that there were righteous individuals who risked their lives to help fight this atrocity against mankind. John Henry Weidner was one.
Born Johan Hendrik Weidner in 1912 in Brussels, Belgium to Dutch parents, he grew up in France, where his father was a minister of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In 1940, Weidner was in Paris when the Germans invaded the Netherlands. He was working for a commercial firm an as agent who traveled to southern France and Geneva. When the Netherlands, Belgium and France were occupied, Weidner moved to Lyons, France then in the unoccupied southern zone where he continued his work. Lyons had become a magnet for thousands of refugees. It was here that Weidner embarked on his courageous humanitarian endeavor.
He initially assisted his Dutch compatriots but as a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he believed he had a moral obligation to help all those needing sanctuary. Having learned from his father, who was imprisoned more than once for advancing the idea of freedom of religion, John Weidner knew he could not be passive.
His assistance at first to a small number of people developed into a large network and escape route known as the Dutch-Paris Line or the “Swiss-Way.” This escape route ran from the Netherlands through Belgium and France over the Alps to neutral Switzerland and Spain. Weidner had developed a good working knowledge of the mountains during his ten years studying and living at the Adventist Seminary in Collognes on the French-Swiss border, and this was central to the success of the route.
Under his leadership, this network of over 300 individuals helped refugees by issuing forged papers, arranging hideouts, and when possible, smuggling fugitives to neutral Spain and Switzerland. Weidner and the Dutch-Paris Line participants helped anyone in need of hiding or support regardless of their ability to cover expenses. Quite often Weidner himself covered the necessary expenses. The organization consisted of hundreds of courageous men and women of various faiths, professions and nationalities, bound together by their shared hatred for the Nazi brutality.
The Dutch-Paris Line saved over 1000 men, women and children, approximately 800 Jews and 200 others, including Allied airmen who had been downed over France, political refugees and individuals whose assistance to Jews had provoked the wrath of the authorities.
Weidner paid a price for his resistance. He was arrested and brutalized several times and soon became one of the Gestapo’s most wanted men. Weidner’s family also paid a price. In an attempt to get Weidner to turn himself in, the Gestapo arrested his sister, Gabrielle. In one of the hardest decisions of his life, Weidner had to choose: Continue his rescue work or save his sister. He chose to continue his important work. Gabrielle died in the Ravensbrῢck Concentration Camp in 1944.
At the close of the war, the Dutch government asked Weidner to serve his mother country as a member of the diplomatic corps. There he assisted the Minister of Justice in the prosecution of war criminals. He remained in the diplomatic service at the Dutch Embassy in Paris until 1950 when he asked to be relieved of his duties.
After the war, President Truman honored Weidner with the United States Medal of Freedom. British monarch George VI inducted him into the Order of the British Empire and Dutch Queen Wilhelmina accepted him as a member of the Order of the Orange-Nassau. Weidner was also decorated by the French government with the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance and awarded the French Legion of Honor.
In 1955, Weidner immigrated to the United States where he and his wife Naomi, established a chain of health food stores in Southern California.
In 1978, Yad Vashem recognized John Weidner as Righteous Among the Nations, and in 1993 he was honored at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Weidner lived his entire life giving back, in the spirit of what we call Tikkun Olam. Until his death in 1994, he lived a life of selflessness and service, working tirelessly to make the world a better place. When asked why he did what he did he answered simply, “I had no choice.” This was John Weidner.
But we know differently. Everyone has a choice. Weidner and his team of 300 did not look the other way when most did. They risked their lives constantly to save those the Nazis were targeting.
I am alive today because of one woman who also had the conviction and courage of John Weidner. As a very young boy in Poland, I had the good fortune to be sheltered by a brave and decent woman. For me the star that shone in the darkness was Bronislawa Kurpi, the person to whom I owe my life.
Someone said that there are no perfect people but there are perfect moments. Those we call righteous provided the world with countless perfect moments at a time when it appeared that humanity had lost its way.
I know firsthand how essential it was to have the help of just one person, who at a moment of moral collapse, did not forget the essential principle of leading a moral life: do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.
My nanny and John Weidner stood up to say no. Others did too, but too few. And we know that whenever and wherever good people stood up to say no, Jews lived, Catholics lived, and others lived. Imagine what would have happened if there were more people like Chiune Sugihara, Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler and Bronislawa Kurpi.
Those from that time whom we in the Jewish community call the “righteous” provide our morally compromised world the example of their call to conscience. Often, their bravery went unnoticed, yet through their actions, they proved that it is possible to choose to do a most demanding mitzvah against overwhelming odds and without hope of commendation or advantage.
The Jan Karski Courage to Care Award was established by the Anti-Defamation League to honor those like John Weidner, who dared to defy the Nazi machine to save Jewish lives. It is named in honor of one its first recipients—Jan Karski, the Polish Christian, who covertly ventured twice into the Warsaw ghetto and Belzec concentration camps in order to provide one of the first eyewitness accounts of Hitler’s final solution to the Polish government-in-exile. Karski subsequently even spoke directly to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and urged the allies to stop the mass murder.
The award is a plaque with miniature bas-reliefs depicting the backdrop for the rescuers’ exceptional deeds during the Shoah. It is a replica of the Holocaust Memorial Wall created by the noted sculptor Arbit Blatas.
I would like to once again thank Eileen Ludwig Greenland for her generosity through the years in sponsoring this important award. John Weidner’s wife, Naomi survives him but she was unable to make the trip from California. At her request, Dr. Kurt Ganter, the Executive Director of the John Weidner Foundation, will accept this award on behalf of the Weidner family.