February 07, 2014
Speaking for Naomi Weidner, John’s widow, I thank the Anti-Defamation League for this award and for recognizing the accomplishments of John Weidner. Naomi would have liked to have been here but, now in her 90s, she is not able to travel as she would like.
Let me tell you a little about The John Henry Weidner Foundation for the Cultivation of the Altruistic Spirit and then share with you three beliefs that motivated John to place his life and the lives of 300 rescuers at risk for so many people they did not know and might never know.
First, about the Foundation:
The Weidner Foundation is devoted to stimulating altruistic behavior. Research such as that done by Samuel and Pearl Oliner and others demonstrate that altruistic behavior can be learned. Morality does not emerge from a vacuum. What children and young people learn every day from their parents and friends through acts of kindness and tolerance and through encouragement toward independent thinking helps explain why people such as John Weidner become rescuers. Moral values become so ingrained and habitual when they are young that unselfish behavior becomes so much a part of their lives that personal risk is not a consideration.
This is why the Weidner Foundation establishes Weidner Chapters at many college and universities. While we cannot dictate how parents should raise their children, we can encourage, honor and promote unselfish behavior among college and university young adults.
Besides university chapters, the Foundation has underwritten the first in-depth study of how a WWII underground rescue line, such a John Weidner’s Dutch-Paris Line operated. The author we commissioned and funded, Dr. Megan Koreman, has visited 23 European archives, many of which opened their files for the first time since the end of the war. Her book titled Ordinary Heroes: The Dutch-Paris Escape Line is scheduled for publication next summer.
Here are three beliefs that motivated John Weidner to risk his life for complete strangers:
First, that unselfishness can be learned. In the 1920’s, the Swiss government began requiring all students to attend classes on Saturday. Saturday is the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath. John was a Seventh-day Adventist. John’s father, an Adventist pastor serving a church in Switzerland, said that his son could not and would not attend classes. The government responded by requiring that John’s father spend one day in jail for every Saturday that the boy did not attend school. This experience cemented in John’s mind the second truth.
Second, John learned from his father that “when you have a profound conviction and you follow your conscience, you have to be ready to accept the consequences.” Sometimes the price of following your conscience is steep.
Weidner was high on the Gestapo most wanted list. In an attempt to get Weidner to turn himself in, the Gestapo arrested his sister, Gabrielle, in February of 1944 while she was attending Sabbath School in Paris. In one of the more agonizing decisions of his life, Weidner was forced to choose between continuing his rescue work or surrendering himself in exchange for Gabrielle’s freedom. He chose to continue his work. Gabrielle Weidner died in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in February of 1945. When you follow your conscience, you have to accept the consequences.
Now, the third belief: each of us comes to the moment when we have to exercise our courage or not. After the war, John Weidner was asked “why did you risk your life for so many strangers?” He said: “During our lives, each of us faces a choice. To think only about ourselves, to get as much as we can for ourselves, or to think about others, to serve, to be helpful to those in need. I believe it is important to develop our brains, our knowledge, but it is more important to develop our hearts, to have a heart open to the suffering of others.”
If you would like to hear and see John Weidner as he describes the work of the Dutch-Paris Rescue Line, you can go to YouTube and type in “Meer dan 1080”. Meer dan 1080 is Dutch for "More than 1080," the number of refugees John says came through the Line. This 44-minute documentary has English subtitles.
Allow me to share with you two final thoughts on rescuers and altruism. The first is from Lucien Lazare’s book entitled Rescue as Resistance (page 307.):
“The fighters have received the share of glory that they deserved. The rescuers, Jewish or not, have returned to anonymity and sunk into oblivion. Heroic resisters, hunted down and sent to their death for smuggling children into Switzerland, have not benefitted from the posthumous homage that would have been accorded to them, if, instead of children, they had taken responsibility for leaflets or arms.”
Then from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the creative light of altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s persistent and most urgent question is ‘what are you doing for others’?”
On behalf of Naomi Weidner and the Foundation that she and John founded, I thank you for this award.