Cultivating selfless and courageous action in the spirit of John Weidner and the Dutch-Paris escape line

Who was John Weidner?

John Weidner, recipient of the United States Medal of Freedom (with Gold Palm), French Legion of Honor, Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau, Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem

“The deeds of this illustrious knight of the spirit are almost legendary.”

—Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, Director, Department for the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem

The son of a Dutch minister, John (Jean) Weidner was a 28-year-old émigré and textile merchant living in France when the Nazis invaded Western Europe. In 1941, Weidner joined humanitarian relief efforts to aid Jewish and other refugees in the Unoccupied Zone. He was soon drawn into a world of clandestine resistance activity. In 1942, from out of his modest clothing shop in Lyon, he launched what became one of the largest and most successful rescue operations of World War II.

The Dutch-Paris Escape Line grew to include more than 300 rescuers and sheltered or escorted to safety approximately 3,000 people, including more than 100 downed Allied aviators.

An experienced mountain climber, Weidner at times evaded Nazi checkpoints to lead fleeing Jews and other asylum seekers down the steep cliffs of the Salève Mountain to freedom in Switzerland. He knew the border region intimately from his years growing up at the Séminaire adventiste du Salève. He used his knowledge of the local geography, as well as his contacts in Haute-Savoie, to guide refugees through a maze of deadly patrols. His clothing shops in Lyon and Annecy served as safe houses and fronts for his rescue work.

In 1943, Weidner became the chief courier of microfilm for Allied intelligence along the “Swiss Route” organized by General Van Tricht and Willem Visser ‘t Hooft. He delivered sensitive messages across enemy lines for the family of Charles de Gaulle.

Weidner became a marked man with the Gestapo placing a high price on his head.  He was arrested several times, endured torture, and on one occasion escaped being handed over to the Nazis by Milice collaborators in Toulouse by leaping from a three-story building (together with a comrade and fellow Resistance leader, Jacques Rens). Criss-crossing several countries using false identity papers, Weidner kept the underground network running in the face of mounting dangers.

Catastrophe struck when a young woman in Weidner’s network was arrested by the Gestapo and revealed details of the operation under threat of torture. More than 100 Dutch-Paris members were captured. Many were executed or sent to concentration camps, including John’s sister, Gabrielle. At least 40 Dutch-Paris rescuers died during the war. After the Liberation, Weidner worked for Dutch intelligence investigating Nazi collaborators. In 1955, Weidner immigrated to the United States.

For his courageous and selfless actions to save the lives of others, Weidner became the most decorated Dutchmen of World War II. In 1946, he received the United States Medal of Freedom with Gold Palm, and the French Legion of Honor. In 1947, he was awarded the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Wilhelmina. He was made an Honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire and Officer of the Order of Leopold by the government of Belgium.

In 1978, Weidner was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. In 1984, he received a Scroll of Honor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In 1993, he was one of seven people chosen to light candles at the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. John Weidner passed away in 1994.

The John Henry Weidner Foundation for Altruism is a registered 501(c)(3) organization established in 1996 through the generosity of John and Naomi Weidner. The Foundation was one of Weidner’s final endeavors and acts of altruism. Our mission is to preserve Weidner’s legacy and to cultivate selfless and courageous action in the spirit of John Weidner and the Dutch-Paris Escape Line.

Tributes to John Weidner

“He was absolutely marvelous. The moment you met him, you felt he was a unique person. He was humanity itself. With his cleverness, his intelligence, his charisma, helping others became his life’s credo.” Regina Koster, survivor of the Shoah rescued by Weidner in 1942

“No honor we might bestow upon him in this world can match what John Weidner sacrificed for his fellowmen. My family had to flee from Holland in July 1942 and while my brother was caught by the Germans never to return, my parents and I ended up in jail in Annecy, France. The French gave us a chance for freedom and we learned from a priest about John Weidner, a man of Dutch descent. This was on October 8, 1942 and that day started a friendship my family and I will cherish always. For four months I had the privilege of witnessing a man, giving himself completely in a gigantic effort to save men, women and children, never giving up, always persisting, never satisfied till the people he took in his care were safely delivered across the Swiss border and even then waiting to make sure they could stay there. There is a book to write about this man, John Weidner, and the lesson I learned from him about ‘serving’, which has become a part of my own life, how little it may be compared to his example. He saved my parents life, he saved my life, he saved the lives of so many people, many of them Jews, but he did more: he gave us shelter and food, he gave us the courage we needed and above all, he became the living symbol of a man devoted to his fellowmen.” H. M. Cornelisse-Stoppleman, survivor of the Shoah rescued by Weidner in 1943

“I saw a man with a rather pale face coming toward me, dressed in black, no hat, walking rather nonchalantly, his eyes fixed on me sizing me up. … We entered a cafe, one of many with a view of the square and Mr. Weidner … asked me, because all other men were too indiscreet, as being the only Netherlands consular official around, to take on the leadership and to organize the Parisian division … This good Dutchman, even though he was in hiding, opened up my heart and I could not do anything other than to fulfill his wish.” Herman Laatsman, head of the Paris branch of the Dutch-Paris escape line, testimony in 1945

“I am not one of the people who owe his life to him. However, I had the great privilege to be able to work with him and to observe him during this time. … John, in a few years time, has done more for humanity than a great many other people together could manage during a lifetime. It cost him the life of his beloved sister, his personal fortune, his business, his health and above all he lost many friends for whose death he felt and feels personally responsible. He still doubts and wonders whether or not he could have prevented that. According to Jewish legend the world is preserved because of thirty-six Just Men. … If you meet John Weidner and believe in legends, you have met one.” Edmond Salomon Chait, member of the Dutch-Paris escape line

“Captain Jean H. Weidner, Jr., Subject of the Netherlands, for exceptionally meritorious achievement which aided the United States in the prosecution of the war against the enemy in Continental Europe, as an organizer and director of an international underground escape route … Captain Weidner displayed great courage and magnificent fortitude in organizing and directing the vast escape route ‘Dutch-Paris’ which successfully conveyed a hundred and twelve American and other Allied airmen out of Holland, through Belgium and France, and across the Pyrenees into Spain. Five times arrested by the Gestapo, each time he succeeded in escaping by quick thinking or unshakable intrepidity in the face of interrogation under torture. Captain Weidner’s great patriotism, enthusiasm and brilliant devotion to the Allied cause contributed materially to the Allied victory in Europe.”  Citation for the United States Medal of Freedom, May 24, 1946

“Numerous people, who owe their lives to Jean Weidner, met at the Minerva Pavilion in Amsterdam, Thursday evening, to honor this great resistance hero. ‘Weider’ has been a magic name in France for all those who were stranded on their way to Switzerland or Spain. The Germans were constantly on the lookout for this son of a Dutch clergyman, who, since his young years, has lived abroad. No danger, however, could deter him when it amounted to taking Jewish compatriots to Switzerland. He never gave up, not even when the Swiss, under pressure from the Gestapo, expelled thousands of people from the country. If a refugee, who did not have any shoes, came to John, then he took his shoes from his feet; if anyone did not have any money anymore, Weidner gave him his last francs. … One could not have given better homage to this religious, private person, than the registration of his name in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund in Jerusalem.” Article in Het Vrije Volk newspaper, December 30, 1949

“The President of the United States of America has directed me to express to Captain Jean H. Weidner, Jr. the gratitude and appreciation of the American people for gallant service in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from the enemy.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower, General of the Army, Commanding General United States Forces European Theater, 1946

“I wrote [to those John Weidner was said to have rescued] to substantiate some of the stories he had rather reluctantly told me, because it was beyond my ken that a man who was so gentle could have been the fox who stole so many prizes from the Nazi grasp. … One touching anecdote came from a woman whom he had taken with her family into Switzerland. She said that the night was very cold and she noticed that Weidner was not wearing socks. When she asked him about it, he evaded the question. It was not until she inquired about him from his co-workers in Switzerland that she found out he had none because he had given away all but the clothes on his back to the people he had saved. I asked John Weidner why he had risked his life repeatedly to save so many. His answer was brief and to the point, ‘They were God’s children; they were human beings.’” Haskell L. Lazere, Executive Director of the New York Chapter of the American Jewish Congress, 1966

“John was extraordinary in that he wanted to do a thing that ought to be very ordinary for any Christian, namely to help every man in need who crossed his path. It was this complete readiness to serve men without counting the cost which convinced me the very first time John came to me that this man deserved all the support I could possibly give him. I did not know at that time what remarkable results our collaboration would bring. When I had to organize the ‘Swiss Road,’ the organization to keep the free Dutch government in London in contact with the Resistance movement in the Netherlands, I needed a man of very great resourcefulness and courage to take charge of the courier service through the occupied territories. John did not hesitate a moment to accept this risky task.” Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, Secretary-General of the World Council of Churches, 1966

“The deeds of this illustrious knight of the spirit are almost legendary. … In 1978, Yad Vashem, the national memorial in Jerusalem for perpetuating the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, decided to award to Mr. Weidner the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for risking his life to help Jews in distress during the Nazi period. A tree, bearing his name, proudly decorates the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.” Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, Director of the Department for the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, 1992

“Confronting goodness may be more painfully challenging than confronting evil. It is one thing to study and condemn the sadistic behaviour of a Klaus Barbie but quite another to study and acknowledge the rescue behaviour of a John Weidner. The latter presents us with a hard mirror. Would I rescue a pregnant woman, a hungry or homeless child, an aged, frightened couple – provide them with food and shelter, dispose of their refuse, and care for them in their sickness – knowing that doing so might bring disaster upon my family from Nazi pursuers and their informers? The rescuer’s goodness shakes the foundations of my claims to virtue. The behaviour of flesh-and-blood rescuers compels me to think long and hard about my own goodness and to imaginatively rehearse my choices in analogous situations.”Rabbi Harold Schulweis, speaking at John Weidner’s funeral, 1994

“John 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.”—Abraham Foxman, National Director, the Anti-Defamation League, 2014