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The Life and Times of John Henry Weidner: I Had No Choice

Between 1933 and 1945, millions of men, women, and children were murdered. Jews “Gypsies”, Poles, religious and political dissidents, the handicapped, and many other groups believed to be a threat to a stable society were annihilated. Millions of indifferent people allowed this unprecedented program to continue. However, several courageous men and women risked their lives to frustrate and end this atrocity. John Henry Weidner was one of them.

To commemorate the lives of those people with whom he heroically worked and those for whom he courageously provided solace, refuge, and safety during the Holocaust of World War II, John Weidner’s widow, Naomi, established The Weidner Foundation, to which she gave John’s personal letters and effect, intending them to illustrate and encourage a life of human compassion. The Foundation also operates The John Henry Weidner Center for Cultivation of the Altruistic Spirit, which generates creative activities that discover, investigate, and encourage independent, non-institutionalized altruistic behavior.

John Weidner was in Paris in 1940 when German Nazis invaded Holland. Unable to reach England with the purpose of joining the Allied armies, Weidner remained in Annecy and Lyons. Then, under the Vichy government, many refugees from Nazi brutality and Third Reich pogroms in Holland arrived and needed sanctuary. Weidner gave them refuge and helped develop a network of compatriots and friends who formed an escape line. In Holland, this route went under the name of “The Swiss Way,” but also known as the “Dutch-Paris Line,” this escape route ran from Holland through Belgium and France and over the Alps to neutral Switzerland and to Spain. Weidner and his family and friends saved more than one thousand Jews, Allied airmen, and political refugees.

John Weidner was arrested and brutalized several times during these activities and soon became one of the Gestapo’s most wanted men. Forty of his co-activists died in German concentration camps, among them his own sister. He was not deterred, however, from continually risking his life for the safety and dignity of others.

Later, Weidner worked in close cooperation with W. A. Visser’t Hooft, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, to maintain communications between the World Council and member churches in occupied countries.

The Dutch government asked John Weidner to serve his mother country as a member of the diplomatic corps, though which he assisted the Minister of Justice in the prosecution of war criminals. He remained with the diplomatic service at the Dutch embassy in Paris, and during subsequent travels took the responsibility to relieve the social and economic suffering of many of the widows and orphans of the members of “The Dutch-Paris Line” who had suffered or died at the hands of the Nazis.

At the close of the war, President Truman honored Weidner with the United States Medal of Freedom; George VI of England entered him into the Military Order of the British Empire; and Dutch Queen Wilhelmina brought him into the Order of Orange-Nassau. John Weidner was also decorated by the French government with the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Résistance and brought into the French Legion of Honor.

In 1950, Weidner asked the Dutch government to be relieved of his duties. Five years later, he emigrated to the United Sates and settled in Southern California, where he established a successful business in health-food production and retailing. Soon after, he married his wife, Naomi, who shares and advances her deceased spouse’s interests in social action.  John Weidner played an active role in the Monterey Park Rotary Club and was attracted to the club’s mission of “Service Over Self”.  As a Paul Harris Fellow, he served on multiple occasions as the club’s International Representative.

In 1963, the government of Israel honored John Weidner by entering his name among the heroes in The Golden Book of Jerusalem and by planting a tree with his name on the Hill of Remembrance along the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem —according to Weidner one of the most important and meaningful experiences in his post-war life.

In 1982, Prince Bernard of The Netherlands also bestowed his nation’s Medal of Resistance on Weidner. In 1986, John Weidner was honored by The City of Hope as “Man of the Year.” He has participated in Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s study of the altruistic spirit and is include in Gay Block and Malka Drucker’s collection of photo-essays biographical sketches, Rescuers: Courage in the Holocaust. He was honored with special commemoration at the opening of the United Sates Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1993.

John Weidner continued to be active in public life, serving on the Board of Trustees of Merci, the Netherlands American Society. He also served as president of his local Chamber of Commerce and businessmen’s associations, and on executive board of several administrative divisions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. John lived by the spirit of selflessness and service, supporting various refugee groups until his death in 1994 at the age of 82.

Although rewards and recognitions followed quickly in the wake of John Weidner’s selfless service, he often reminded his friends and associates that his actions were without deliberation or regard to ultimate recognition or social or political inclusion or acceptance: “I had no choice,” he often responded to interviewers. In this spirit, The Weidner Foundation’s mission is to discover models of and encourage selfless, non-institutionalized behavior on behalf of the safety and dignity of others, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, or belief system.

Several projects that highlight John Weidner’s example of altruism and study his life and cultural and political worlds are in process, including a scholarly book on the Dutch-Paris Escape Line, a book on “The Letters of John Weidner”, a documentary, the expansion of Weidner Altruism Chapters on college and university campuses (chapters currently function at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana and The University of New England in Biddeford, Maine) with three additional chapters in the formative stages) and the development of a “searchable archives” attached to this web site. For more information about these projects and how you can participate in them, please contact Kurt Ganter, Foundation President at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)