Who was John Weidner?
The son of a Dutch minister, John (Jean) Weidner (1912-1994) founded the “Dutch-Paris Line” in 1942 to help Jews, downed Allied pilots, and other persecuted people escape from Nazi-occupied Europe through Spain and Switzerland. An experienced mountain climber, Weidner at first personally guided fleeing refugees and asylum seekers down treacherous cliffs in the French-Swiss Alps. As the rescue operation grew, he developed new alliances and better methods of helping refugees escape to safety. Weidner used his textile business based in France as a front for his rescue work. Criss-crossing several countries using false identity papers, he kept the underground network running in the face of mounting danger. Weidner became a marked man, with the Gestapo placing a high price on his head. He was captured by French paramilitary collaborators but managed to escape by climbing from the window of a three-story building where he was being held. He continued his rescue work at great risk until the end of the war.
After the Liberation, Weidner served as a Captain of the Dutch Armed Forces charged with investigating cases of Dutch and French collaboration with the Nazis. He later emigrated to the United States and settled in California, where he opened a chain of health food stores. Weidner is honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. He was awarded the highest civilian awards of several countries, including the French Legion of Honor and the United States Medal of Freedom. Weidner became the most decorated Dutchman of World War II.
The story of John Weidner and of his family is vividly told, in their own words, in the 2020 book The Weidners in Wartime: Letters of Daily Survival and Heroism Under Nazi Rule, expertly selected, translated and introduced by Janet Holmes Carper. The Weidners in Wartime is the inaugural publication of Weidner Foundation Books. Through these never-before-published documents, readers will encounter the daily lives of an “ordinary” but remarkable family bound together by their deep love for each other and by their prolific correspondence across great distances. John’s secret resistance work is barely alluded to in the family’s correspondence. What emerges instead are the distinctive personalities, voices, and moral characters of the Weidners as they face the harsh realities of the war with as much bravery and good cheer as they can muster. The Weidners in Wartime builds to a devastating climax, raising profound questions about humanity and inhumanity, loyalty and betrayal, duty, and sacrifice, that do not admit easy answers and that linger after the book is set down. These letters, written more than 75 years ago, might inspire in new generations a commitment to selfless and courageous action in the spirit of Jean, Gabrielle, Annette, and the other members of the Dutch-Paris escape line.
What was the Dutch-Paris Line?
The Dutch-Paris Line, created and led by Weidner, became one of the largest and most successful nonviolent rescue operations of the entire war. It saved the lives of an estimated three thousand people faced with capture and for many certain death. The underground network of safe houses grew to include nearly 300 members operating with forged documents across four borders, two mountain ranges, and six occupied zones, each requiring unique identity papers and travel passes. The Dutch-Paris Line also relayed microfilm and intelligence to the Allies and resistance groups. In February 1944, the Nazis captured a Line member, tortured her, and used the information they extracted from her to identify other members of the operation. Sixty-five Dutch-Paris rescuers were arrested, 38 were deported to German concentration camps, and 14 died in German hands. Weidner’s sister, Gabrielle, was one of those seized by the Gestapo for her work on the Line. She died in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Over the course of the war, more than 30 Line members disappeared, died or were gassed in German concentration camps, were killed in ambushes, or were summarily executed by the Nazis.
The story of the Dutch-Paris Line is told in detail for the first time by Megan Koreman in her book, The Escape Line (Oxford University Press, 2018), which was commissioned by the Weidner Foundation in 2009. Koreman’s research in Europe and the United Sates was made possible through funding from the John Weidner Foundation for Altruism. She was given exclusive access by the Foundation to never-before analyzed documents, which are now open to all scholars and housed in the Weidner Collection at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Our work today
The John Henry Weidner Foundation for Altruism (also known simply as the Weidner Foundation) is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in 1996 by Weidner’s wife, Naomi. Our mission is to cultivate selfless and courageous action in the spirit of John Weidner and the Dutch-Paris Line. We do this by preserving history and telling Weidner’s story, by supporting scholars and students, by shining a light on altruistic behavior in the present, and by partnering with other organizations to help address pressing human needs. Explore our website or contact us to learn more about our ongoing projects and to get involved.