How the Nazis knew where these pilots were hiding long remained a mystery. Much of the story of the Dutch-Paris Escape Line has now been uncovered, however, by World War II scholar, Megan Koreman, Ph.D. In 2009, Dr. Koreman was commissioned by the John Henry Weidner Foundation to write the complete history of Dutch-Paris. The book was published in Dutch in 2016 and in English in 2018 under the title The Escape Line. It is the first fully-documented account of how a WW II underground escape line was organized, managed and supported from the summer of 1942 to the late summer of 1944.
The Dutch-Paris story will also reveal how a young Dutch Seventh-day Adventist textile merchant living in Lyon, France, acted on his religious beliefs to become one of the most decorated and honoured heroes of the war. The manner in which this young man organized over 300 individuals and families to rescue a thousand Jews, aviators and other fugitives is a powerful display of human beings acting unselfishly and at great risk to themselves and their families. The Dutch-Paris Escape Line evolved from a desire by John Henry Weidner, the son of a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, to see to the needs of Dutch nationals interned in French refugee camps. His visits to the refugee camps began in 1940. By 1942, his work had expanded into more serious resistance work as he was asked to protect individuals and families who were being pursued by the Nazis. He soon established safe routes for Dutch Jews, resisters, and others refugees to freedom in Switzerland or Spain. Weidner spoke French, Dutch, and English and, as a natural organizer, was perfectly suited to oversee this complex escape route that ran through the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
Weidner’s skills as a “rescuer” quickly caught the attention of the Dutch military attaché General van Tricht in Bern and W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. With their financial support, Weidner began moving more fugitives as well as microfilms with information needed by the Dutch government-in-exile in London. Weidner and the Dutch-Paris line participants did not discriminate among those coming to them for protection. They helped anyone needing hiding or support, regardless of their ability to cover expenses, and regardless of personal, religious or political associations. The Dutch-Paris organization itself, after all, was composed of hundreds of courageous men and women of various faiths and of many nationalities. Although the line transported about 150 Allied aviators to safety, the line’s primary mission was to aid fleeing Jews. This is because Jews were in the greatest danger from the Nazis. Their only crime was to be defined by the Nazis and anti-Semites in their home countries as Jews. In addition to Jews, the line helped young Dutch Christian men who were trying to avoid compulsory labour service or who wanted to join the Allied armies. The line was also used by resisters who were keeping one step ahead of the Gestapo including such notables as Charles DeGaulle’s brother Xavier and the future Nobel Prize winner Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart, aka “Colonel Blake”. Among the rescued Dutch pilots, few were as famous as Bram van der Stok, who escaped from Stalag Luft III, popularized by the movie The Great Escape.
Weidner paid a price for his resistance leadership. Under constant surveillance and continuously evading the Gestapo, he was captured twice during his underground activities. In 1943 Weidner was arrested on a mountain trail near Collonges and taken to Gestapo headquarters in Lyon where he was brutalized by electric and water torture before being released. The next year, he was arrested by the French Milice at a café in Toulouse, ironically because he was mistaken for someone else. He was imprisoned, tortured, and scheduled for execution by the Germans the next morning. His escape was clever, harrowing and heroic. His family members also paid a price. In an attempt to get Weidner to turn himself in, the Gestapo arrested his sister Gabrielle on February 26, 1944 while she attended Sabbath School in Paris. According to Dr. Koreman, “Gabrielle appears to have been part of the courier system involving the Meyer brothers (SDA Pastors) which circulated mail and packages between the occupied and unoccupied zones in France. She also prepared and sent packages to Jews in internment camps for John Weidner and sheltered fugitives coming through Paris. She was a point of contact for the various agents in Dutch-Paris, meaning that she kept and delivered messages for them. She also kept microfilms that one courier had dropped off for another. In one of the more agonizing decisions of his life, John Weidner was forced to choose between continuing his rescue work or surrendering himself in exchange for Gabrielle’s freedom. John Weidner chose to continue his work. Gabrielle Weidner died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Prussia on February 15, 1945.
How did the line complete so many rescues before being shut down by the Nazis? In part it was because the Dutch-Paris Line was a clandestine “community of rescuers” that involved hundreds of people, both helpers and escapers: Dutch, Belgian, French, Swiss, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Allied airmen, students, innkeepers, diplomats, and children. The Line utilized hundreds of waypoints: train stations, hotels, homes, mountain huts, and border crossings. The individual line members were bound together by shared resentment of Nazi occupation and brutality, by a commitment to discretion, by their shared risk and by compassion toward those whose lives were in danger. Dutch-Paris was also able to avoid the Gestapo by altering the line’s routes as necessary. If one branch of the line was threatened, Dutch-Paris joined forces with similar but smaller groups that used different routes to the same destinations.
John Weidner’s recruiting of Collonges College’s faculty and staff offers another insight into how Weidner reduced the line’s exposure to the Gestapo. A number of Collonges faculty and staff – Roger Fasnacht, Jean and Anna Zurcher, Frederic Charpiot, Jean Lavanchy, and Raymond Meyer and Paul Meyer, for example – were friends of John Weidner. Some of them accompanied refugees from Lyon, Annecy, Annemasse and St. Julien to the seminary campus near the Swiss border. There Jean Zurcher took them into Switzerland. Zurcher was both a teacher at Collonges and a student at Geneva University. As such, he had a pass that allowed him to cross the border daily and sometimes many times in a single day. This made it possible for Zurcher to guide some of the refugees into Switzerland using false identification documents that he had previously obtained in Switzerland. If papers were not available, he crossed the border where he knew the Swiss guards, many of whom helped the refugees through the barbed wire fences. As with other line members, the Collonges “rescuers” opened their homes to escapers and provided them with food and clothing, all this despite the prospect that the Nazis could close the Seminary, confiscate the property and jail its faculty, or worse. While many Collonges faculty worked directly with Weidner, they were unaware that their colleagues were also working directly with Weidner. Thus, if one faculty member was arrested, he or she could not provide the names of other Collonges faculty members involved with the line.
Annecy Station in the 1940s
To this day, memories of WWII resistance activities are vivid at Collonges. Now called the Campus Adventiste du Saleve, the college recently paid tribute to those faculty and staff who assisted Weidner over sixty years ago. At a 2006 event, Jewish leaders, community leaders, faculty, staff and students recalled the unselfish and principled behaviour of the WWII faculty. The college administration memorialized Weidner and the Dutch-Paris line by dedicating a plaque listing the college’s Dutch-Paris participants. With the liberation of Holland and Belgium and the return of the Dutch government to The Hague, the flow of refugees subsided. The Dutch Army then recruited Weidner to identify those Dutchmen living in France who had collaborated with the Nazis. Weidner pursued these collaborators with the same zeal and courage that he showed in managing Dutch-Paris. In 1954, he immigrated to the US where he and his second wife, Naomi, established a chain of health food stores in Southern California and where they attempted, without much success, to live away from the spotlight for the next ten years.
A quiet, modest man, Weidner was “discovered” in 1963 by Haskell Lazare, Director of the Southern California branch of the American Jewish Congress. Lazare recognized Weidner as the man who, since the war ended, had been honoured by President Truman with the United States Medal of Freedom, who had received the Military Order of the British Empire from King George VI, the Order of Orange-Nassau from the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina and both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance from the French government. Lazare brought his discovery to the attention of the State of Israel that entered Weidner’s name among the Heroes in the Golden Book of Jerusalem. On May 25, 1978, the State of Israel recognized Weidner as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Weidner was invited to plant a Saint John’s Bread Tree along the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem. In 1993, John Weidner was honoured at the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Looking back over his wartime activities, John Weidner was asked why he subjected himself to this three-year ordeal. Weidner 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 hearts, to have a heart open to the suffering of others.”
The John Henry Weidner Foundation for Altruism honoured the courage and commitment of John Weidner and all the men and women of Dutch-Paris by commissioning a detailed history of their heroism. Dr. Koreman has revealed a story that was impossible to understand just a few years ago. Using newly opened archival files in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, Koreman came to understand how Weidner and his assistants recruited trustworthy line members, and how he arranged for false papers, supplies, and transport across three countries, each with their own currencies, transportation systems, and transit regulations.
During Dr. Koreman’s six months of research in various European Archives, she found many WWII files on Dutch-Paris operations available for the first time. In a report to the Weidner board, Dr. Koreman reported, “I think that I can safely say that I’m the first researcher to look at almost all of the 135 Dutch-Paris dossiers at the army archives here in France”. In The Hague, Koreman came across what she calls a “goldmine” of information on Dutch-Paris participants at the Dutch Red Cross archives. These files and other discoveries at other European archives were supplemented by interviews with surviving members of the Dutch-Paris line. Further information came from researchers and WWII scholars who contacted her at her blog (www.dutchparisblog.com).
John Weidner died in California in 1994. One of the speakers at Weidner’s funeral, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spoke to the meaning of the Weidner experience and the practical role it can play in our community:
“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.”
Kurt Ganter joined the Weidner Foundation’s board of directors in 2001 and served as the Foundation’s Executive Director from 2002 to 2014. He remains an active member of the board whose voice and leadership continue to help guide the Foundation in its mission. He resides in Maine. This article has been adapted from an article originally written by Kurt in 2017.