Obituary: John Weidner

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The Independent Online
John Henry Weidner, wartime escape organiser: born Holland 1911; married; died Los Angeles, California 21 May 1994.

JOHN WEIDNER was a Dutch Seventh Day Adventist who ran the Dutch-Paris wartime escape line and retired quietly to California thereafter.

His father and grandfather were both pastors and he was brought up in that stern faith. He spent part of his childhood in occupied Brussels during the First World War. When he grew up he worked in the textile industry in Holland, France and Switzerland, mostly in France, where he acquired fluent French. He also studied at the Seminary at Collonges, just on the French side of the border, south of Geneva.

By chance he was in Paris when the German army neared it in June 1940, and helped drive his church's archives away southward; but his efforts to escape at once to England failed. He settled briefly back into textile work at Lyons, and fell quite naturally into the business of helping Jewish refugees from Holland, of whom there were many in the neighbourhood. From his acts of routine charity, and from his exemplary courage and devotion, there grew in stages a powerful and efficient secret organisation.

He appreciated early what the Vichy regime in southern France was doing to foreign Jews (before it started on French ones): handing them over in dribs and drabs to the Gestapo, who deported them eastwards - we now know to death camps. Weidner took a few, and then a lot, of these Jews across into Switzerland; where his friend Dr Visser 't Hooft, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, was able to give them some degree of sponsorship. Some 800 Jews owed their lives directly to Weidner's help.

Moreover, his work necessarily brought him into touch with Dutch consular authorities in Vichy France and with the Dutch legation in neutral Berne; and so he was drawn into touch with the Dutch Queen and Government in Exile in London, to whom the Berne legation was loyal. He provided what the Dutch called the Swiss Way: a secure channel of communication between London and the Netherlands, through which a good deal of paper passed without the Germans' knowledge.

He also found that shot-down airmen from the British and American air forces operating over the Continent were getting directed towards him by the few French people who knew of his activities. About 100 of them too were saved from prisoner-of-war camps and sent out over the Pyrenees by efforts he directed.

Once he was arrested and beaten up by French gendarmes near Annecy, where he had a store; but soon released, when he could persuade a judge to take up his impeccable references. Shortly after the Germans occupied Vichy France in November 1942, he was briefly arrested, tortured and released by the Gestapo. He was then arrested again in Nancy and shipped off to Germany as a forced labourer. He promptly escaped - by swimming the Rhine - into Switzerland.

Hitherto he had worked more or less openly under his own name. Hereafter he went underground, using pseudonyms (by the end of the war he had 14), and receiving a secret commission as a captain in the Dutch army. His organisation grew to a strength of about 150, 40 of whom fell into German hands: one, his elder sister Gabrielle, only survived a spell in Ravensbruck concentration camp by a day. He survived a further arrest and torture by the French Milice at Toulouse in May 1944 and soon after that was brought out of France to England by light aircraft.

After the war he received the Legion of Honour, the Croix de Guerre and the Resistance Medal from the French; the OBE from the British; the Medal of Freedom with Gold Palm from the Americans; and the Order of Orange Nassau from the Dutch, who gave Gabrielle a posthumous Resistance Cross. He then slipped away unobtrusively to Pasadena, California, where he ran three health- food shops and continued to try to live as a good Christian should, with the help of an American wife. His friend Herbert Ford wrote a book, Flee the Captor (1966), which described his tremendous wartime career; about which he himself always did his best to be modest.