Johan “Jean” Weidner was a Dutch businessman who created an extensive underground rescue network and saved the lives of 800 Jews and 112 downed Allied aviators.
Born in Brussels in 1912 to Dutch parents, Jean grew up in Switzerland in a devout Seventh-Day Adventist home. His father, a minister who taught Greek and Latin at a church seminary, wanted Jean to become a clergyman but instead he decided to go into business. He moved to Paris in 1935 and started an import-export textile firm.
When the Germans occupied Paris in 1940 Jean dropped everything and fled to Lyon in unoccupied France. He had to abandon his company, so he started a new one in Lyon.
In 1941, as the situation for Jews and other enemies of the Nazi war machine grew more dire, Jean took action. He created an underground network secretly run out of his textile factory. To facilitate escape to Switzerland, Jean opened a second branch of his business in Annecy, near the Swiss border. The route was dotted with safe houses and locals sympathetic to the Resistance who sheltered the refugees and helped them cross the border.
Known as Dutch-Paris, the network Jean created became one of the most effective resistance groups during war. Also called “the Swiss Way,” the network’s mission was to rescue people targeted by the Nazis by hiding them until they could help them escape to a neutral country.
Jean was leader of 330 men, women and teenagers working clandestinely in occupied countries of Western Europe as well as in Switzerland.
Dutch-Paris was constantly in need of funds to support their extensive activities, and Jean made a deal with the Dutch ambassador to Switzerland. The Dutch government-in-exile in London would fund the rescue operations if Jean 1) expanded the escape route to reach all the way to Spain and 2) used the route to convey intelligence on microfilm between Dutch resistance groups. Jean agreed to the terms and the expanded network began operating in November 1943.
In January of 1944 they began rescuing downed Allied aviators, an especially dangerous operation because it attracted the attention of German military intelligence officers. In only a month they saved over 112 pilots before tragedy struck. In February 1944, a young Dutch woman working as a courier was arrested by the French police and turned over to the Gestapo. They tortured her physically and psychologically, and threatened her family. She cracked under pressure and gave up names of her colleagues colleagues in the Dutch-Paris network.
Germans started arresting members of Dutch-Paris, including Jean’s sister Gabrielle. Over the next few months, many of the rescuers were sent to concentration camps, where at least forty of them were murdered. Gabrielle survived until liberation by the Russians, but she was so malnourished that she died days later.
Jean was able to escape capture long enough to rebuild networks and continue his rescue operations. In Toulouse he was arrested by the French police, but he escaped before they were able to transfer him to the Germans.
France was liberated in November 1944 and Jean was invited to London by Queen Wilhemina to inform her about the Dutch-Paris route, and the situation for Dutch civilians in areas occupied by the Germans. He was made a Captian in the Dutch Armed Forces but after the war he was let go by the Dutch government for not being a professional policeman. Jean returned to his textile business, and in 1955 emigrated to the United States where he and his wife operated a chain of health food stores for several decades.
He received multiple awards for his wartime heroism including the US Medal of Freedom, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’honneur. He was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, and a grove of trees was planted in his name. In 1993, at the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, he was one of seven people chosen to light candles honoring rescuers.
Jean Weidner died in 1994 in Southern California. Abraham Foxman, then National Director of the ADL said, “John Weidner lived his entire life giving back… Until his death, he lived a life of selflessness and service, working tirelessly to make the world a better place.”
For creating an underground escape route for victims of the Nazis, and saving hundreds of lives, we honor Jean Weidner as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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