Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Following my last post about joining the Resistance, I’ll be offering a series of examples of how members of Dutch-Paris ended up in the Line. We’ll start with the chef de reseau himself,John Henry Weidner (1912-1994).
Weidner’s father was a Dutch Seventh Day Adventist preacher who taught at the SDA college at Collonges sur Salève, France, when John was still in school. That gave John a strict moral upbringing, fluency in French as well as Dutch, and personal knowledge of the Franco-Swiss border where he spent as much time mountain-climbing as he could. When the Wehrmacht invaded France in 1940, Weidner was a businessman and youth group leader in Paris. He and a French friend tried to get to England but missed the last boat. So the two of them opened a textile shop in Lyon, which, if nothing else, gave them an officially acceptable reason to travel.
As part of the Armistice that Marshall Phillipe Pétain signed after a six-week battle, France was divided into a northern Occupied Zone, a southern Unoccupied Zone and a few other Forbidden Zones along the borders. The southern part is generally known as Vichy France because Pétain set up his offices there. Always eager to impress the Germans with its willingness to collaborate while furthering its own ultra-conservative agenda, Vichy slapped as many foreigners as it could seize into internment camps.
In ways that I have yet to determine, Weidner found out that there were a number of Dutch citizens in need of food, clothing, medical aid and hope trapped in those wretched camps. He started working with a few Dutch consuls to help his countrymen in the camps by sending packages and even visiting them. He put a lot of effort into getting people released and finding other places for them to go, including Switzerland. This was still legal enough that it doesn’t count as Resistance.
But then Vichy began deporting Jews in 1942, starting with the foreign Jews in the internment camps. Plenty of people believed the official story that the Jews were “being resettled in the east,” but Weidner wasn’t one of them. He knew the Franco-Swiss border around Collonges and many of the people who lived on it. His new wife, who had worked for the French Embassy in Geneva, had a pass to cross the border and contacts with civil servants in useful positions. They started smuggling people into Switzerland. Weidner had crossed into illegality.
Refugees who were already in Switzerland asked the Weidners to rescue their family members who were still in France. The Dutch pastor in Geneva, Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, later head of the World Council of Churches, asked Weidner to help him smuggle information between the Netherlands and the Dutch government-in-exile in London. Someone needed to get to Spain.
One request led to another, all of which led to the Dutch-Paris escape line and a place for Weidner on the Gestapo’s most wanted list.
Did Weidner volunteer for The Resistance? No. He started helping people and kept doing it. He took it seriously and treated it like a business, albeit an illegal one. He constantly extended his contacts, his co-workers and his services. He even negotiated life insurance policies for his colleagues. In the midst of all that, he himself became a leader and a symbol of The Resistance.