Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
We tend to think of the Second World War as a simple moral equation of good vs. evil, white vs. black. It’s not too hard to make a case for that on the macro level of Hitler and the SS vs the Allied democracies and the Resistance. But the closer you get to individual stories on the micro level, the murkier it gets. Even collaborators, the villains who sided with the Nazi occupiers against their countrymen, could have a few redeeming moments. John Weidner thought so even though he risked his life many times to oppose the fundamental ideology of collaborators and their Nazi masters.
In May 1944, Weidner and two of his resistance colleagues were arrested by the worst of the French collabos, the paramilitary Milice. From the start, Weidner admitted that they were resisters, but he emphasized that they were Dutch, carried no weapons and had not done anything against France. His attitude impressed the Milice chief enough that the Dutchmen were spared the torture that caused the screams that they heard from other prisoners.
One of the Dutch-Paris men escaped the first day. Weidner and his other colleague spent a little over a week in a cell waiting for the Milice chief to consult with his superiors. During that time they cultivated the friendship of two of the Miliciens. When the younger of the two asked Weidner about the small New Testament in his pocket and admitted to admiring people who read the Bible, Weidner seized the opening. He was himself a devoted reader of the Bible and had plenty to say.
When the friendly Miliciens heard that Weidner and his companion would be turned over to the Germans, they improved the conditions for their escape without actually opening the door for them.
At the Liberation the Miliciens from Toulouse who had been captured were tried for their crimes against other Frenchmen and sentenced to death. Weidner believed that the younger Milicien, who was 22 years old in 1944, was a potentially good man who had been led astray. In fact, the young man had thought that by joining the Milice he was helping to save the world from Bolshevism. That was, indeed, the standard and fairly successful propaganda lure to recruit non-Germans to fight for the Third Reich.
At the request of the young man’s parents, Weidner wrote a letter to the judge that detailed the ways in which he had acted decently towards the Dutch resisters. He also sent an Adventist pastor to visit the former Milicien in prison. Weidner’s letter must have had some effect because the judge commuted the sentence to hard labor for life. The man was later released for health reasons and amnestied in the general amnesty.
At the same time, Weidner’s own sister and many of his friends and resistance colleagues died in the concentration camps. Why spend his time helping a paramilitary collaborator? Because Weidner considered each individual as a human being, not as a label. That’s why he joined the resistance in the first place.