I received a message from a gentleman in Collonges-sur-Salève, who was kind enough to drive me around the Franco-Swiss border last year. Apparently he’s been reading Flee the Captor, which is a biography of John Weidner’s wartime activities written in the 1960s. My correspondent brought an historical inaccuracy in the book to my attention.
Apparently the book claims that Weidner took Charles de Gaulle’s brother Xavier and his family from France to Switzerland. But it is well-known in Collonges, where all this happened, that it was the local Catholic priest who took the de Gaulles to Switzerland. Mme de Gaulle even attended the ceremony in which the priest was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations, which tells us that the de Gaulles thought it was the priest who helped them to safety.
Looking back in my notes, I find a report filed in the Dutch archives in The Hague in which John Weidner describes the priest as an active resister who harbored many resisters and fugitives. That tells us that the priest was not part of Dutch-Paris but that he and Weidner were in contact during the war.
In the French defense archives, there’s a mention of Xavier de Gaulle as Dutch-Paris’s link with the Free French in Algiers, which suggests that Weidner did have something to do with Xavier de Gaulle, although it hardly explains what.
In the Weidner Archives there’s a list that has unfortunately been separated from its cover letter, but appears to be from late 1944 or 1945. It’s a list of politicians and the like who could vouch for John Weidner, including Xavier de Gaulle. Weidner noted that he carried messages to arrange for Xavier de Gaulle and his family to flee to Switzerland and acted as a liaison between them and other family members left in France after they had left.
At the University of Michigan, there’s an interview with Weidner from the 1980’s in which he says he helped Xavier de Gaulle get to Switzerland. That’s probably what he told the author of Flee the Captor, too. Notice the wording. Through the lens of the 1960’s or later, when John Weidner was well-known as a rescuer, the first assumption on hearing that he “helped” someone, is that he got him or her over the border.
But it took more than one person to get anyone over the border.
If you combine the common knowledge in Collonges with what Weidner wrote at the end of the war, you get a highly likely scenario. Xavier de Gaulle needed to leave France because of all the trouble his brother was causing. Being a French Catholic, his social network led him to a priest living on the Swiss border. The priest asked Weidner to take messages back and forth to arrange de Gaulle’s clandestine departure. Once in Collonges the de Gaulles may well have gone to the rectory and waited there with the priest until a propitious time to cross the border. Perhaps the priest took them across the border, perhaps one of the usual passeurs did.
No matter what the actual details of the escape were, the story serves as a cautionary tale to researchers. Time distorts memories. Memories are written down for a purpose. Readers of memories make assumptions that might distort them.
John Weidner said he helped Xavier de Gaulle. He didn’t say he lifted up the barbed wire for him to crawl under, although that’s the kind of image that springs to mind when a famous passeur says he helped someone get to Switzerland. He just said he helped, which is true. It takes going back through all the archives and weighing each document against its context and purpose to determine its relative validity, to figure out just how he helped.