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War Hero Can Forgive Germans, Not Forget


John Weidner watched the reunification ceremonies in Berlin recently with particular interest. There was an eerie familiarity to the scene of 200,000 Germans singing the national anthem in front of the Reichstag, the German Parliament building.

"The kind of people like me, who suffered more than others--maybe we're more concerned about what's happening now," Weidner said, talking in his thick, occasionally impenetrable, accent.

The owner of a pair of health food stores in Monterey Park and Pasadena, the Dutch-born Weidner, 77, is no casual observer of the recent events in Europe.

He was one of the heroes of the World War II French underground, the organizer and leader of the so-called Dutch-Paris escape route, which helped to spirit more than 1,000 Jews and downed Allied airmen away from the Nazis. He was arrested four times during the war, tortured by Klaus Barbie's Gestapo interrogators in Lyon and beaten by French Fascist police in a town near the Swiss border.

In 1944, Weidner, on whose head the Gestapo had placed a 5-million-franc reward, escaped from a police facility in Toulouse just hours before he was to be executed.

Countless friends and associates from the underground weren't so lucky: They were executed by firing squads or they disappeared into labor camps in Eastern Europe. Weidner's younger sister died in a Polish concentration camp.

But the old Nazi fighter, whose adventures were chronicled in a 1966 book, "Flee the Captor" by Herbert Ford, is prepared to forgive and forget. "I forgive them," he said the other day in a stuffy, undecorated back office at the Monterey Park branch of Weidner Nutrition. "Every German--I forgive."

Weidner now views the future of the Federal Republic of Germany--which has 25% more people, 40% more land and 10% more economic power over the nation that most Americans knew as West Germany--with optimism.

"Things are completely different now," he said. "When Hitler came to power, the Germans had a big price to pay (for losing World War I). There was unemployment, economic problems. It was easy for Hitler to say that the Jews were responsible for all of Germany's problems. Now, Germany is the most prosperous country in Europe."

Besides, he adds, there were always strong anti-Hitler sentiments in Germany. "In fact, the first concentration camps were made for the Germans who opposed Hitler," Weidner said. "There are still people with that spirit there in Germany. They can certainly contribute to keeping Germany (democratic)."

But Weidner, a balding man with a jutting, pugilistic jaw, said Americans must continue to be watchful of Germany. "A mother whose child makes a mistake forgives," he said. "She also watches the child to make sure it won't make the same mistake."

Fifty years ago, the young John Weidner was clearly the right man in the right place to help political refugees escape the Nazis. A Seventh-day Adventist who had experienced persecution, he believed passionately in religious tolerance. As a child, he had seen his father jailed repeatedly in Switzerland for refusing to allow his son to attend school on the Sabbath.

"I grew up in a family where we were always studying the Bible," he said. "My mother and father were always emphasizing that to serve God was to serve your neighbor."

It seemed natural, therefore, for Weidner to get involved. By the time the war broke out, his family had moved to eastern France, where the elder Weidner was a Greek and Hebrew professor at the Adventist college in Collonges, near the Swiss border. John spent much of his youth hiking and skiing through the mountains above the village, giving him the detailed knowledge of trails and mountain passes that he would need to guide his charges to neutral Switzerland.

With the encouragement of the World Council of Churches, an ecumenical group headquartered in Geneva, Weidner soon began shepherding refugees--from working-class Dutch Jews to major political figures, like Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart, minister of justice for the Dutch government in exile.

There were countless hairbreadth escapes as Weidner, who ran a textile business to cover his underground activities, traveled across France on his mission. In 1942, French police pulled him off a bus and brought him to the police station in the small town of Cruseilles. During questioning, the police beat him with their hands and with rifle butts, stomping and kicking him with heavy boots.

The beating left Weidner with permanent nerve damage, which brain surgery after the war was unable to correct entirely. "I still cannot move my eye very well," he said.

On another occasion, he bolted across a barbed wire fence to Switzerland, slashing his hands and knees, just as police were about to arrest him. He was apprehended twice by Germans rounding up able-bodied men for labor camps; both times he escaped from trains in Germany, finally swimming across the Rhine to France as Nazi soldiers pumped round after round at his fleeing figure.

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