Hoover Library & Archives is opening the John Weidner collection documenting one of the major efforts to resist the Nazis in Western Europe by organizing the rescue of Jews from arrest, helping downed Allied fliers, and assisting resisters, civilians dodging the forced labor draft, as well as those wanting to join the Allies. The October 2 event will feature a lecture by Dr. Megan Koreman, the author of The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018).
When the Nazis started deporting Jews from Western Europe in 1942, John Henry Weidner was living in Lyon, making a good living as a respectable small businessman. Two years later he had a price on his head as the leader of Dutch-Paris, a transnational resistance network that supported approximately 1,500 people hiding from the Nazis in addition to shuttling another 1,500 fugitives out of occupied Europe into Switzerland and Spain. The line also functioned as a clandestine courier service for many resistance groups, humanitarian aid workers, and families separated by the war. In November 1944 the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina called Weidner to London, commissioned him in the Dutch Army, and sent him back to Paris to run a temporary unit called the Netherlands Security Service.
Weidner’s status as a recognized Resistance hero and his position as the Dutchman in charge of rooting out Dutch collaborators in France and Belgium gave him unique possibilities to document the resistance experience of Dutch-Paris immediately after the Liberation. He and his officers focused particularly on the causes of the arrest of 65 of their colleagues during the occupation and the subsequent deaths of 14 of them in the concentration camps, including Weidner’s sister. Weidner felt a deep obligation to every member of Dutch-Paris and their dependents for the rest of his life. He kept carbon copies of all letters and reports that he wrote and brought them all with him to California in the 1950s, where he kept all the letters and requests for help that he received. Weidner continued to fulfill his duties as “chef du réseaux” until his death in 1994. The John Henry Weidner Foundation for Altruism donated these papers to the Hoover Library & Archives so that they will be accessible to scholars of the war, the Resistance, and altruism.
Just the fact that the papers of the leader of a transnational Resistance network that included 330 members operating in four countries exist makes the Weidner Papers a rare collection. But there are quirks of Dutch-Paris that make the collection uniquely valuable. For example, Weidner secured funding for his network’s rescue efforts from the Dutch government in exile through the Dutch embassy in Bern. Although he had complete autonomy for his illegal work in occupied countries, he did carry out particular missions for the Dutch government in exile. These included tasks like bringing certain individuals from the Netherlands to Spain, delivering messages to Dutch diplomats still in France, and carrying microfilms between Geneva and Amsterdam. Weidner wrote reports for the ambassador about his bi-weekly trips through occupied France and Belgium under the code name “Louis Segers” and using code names for people and places. He could not have done this if he was not in Switzerland when he wrote them and knew that they would be kept securely in the embassy there. He himself kept carbon copies of all his reports. Some of the top copies can be found in Dutch archives, but only the Weidner Papers have the entire series. These reports establish the dates of Dutch-Paris actions as well as commenting on morale and public concerns in occupied France and Belgium.
Another example of resistance documents found only among the Weidner Papers are a series of reports filed under “Belgian Resistance.” These are actually reports written by the men and women who worked with Dutch-Paris in Brussels during the war. One of Weidner’s officers in the Netherlands Security Service, the brother of one of the line’s members who was killed in the concentration camps, made sure that everyone involved in Brussels wrote a report about what they had done as part of Dutch-Paris there. The reports all include basic biographical information about each man or woman, a summary from the leaders in Brussels about that person’s contributions, and that person’s own report. They are in both Dutch and French. These files are particularly fascinating because they were written in 1944 or 1945 by everyone involved and so offer an immediate account of what even the most unrecognized resister did.
In addition to the reports that Weidner and his lieutenants solicited from their colleagues in ’44 and ’45, Weidner kept copies of French gendarmerie reports and American and British investigations from the same period. The papers from the postwar period include letters that Weidner wrote to support applications for resister benefits and his personal correspondence with many of his resistance colleagues. Historians of memory will be especially interested in the complaints and arguments sent back and forth regarding the publication of a book about Weidner in 1967, court cases resulting from that book, and attempts by other people to claim the leadership of Dutch-Paris.
Before the Weidner Foundation for Altruism donated the Weidner Papers to the Hoover Library & Archives, they granted Dr. Megan Koreman exclusive access to them. She used them as the basis of her research for her history of Dutch-Paris, The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018). The Weidner Papers gave Koreman the outlines of the story and a critical first list of names, but it took visits to 30 other archives in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Germany to fill in the details. Many of those archives had only recently been opened, created, or declassified. The story that emerged from the archives describes otherwise ordinary men and women – students, bankers, widows, clergymen, diplomats, businessmen, secretaries, shopkeepers, farmers – who resisted the Nazis by helping the people they persecuted. They found ways to obtain false documents, cross borders illegally, provide clandestine medical care, and hide fugitives. They helped whomever needed help from any nation including Jews of all ages; the children of French resisters; men dodging the German forced labor draft; civilians trying to join the Allies or the governments in exile, and downed Allied airmen. They also raised the money and found creative ways to transfer it between countries and exchange it into the local currencies to pay for their rescue work. There were moments of high drama, of jumping out of windows to escape paramilitary collaborators and the torture of those who could not escape, but for the most part Dutch-Paris was an exercise in flexibility, creativity, anxious train journeys, and sheer persistence.
Koreman has been fascinated by the Resistance since she visited her father’s family in Maastricht, the Netherlands, as a little girl. There her uncle told her stories of what he and her aunt did in the local resistance during the war. She used French documents at the Hoover Archives to write her master’s thesis at UC Berkeley, but in the early 1990s was unable to write her dissertation on the Resistance because no documents were available at that time. Instead, she wrote her dissertation and first book (The Expectation of Justice, France 1944-1946, Duke UP, 1999) on the Liberation of three French towns. She has taught at Texas Tech University and the University of Michigan and been an associated researcher at the Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie in Amsterdam. She keeps a blog on her research on Dutch-Paris and the resistance at www.dutchparisblog.com.
The Weidner papers are a second major Hoover collection on anti-Nazi resistance and help to Jews during World War II. The other one is that of Jan Karski, the heroic courier of the Polish Home Army who was first to bring to London detailed information on the start of the Final Solution in German-occupied Poland. Yad Vashem declared Karski and Weidner Righteous Among Nations, the first in 1975, and the second in 1978. Both men were also honored at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993.
Maciej Siekierski PhD
Maciej Siekierski is curator of the European Collections at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
siekierski [at] stanford.edu