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Founder of an underground network that enabled 1,080 people, including 800 Dutch Jews and more than 112 Allied pilots who had been shot down, to escape Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Johan Hendrik Weidner was born to Dutch parents in Belgium on this date in 1912. Raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, Weidner had a textile import-export business in Paris that he moved to Lyons, which became headquarters for what was known in the Netherlands as “The Swiss Way.” At its height, 300 people were involved in the network, half of whom were arrested and forty of whom died in captivity, including Weidner’s sister who helped to coordinate escapes from Paris. The Nazis offered $5 million francs for his arrest, and he was, in fact, arrested and tortured by both French and Swiss border police, but he was released for lack of evidence and the Gestapo never got their hands on him. After the war he was widely decorated, and Israel’s Yad Vashem designated him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations and planted a grove of trees in his name along the Avenue of the Righteous.
“During our lives, each of us faces a choice: to think only about yourself, to get as much as you can for yourself, or to think about others, to serve, to be helpful to those who are in need. I believe that it is very important to develop your brains, your knowledge, but it is more important to develop your heart, to have a heart open to the suffering of others. As for myself, I am just an ordinary person, just someone who wants to help his neighbor.” —Johan Hendrik Weidner