If ever there was an example of “ordinary people” called by circumstance to extraordinary service, it was the family of Johan Hendrik Weidner, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Because of his career, Weidner, though a Dutchman born and bred, held various posts in France; his children considered themselves French. Relying entirely on the letters they wrote to one another under increasingly desperate circumstances, Janet Holmes Carper’s awe-inspiring book, “The Weidners in Wartime,” follows their path to becoming Resistance heroes of the Second World War.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

We meet them first in the years just before the war. Johan’s son, called Jean, is in Lyon, struggling as a 20-something businessman. His sister Gabrielle (Gaby), two years younger, is working in Paris at the Adventist Church’s headquarters. Annette, still a teenager, lives with her parents at the Adventist Seminary in France, right on the Swiss border. Their mother’s hospitalization for thyroid issues prompts an active exchange of letters that establishes what a close-knit and intimate family they were. It also starts to limn the characters of the individual members.

Johan (Papa) is a deeply serious but kind paterfamilias; his heavy-handed efforts at humor for his children are particularly touching. He is also very active; Mama, his wife, describes him as having been “born 5 minutes too late and all his life he was doing his best to catch up on those 5 minutes.” She herself, despite medical problems, keeps the home fires burning.

Gaby and Jean clearly had a very close relationship, frequently writing to each other multiple times a week. Gaby appears somewhat self-centered to begin with. Jean is more like his father and also a deeply caring older brother; his letters express over and over his concern that Gaby has what she needs in food and clothes. (He was in the fabrics business.) Annette, the youngest, is determined to become a maternity nurse. All are dedicated members of the Adventist Church.

For “The Weidners in Wartime,” Carper, who lives in Cornish, selected and translated hundreds of letters from between 1935 to 1944 from the family’s voluminous correspondence. There are two types: the official wartime cards, “limited strictly to correspondence of a family nature,” and the longer letters (some covering several pages in the book) that must be sent clandestinely to avoid the Gestapo. They speak for themselves, but Carper’s thumbnail introductions keep the reader on track. This is especially useful as the war intensifies and mail gets delayed.

The letters also tell two stories. Only one can be spelled out: the daily life and interests of the writers. Much in Paris seems relatively normal for a while, although the line that separates Occupied from Unoccupied France casts its shadow. Jean is making money and supporting his parents and sisters generously. He is engaged to and then marries a Swiss woman with a possessive mother.

But as things get tougher, the easy back and forth disguises more dangerous communications. The family has always used code names for the belligerents: Arthur is England; Fischer is Germany. They also call themselves different names and write in the third person. Jean writes long letters without paragraphs (Carper, thankfully, inserts them) to confuse the censors. In setting up the Dutch-Paris Escape Line, he – and then his sisters and wife – commit themselves to a deadly enterprise.

The letters contain no spy-vs.-spy derring-do. When Jean is arrested, the letters report that he is ill and in hospital. One of the last letters – from Papa – dealing with the family’s climactic tragedy, is almost unbearable as he conceals his feelings from the censor, from his children, and probably from himself.

For obvious reasons, it is a muffled voice, but the letters speak for the times. Only in the afterword do Jean Weidner’s astonishing feats, which rescued thousands – Jews, Dutch resistance fighters, downed Allied airmen – become clear. He received the highest honors from France, the Netherlands, and the United States, among other countries. Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, honored him as Righteous Among the Nations.

It’s too bad the copy-editors were not more careful. Random typos are one thing, but mislabeling sender and recipient of a letter is confusing, especially when identities may be masked anyway. Also, the Historical Timeline at the end of the book has major mistakes. The Phony War ended, not began, in May 1940. Referring to the action on September 17, 1944, as “Allied bombing assault on the Netherlands” is like calling D-Day the Allied assault on France. It was actually the Allies’ disastrous attempt to use paratroopers to capture the “bridge too far” at Arnhem.

Such blemishes are a shame, and one can only hope there are not more that must necessarily have escaped this reviewer’s notice. But they do not stop “The Weidners in Wartime” from being an important book. It brings a terrifying time to life before it can slip into the mists of history.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of the recently published “Up for Grabs! Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”


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