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Refugees

June 23, 2007 |  6:53 am


1957_0623_weidner_hed



1957_0623_weidner June 23, 1957
Pasadena

John, 42, runs a health food store on North Lake Street in Pasadena and lives at 861 Elizabeth St., The Times says in a feature story. Born in Holland, he is like many Europeans who came to America after World War II.  "I love it here," he says. "You have a spirit of freedom and liberty which is lost in Europe." 

But the man behind the counter at the health food store is different from most Americans in several ways: He's a Seventh-day Adventist. He's a member of the Order of the British Empire. He holds the French Croix de Guerre, the U.S. Medal of Freedom and the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau.

His name is John Henry Weidner and for his heroism in saving more than 1,000 people from the Nazis, he will eventually be honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among Nations. John's life makes for quite a story. His father, a Dutch Reformed minister, and sister died in concentration camps and John was tortured by the Gestapo, escaping from the Nazis five times.

But what interests us about him now is something other than his actions during the war.

Let's jump ahead 10 years. One of his regular customers, a woman named Mary, will ask John to hire her son as a stocker and delivery boy. He's a troubled young man and like John, a refugee--an Arab Christian from Jerusalem who is having a hard time fitting into American society. He's had a few odd jobs, but nothing has worked out. Since he's a small man, he even tried being a jockey at Santa Anita, but ended up filing a disability claim because he suffered a head injury when he was thrown by a horse.

Mary, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, had taken her son to St. Nicholas, the Syrian Orthodox Cathedral, in Los Angeles; First Nazarene of Pasadena; and finally First Baptist Church of Pasadena, where she enrolled her son in Sunday school and a group for teenagers. The Baptists sponsored Mary's older sons for entry into the U.S. But the young man didn't like the Pasadena Baptist church, saying that the other teenagers were too frivolous in a place intended for reading the Bible and praying.

John will hire the young man and discover that he is bright, pleasant and witty, eager to please and so honest that John will trust him to handle some of the store's banking. The only problem is that the young man is extremely sensitive to anything that seems like criticism.

"He had a lot of pride, a lot of arrogance," John's wife, Naomi, will say. "We were always careful how we gave him an order. If you gave him an order he didn't like he became very resentful."

Still, John will reach out to the young man whenever he has a spare moment at the store. But the young man will be a test. "I would like to be like you but I cannot," he will tell John. "There is no God. You see in Israel what happens to the Arab. There is no God. How can you have a God?"

The young man and John will also argue over the Six-Day War, comparing Israel's victory to the actions of the Nazis. "You think Jews can't be cruel too?" he will ask John.

Eventually, there will be a dispute. John will insist that there was a misunderstanding and try to make amends, but the young man will be adamant and quit his job.

Shortly after that, on a night in June that's the first anniversary of the Six-Day War, the young man will go to the Ambassador Hotel, where Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is celebrating his victory in California primary.

Sirhan Sirhan, who once earned $2 an hour as a stock boy at John Weidner's Pasadena health food store, will be waiting in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel's kitchen--with a .22-caliber, eight-shot Iver Johnson revolver.

1957_0623_sirhan

"I think he was a man of revolt," John will say of Sirhan. "He was a kind of anarchist against society, against law and order, against those who possess. Against those who have more than he has and are more successful in life."

"In America, freedom does not exist,"  Sirhan told John.  "I agree with the violence." 

John H. Wiedner died in 1994. He once said: "During my father's lifetime he taught me, my family, his parishioners and the community that the most important quality in a human being was to love, respect and treat our fellow man as we wished to be loved, respected and treated.   

"I was a witness to the barbaric treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. I personally observed the crushing of the skull of a Jewish infant who was torn out of the arms of its mother. I was determined to heed the teachings and example of my father and I did everything that I could to save as many lives as possible."

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