The train ride to Annecy a couple days later went
as planned. This picturesque town located near the French-Swiss border was so
important to John’s underground work that he’d opened a small textile
manufacturing plant there to cover his many trips to the area. A businessman
traveling to and from scattered factory locations didn’t arouse much attention
from the German secret police or the French forces favorable to Nazi
occupation. Little did they know just how much attention they should have paid.
The Paris-Lyons-Annecy-Switzerland escape route was becoming a literal
superhighway for refugees, thanks in part to the textile businesses operated by
The night was spent in hiding, part of the group
among stacked boxes in the storeroom of John’s factory and the rest with a
sympathetic business owner nearby.
“Ah, John,” Marie-Louise Meunier called
when she saw her friend entering her store from the darkened street. “You
have brought some more of them to me.” Addressing the refugees, she said,
“Please, come in. No one will find you here. The Germans and French are
not watching my store. You are safe with me.”
John smiled at his cheerful coconspirator. How
childlike was her innocence! If the Gestapo learned of her activities, her life
would end quickly and violently. But here she was, opening her arms to
strangers, putting her life on the line in the name of freedom.
“We leave on the 7:00 bus for St. Julien
tomorrow morning early,” he announced. “But we’ll be getting off long
before it reaches its destination. Sleep tight. Tomorrow will not be an easy
Little did he know just how prophetic his words
would prove to be.
* * *
“Driver,” John called as the bus
rounded a mountain curve. “We’d like to get off here.”
The man nodded and brought his noisy conveyance
to a jolting halt. A group of passengers stumbled down the steps and stood by
the roadside. As the vehicle roared away John turned to his charges. “The
next bus will be arriving with Raymonde and the remainder of our group in about
an hour. We’ll wait for them at a farmhouse a half mile from here. I’ll be
sending my secretary back to Annecy, so we’ll all be together again for our
final push to the border.”
As hoped, the second group arrived at the
farmhouse in good spirits. Slipping out the back door, John and his ten
refugees began following the little path leading directly into the mountains to
the east. Weidner set a steady pace, with his flock strung out behind him.
“John,” Mr. Smit called, his breath a
little labored, “please remember we’re from Holland. Very flat there. No
mountains. We’re not used to the climb or the altitude.”
“Oh, yes,” John apologized.
“You’re right. I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
The weary group reached the mountaintop by
noontime. Pausing for just a brief moment to admire the sweeping view of
distant Switzerland, they pressed on. It was John’s plan to arrive in the
border area by nightfall.
Suddenly Grandmother Smit began to lag behind,
her breathing becoming more and more raspy. “I . . . I can’t keep
up,” she gasped. “I’m just an old, worthless woman. I don’t think I
can make it.”
“Sure you can,” John encouraged.
The pace was slowed, but soon they noticed the
woman wasn’t with the band of travelers.
“I’ll never make it,” she called from
far down the path. “You go ahead. Leave me here. I’d rather die on this
mountain than know I ruined everyone else’s escape.”
“We’re going together, do you
understand?” John said when he reached her. “You’re part of us. Just
lean on me. We’ll be heading down this mountain very soon.”
“Let me die,” the woman pleaded.
“It’s my life. You can go on without me. It won’t make any
“Oh, but it will,” her companion said
softly. “Your life, any life, is a precious, valuable thing. Now, hold
onto my arm. We’re going together.”
The exhausted group of hikers finally stumbled
into an isolated farmhouse nestled in a beautiful Alpine valley. But their travels
for the day weren’t over yet.
“I’ve got to see a friend on the nearby
campus of Collonges, a Christian college operated by the Seventh-day Adventist
Church, of which I’m a member. You rest, eat, and prepare yourself for our
final assault on the border tonight.” He looked at his charges.
“We’re almost there, my friends.”
John smiled when he noticed one in the group
wasn’t listening. Grandmother Smit had fallen asleep in a chair by the door.
A few hours later Weidner returned to the
farmhouse. At his side stood another gentleman, a warm smile lighting his
“This is Roger Fasnacht, the administrator
of the college,” the guide explained. “He has agreed to help us with
our crossing attempt.”
Grandmother Smit, having rested and eaten a
hearty, nutritious meal, took hold of John’s hand. “It’s been a hard
journey, young man,” she said. “But you have brought us safely this
far. Now, take us to freedom!”