John L. Withers, 91; Sheltered Two Young Victims of WWII
Friday, October 12, 2007
John L. Withers, 91, who died of cancer Oct. 7 at his Silver Spring home, never forgot the sight of the two emaciated Jewish boys in rags who trembled before him near Munich in 1945.
Dr. Withers, a newly commissioned Army lieutenant commanding an all-black supply convoy in postwar Germany, knew that regulations strictly forbade contact with refugees. Abiding by the rules was important for Dr. Withers, because he was counting on getting out of the service with an honorable discharge and using the GI Bill to attend graduate school.
But the two young men fell to their knees and begged him in Polish and German to let them stay with the troops. He looked at their sunken eyes and remembered delivering bread and milk to the newly liberated Dachau camp. He couldn't bear the idea of sending anyone there, even if it was where former prisoners were recovering.
"They were sickly, thin, scared," he told the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press in 2004. "And they both had huge, beautiful eyes."
Let them stay, he told his men. "We're going to take care of them."
Dr. Withers never regretted that decision, although he lost touch with "Peewee" and "Salomon" when his military service ended. He often told the story to his two sons, teaching them that regardless of the prejudice that he experienced while growing up in the segregated South, he was not going to become consumed by prejudice in return.
He received a doctorate in international relations from the University of Chicago in 1956. After several years teaching at colleges, he was among the first African Americans to enter the Foreign Service. He worked for what became the U.S. Agency for International Development and was assigned to Laos, Thailand, Burma, Korea, Ethiopia and Kenya. He ended his career as director of the USAID mission to India, then one of the largest foreign aid programs in the world. He retired in 1978 and taught and volunteered while living in Silver Spring.
He was 85 in 2001 when one of his sons found "Peewee," who had changed his name from Mieczyslaw Wajgenszperg to Martin Weigen and lived near Hartford, Conn. "Salomon" had died in Israel in 1994.
"He put me back on my feet," Weigen told his daughter, moments after learning where his old friend was. "I had no family, no home, no country."
Reconnecting with Dr. Withers allowed Weigen to finally tell his family details about his experience that he had withheld for 55 years. Relatives knew that he had lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust and that he had been forced to work for the Nazis from the Starachowice ghetto and at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau.
"The gift for us was that we did get more detail," Weigen's daughter, Barbara Bergren, said Thursday. "When they finally met in the airport, it was as if no time had passed. They bonded immediately. They literally held hands."
The Wall Street Journal wrote about the men in a front-page article in 2003, and Dr. Withers began a career in public speaking. He appeared at the National World War II Reunion, the United Nations and the National Underground Railroad museum in Cincinnati, and Jewish congregations gave him awards for being a "righteous gentile."