The phone rang and when it was answered the lives of two families would never be the same.
During World War ll, Lt. John Withers, a black man heading a black unit in the tightly segregated U.S. Army risked a dishonorable discharge and potential jail time for violating orders and rescuing two Holocaust survivors, his unit nicknamed “Peewee” and “Salomon.”
Peewee was only 16-years-old and stood just 5-feet tall and Salomon was only 20 and both were Dachau concentration camp survivors. When Lt. Withers and the men in his unit took them in the boys were human skeletons clinging to life, with no-one else to care for them.
The Lieutenant then secretly kept them with him and his Munich based unit to nourish them back to health.
Over the next 1 ½ years, Lt. Withers helped teach the boys English and he educated them. But in 1946 it was time for him to return to the U.S. and with deep regret, he said goodbye, thinking he’d likely never see them again.
Peewee gave Lt. Withers a photo in which the boy, with a big smile wore a U.S. Army uniform. On the back of the photo, in English he’d written, “To my good friend, Lt. John L. Withers.”
Over the years, John Withers got married and he and his wife Daisy had two sons, John ll and Gregory. Meanwhile he earned his Ph.D. in political science from the prestigious University of Chicago and taught at universities in North Carolina and Michigan.
Dr. Withers then joined the U.S. Agency for International Development where over the next 21-years he traveled the world, taking his family with him. When he retired in 1979, he and Daisy settled in Silver Spring, Md.
Time and again, Dr. Withers told his boys remarkable stories about Peewee and Salomon and he shared pictures of them to the point the two Jewish survivors seemed like close family members. And as his eldest son John ll regularly looked at that old yellowed photo of Peewee he wondered what became of him and of Salomon.
This began an unsuccessful quest of many years, until in 2000, John ll, then 51 and the State Department’s deputy mission chief in Riga, Latvia, took a vacation and began to search in earnest, determined to find them. Soon that vacation turned into a one year sabbatical.
During the search, John ll was saddened to learn Salomon died of cancer in Israel in 1993 but was pleased to find out he’d been a prosperous businessman and the father of two children. He also learned Salomon had carried an Army photo of Lt. Withers in his wallet for the rest of his life.
John ll also learned that prior to Dachau, Peewee had survived the horrific concentration camps in Starachowice, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald and these gave him clues in his search.
Using Peewee’s original Polish name, he checked source after source, and eventually located a successful Connecticut businessman named Martin Weigen.
This man and his wife Margareta had married in Germany in 1948 and moved to Israel, then back to Germany. They had a daughter Barbara and a son Edward, both raised as Roman Catholic like their mother.
In 1956, they came to America, the land Mr. Weigen, “Peewee” had heard so much about from Lt. Withers 10-years-earlier. In America he hoped to make his fortune and a better life for his family.
He worked days in a machine shop and at night he helped Margareta operate a residential-care facility the couple had bought to assist people who otherwise were unable to care for themselves.
After many years of hard work the business became successful and in 1976, Mr. Weigen left the machine shop as he and his wife bought a 2nd residential-care home and their son and daughter worked with them in those facilities and in a 3rd one their son bought.
But in all these years, Martin rarely discussed his mother, father and sister who the Nazis killed or his time struggling through the horrors of the concentration camps. If the subject was raised, he’d tear-up and stop speaking. If asked about the number tattooed on his left forearm, A19104, he’d only say, “Bad people put that down.”
Now 55-years after he’d last seen Lt. Withers, the man who rescued and inspired him, the phone rang in the Withers household, as Mr. Weigen’s daughter Barbara returned the message that had been left for her father.
“I believe you’re looking for a relative of mine,” she said to John Withers ll. And she handed the phone to her father. As he spoke to Lt. Withers’ son, she noticed tears filled his eyes.
Three weeks later at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport, Lt. Withers and Peewee tearfully embraced. They had grown old. Mr. Withers, 84, wore a cap on his bald head and he was now not as tall as Mr. Weigen, who had gray hair and wore hearing aids.
That weekend they were inseparable as they reminisced about the war years and they discussed all that had happened to them over the 55-years since then. Meanwhile, their families got to know one another.
With Mr. Withers at his side, Martin Weigen talked about the family he’d lost so long ago and his desperate struggle for life in each concentration camp. As he spoke, his family videotaped it as a long secret door to the past had opened for all of them. When Mr. Weigen would get choked-up, he’d sigh, catch his breath and wipe away his tears. And then he would continue.
The Withers and Weigen families became so close that in the summer of 2001 the entire Withers family came to Connecticut to attend the wedding of Mr. Weigen’s granddaughter. Afterward, Mr. Withers joyfully sent cards, letters and gifts to Mr. Weigen’s family and Mr. Weigen’s daughter called John ll “my newfound brother.”
The next year the families got together at the Withers home in Maryland but health problems kept Mr. Weigen from attending. The families began planning another Connecticut reunion, but it was not to be.
Instead, Mr. Withers and his family flew to Hartford to attend Mr. Weigen’s funeral, for he died of colon cancer at the age of 75. During the service, a tearful Mr. Withers rose to speak. “My name is John Withers and I have known Martin longer than anyone in this room,” he said and he shared with them some of the remarkable stories I’ve shared with you today.