Lt. Withers, Act of Mercy Has Unexpected
U.S. Officer Broke
To Let His Men Take In
Young Dachau Survivor
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET
November 25, 2003
young men stood trembling before Army Lt. John Withers,
dressed in the rags they'd worn at the recently liberated
Dachau concentration camp. Sores pocked their bony arms
and legs. Decades later, the lieutenant would remember
how their sunken eyes sought mercy.
1945, near the end of World War II, they posed a problem.
Lt. Withers was a black leader in an all-black supply
convoy. In violation of Army orders, his men were hiding
the refugees. Lt. Withers planned to have the strangers
removed -- until he saw them.
stayed with his unit for more than a year, two Jewish
survivors of the Holocaust hiding among blacks from
segregated America. The soldiers nicknamed them "Peewee"
and "Salomon." They grew close to Lt. Withers. By the
time he bid them farewell, they'd grown healthy
Withers never forgot them. Over the years, he told and
retold their tale to his two sons. When one son set out
to find them, he discovered that Salomon had died in
1993. But Peewee, he learned, was alive.
Mr. Withers, Peewee had buried his past. His children and
grandchildren knew almost nothing about his time in
Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. When his grandson asked
about the number tattooed on his left forearm -- A19104
-- all he could say was, "Bad people put that
couldn't bring himself to talk about it.
John Withers reappeared -- and changed Peewee's life yet
bright morning sun shone on the cobblestone square in
Starachowice, Poland, as the Nazi soldiers separated the
strong Jews from the weak. It was Oct. 27, 1942, a scene
reported by historians and survivors. The healthy would
go to work building bombs for the Germans. The rest would
be piled on a train to the extermination camp at
Wajgenszperg gave his 14-year-old son a brick to stand
on. He said it would make the boy look bigger, so the
Nazis might not send him away. Mieczyslaw Wajgenszperg
obeyed. Across the square, he recalled, his mother and
younger sister disappeared into the crowd. He would never
see them again.
(MEE-shuh-slav) had grown up in a red-brick house in
Starachowice, an industrial town. His grandfather was a
banker, and his father exported timber.
the Nazis invaded in 1939, they moved Mieczyslaw's family
and other Jews into an unwalled ghetto, where Jews were
expected to step off the sidewalk when Germans passed.
They lived there until that October morning when the
Nazis tore Mieczyslaw's family in two and put him and his
father to work in a munitions factory in
1944, with the Russian army approaching, the Germans put
the Jews on a southbound train. Mieczyslaw and his father
were deposited at Auschwitz and given
blue-and-gray-striped uniforms. From there, the Nazis
sent the boy to another camp nearby. His father stayed
behind, and Mieczyslaw said goodbye to him for the last
that September, Army Second Lt. John Withers, then 28,
boarded a train bound for a boat that would take him to
Europe. Black soldiers rode separately from whites.
Stopped in New Orleans, Lt. Withers recalled seeing
another train carrying German and Italian prisoners of
war. Black porters were serving them.
Salomon and Peewee with an Army soldier in
from Greensboro, N.C., where segregation ruled, and
blacks were expected to step aside when whites passed.
Lt. Withers knew he was going to war for freedoms he
didn't enjoy. Still, he recalled in an interview this
year, "I thought I would be better off if the world
subdued Hitler." He had his own dream: leave the South,
become a professor and join the American middle
up the precocious son of a janitor and a seamstress in a
six-room house with three siblings, five cousins and a
family friend. His mother bought the children dress shoes
instead of work shoes because work shoes announced that
you were poor, her son recalled. If neighbors had a
Thanksgiving turkey, the Witherses told everyone they
did, too, even if their holiday dinner was ham hocks and
teenager, John developed a passion for opera, and carried
in his pocket index cards he filled with poems, Gospel
verse and snatches of literature. He earned a bachelor's
degree in social sciences from North Carolina A, then a
master's degree in economics from the University of
Wisconsin in 1941. He hoped to seek a Ph.D., but funds
were scant. And the Army called.
years later, he was helping to lead one of the
quartermaster truck companies ferrying supplies to the
front lines in Europe, military records show. Lt. Withers
stood apart from the other soldiers. He didn't smoke,
drink or curse. He helped illiterate soldiers write home.
He spent a leave in London at libraries and the
never experienced full-fledged combat. He fretted about
returning to Greensboro, where he worried he'd have no
job, no money to pursue a Ph.D., no way to escape the
South. A glimmer of hope appeared: the Servicemen's
Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill,
which was designed to help veterans pay for college. As
1945 dawned, Lt. Withers was determined to take advantage
of it. But he had to keep his record clean.
his labor camp near Auschwitz, where he had been for six
months, 16-year-old Mieczyslaw heard the Russian cannons.
In late January of 1945, the Nazis marched him and
thousands of others northwest. Mieczyslaw wrapped his
shoes in paper bags so he wouldn't slip on the snow. Many
who faltered were shot, he later recalled.
FROM JOHN WITHERS II
My search for Peewee and Salomon began
with a story my father told me as a
child. Even when I was too young fully
to understand why, the tale of the two
young Jewish boys from Poland clearly
held deep meaning for him. Not that he
imbued it with any particular moral
significance. He never inferred that he
or his men had done anything noteworthy
in aiding the boys. Still, on occasion,
I would catch my father lingering over
old photos of the boys and know that he
was asking himself: What has become of
them? How much he missed his
But to me, as I grew old enough to
appreciate it, the story became so much
more. Why did these soldiers do what
they did? They could have gotten into
trouble with their superiors and faced
serious punishment. Why had these men
-- made callous by war and lives of
poverty -- taken these boys to heart?
Curiosity welled within me until,
eventually, perhaps inevitably, there
came a day when my father's question --
what had become of them? -- had to be
answered, and I had to answer
many years of searching -- many years
of false starts and disappointments --
before the answer came. There was the
sad news that Salomon had died of
cancer in Israel some years before. But
there also was a moment -- an
indescribable moment -- when my father,
then 84 years old, descended a plane in
Hartford, Conn., and walked stiffly
down the long corridors of the airport.
He had come to meet a friend whom he
hadn't seen in five decades. He did not
pause or hesitate or even look around.
Instead, he moved directly toward an
elderly man with a round face and an
unmistakable smile approaching from the
far end of the hallway. And suddenly,
Peewee, wonderful Peewee, was with him
wound up in the "Little Camp" at Buchenwald. In April, he
was loaded onto a snow-filled train that zigzagged
through Germany and Czechoslovakia for three weeks. He
sat on a man who had frozen to death. When he arrived at
Dachau, his ribs poked at his skin. He'd been there two
days when U.S. troops liberated the camp on April 29,
soldiers moved Mieczyslaw and other inmates to an
abandoned SS barracks near Munich, he recalled. One day
Mieczyslaw discovered that a bag holding his only
belongings -- a few items of clothing -- had been stolen.
The theft so infuriated him that he left.
in his ragged prisoner's uniform, Mieczyslaw walked to
another barracks where he'd noticed black U.S. soldiers.
He had heard that American blacks were poor and, like
him, had faced discrimination.
found members of Quartermaster Truck Company 3512 washing
dishes. Using hand gestures and some German, he made them
understand he wanted a job.
let Mieczyslaw help. That first night he slept outside on
a table, he later recalled. The next morning, the
soldiers gave him a room with a bed, a bureau, a desk and
a window that looked out on a forest. They fed him
goulash and bread, and gave him a nickname, "Peewee,"
because his name was a mouthful and he was about 5 feet
one morning, the soldiers told Mieczyslaw -- now Peewee
-- that a lieutenant had learned of his presence, as well
as that of another Dachau refugee, 20 years old, whom
they'd dubbed "Salomon." John Withers, who'd recently
been promoted to first lieutenant, wanted to see
units had orders to avoid contact with the Dachau
prisoners, Lt. Withers later recalled. His superiors
worried that supply convoys would pick up diseases and
spread them to other Army units. Researchers at the
National Archives couldn't locate specific records of
such orders but said other records indicate that Army
brass were acutely concerned about health risks posed by
Withers had learned that it was especially important for
blacks to follow orders in the segregated Army. He
recalled worrying that sheltering Dachau refugees might
get him a dishonorable discharge -- and then there would
be no GI Bill for him.
assumed the two refugees were war-toughened men who were
exploiting his soldiers' sympathy. So he was unprepared
when the soldiers brought Peewee and Salomon. The
refugees seemed shrunken and frightened, really just
boys, he recalled thinking.
would later recall that his knees felt weak as he waited
for the lieutenant's verdict. He assumed that his
immediate family was dead. He was 16. He had no home, no
money and no clothing but what he wore. He wanted no more
part of the Allies' displaced-persons camps. In the chaos
following the war, he had no idea what to do
Withers assumed that Peewee and Salomon would be returned
to Dachau, where thousands of former prisoners were still
convalescing, according to Army dispatches from the
summer of 1945. He'd been to Dachau on a bread-and-milk
delivery shortly after it was liberated. He'd seen bodies
decomposing in an open ditch, smelled the rotting flesh.
How could he send them back?
them," he recalled blurting to his men. "We're going to
take care of them."
recent interviews, he struggled to explain why he changed
his mind. "I think I identified with them very strongly
and instantaneously," he said. He said he also risked
losing face with his men. "They were willing to take the
chance. If I would have overruled them, I would have been
on the wrong side of the decision."
soldiers dressed the young men in fatigues and boots.
Washing dishes, peeling potatoes and hosing down trucks
with the GIs, Peewee and Salomon picked up English,
including a few curse words. The soldiers initially paid
them with candy and cigarettes, later with
white officers came around, Peewee and Salomon ducked
into the mess, a closet or a truck cab. On supply runs,
they burrowed under tarpaulins in the backs of trucks. In
one close call, Peewee recalled, he hid from a military
policeman under a tarp while some GIs sat on
fall of 1945, many Army units had begun hiring local
people so U.S. soldiers could go home. Peewee and Salomon
no longer had to hide. They were strong enough by then to
live on their own, but they stayed with Lt. Withers even
as he transferred to Quartermaster Truck Company 3511 in
early 1946, and it moved to the Bavarian village of
religious services, the young men sang and clapped to
Gospel music. They learned to drive and to shoot. They
bartered with farmers for hams, chickens and eggs. Peewee
tried baseball, pitched horseshoes, posed in a cowboy hat
and botched a batch of biscuits. Lt. Withers bought each
a watch. He taught them the English words to
and Salomon spent many evenings talking with the
lieutenant. Sometimes he read them tales of Greek, Norse
and Roman mythology. But mostly they wanted to hear about
the U.S., he recalled later. What kinds of jobs could
they find there? Could they get rich?
he couldn't answer these questions for himself, Lt.
Withers told Peewee and Salomon, "Get to the United
States and you'll be all right." He didn't speak of race
or anti-Semitism because "they didn't need anything
negative," he recalled.
Peewee, Salomon and Lt. Withers would sing a German
drinking song, "So Sind Wir (Such Are We)." Translated,
We laugh off the sorrow
Such are we
We do our best until tomorrow
Such are we
And so we shall always be
So come drink a cup with me
And sing such are we
lieutenant wondered how Peewee and Salomon could remain
so happy and gentle after what they'd endured. "They
didn't become hateful or hostile in return. They didn't
become bitter or apathetic," he would recall. "That was
something I've kept with me all my life: that it is
possible for someone -- me, anyone -- to overcome the
obstacles in his path without losing himself and face
prejudice without becoming prejudiced in
Lt. Withers went home in December 1946, Peewee and
Salomon waited near his Jeep in Staffelstein. By then,
Peewee had an apartment in nearby Bamberg and a job at a
machine and auto-repair shop. He and Salomon presented
the lieutenant with a photo album embossed with his name.
He gave them each a pen and his mother's Greensboro
address. Then they saluted before Lt. Withers rumbled
footlocker in the back of the Jeep rested a
picture-postcard Peewee had given him. It showed Peewee
beaming in a U.S. Army uniform, his soft cap at a jaunty
angle. On the back he'd written, in English, "To my good
friend, Lt. John L. Withers."
decades later, the postcard found its way to John
Withers's eldest son. John Withers II couldn't get it out
of his mind.
his brother, Gregory, had been hearing about Peewee and
Salomon since they were little. Their father had no
stories about ambushing Nazis or shooting Messerschmitts
out of the sky. When his sons asked about the war, he
talked about Peewee and Salomon.
Withers told these tales as he, his wife, Daisy, and
their sons traveled the globe. After his honorable
discharge from the Army, he used the GI Bill and earned a
Ph.D. in political science from the University of
Chicago. He taught at universities in North Carolina and
Michigan before joining the U.S. Agency for International
Development, where he spent 21 years on assignments from
Laos to Kenya before retiring in 1979 to Silver Spring,
the Witherses went, they carried photographs of Peewee
and Salomon. In John II's eyes, the men became like
long-lost uncles. He frequently asked his father why he
hadn't tried to find them. Mr. Withers said he wouldn't
know where to begin. All he knew was Peewee's real
2000, that was enough for John II, then 51 and the State
Department's deputy chief of mission in Riga, Latvia. On
vacation in Germany, he'd detoured to Staffelstein and
questioned natives about the black Army unit.
received a one-year State Department sabbatical and began
his hunt. The first Holocaust-survivor registers he
checked had no record of a Mieczyslaw Wajgenszperg. But
an Israeli search agency revealed that Peewee had
emigrated to the U.S. or Canada. Then Yad Vashem, the
vast repository of Holocaust records in Israel, supplied
a catalog of the camps he'd been in: Starachowice,
Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau. It shocked the elder Mr.
Withers, who'd known only about Dachau.
searches on Auschwitz and Buchenwald supplied too many
leads to sort through, so John II focused on a place he'd
never heard of, Starachowice. That led him to Christopher
Browning, a University of North Carolina historian who
had collected testimonies of 235 Starachowice survivors.
Mr. Browning sent John II to Howard Chandler, a
Starachowice survivor in Toronto who had compiled a list
of other survivors.
called the man one evening in March 2001. Mr. Chandler,
whose name was once Chaim Wajchendler, said yes, he had a
phone number for Mieczyslaw in Connecticut.
God," John II recalled thinking as he scribbled the
number. After thanking Mr. Chandler, he dialed. There was
a ring, then some high-pitched tones. He dialed again and
got the same thing. The number was
Peewee moved? Or died? John II redialed Mr. Chandler, who
said he'd try again. Mr. Chandler called a friend in
Israel who supplied a slightly different number. The area
code had changed. Instead of calling John II to tell him,
Mr. Chandler decided to call Mieczyslaw
days later, in Hartford, Conn., a businessman named
Martin Weigen received an unusual phone call.
Weigen and his wife, Margareta, had married in Germany in
1948. They moved to Israel, where Mr. Weigen had
relatives, then back to Germany, and then to the U.S.,
where Mr. Weigen hoped to make his fortune.
they arrived in 1956, Mr. Weigen and Margareta shortened
their surname, first to Weisperg, then to Weigen. Mr.
Weigen was Jewish, but he'd never been religious, and he
worried that his daughter and son might suffer
discrimination. They were raised Roman Catholic, like
Weigen worked days at a machinery company and at night
helped his wife run a residential-care home they had
bought. He left the machinery company in 1976 when he and
his wife bought a second care home, where they housed and
fed people who couldn't take care of
Martin Weigen and John Withers embrace at the
lived in a big white colonial on two wooded acres where
Mr. Weigen liked to feed the birds. "Isn't the nature
beautiful?" he would say in his soft Polish
daughter, Barbara Bergren, and his son, Edward Weigen,
worked with him at his two residential-care homes and at
a third that Edward bought. At a cottage the elder Mr.
Weigen owned on Long Island Sound, he loved to stand at
his bar and brag about his grandchildren.
rarely talked about the mother, father and sister he'd
lost as a boy in Poland. Questions about his childhood
and his wartime experiences were met with halting answers
and, sometimes, tears. As he aged, his children worried
that his stories might die with him.
the telephone, Howard Chandler told him someone was
looking for him. On an index card, Mr. Weigen jotted a
name -- "Wichers" -- and a phone number. He was a little
hard of hearing. He wasn't sure who "Wichers"
his daughter, Ms. Bergren, about the message when she was
helping at his office on April 3, 2001. The name
"Wichers" meant nothing to her, but her dad seemed eager
to call. He listened on one phone while Ms. Bergren
Withers II picked up the phone in his home library in
Rockville, Md. Propped on his desk was a framed copy of
Wichers?" Ms. Bergren recalled saying.
didn't know that name either. "I believe you're looking
for a relative of mine," she said.
II's heart sank. Was Peewee dead? he recalled thinking.
He identified himself, and asked if she was related to
he's sitting right here," she said, as she and John II
recalled the conversation. "But he has a hearing
impediment and if it's all right with you, I'll stay on
Weigen cut in from the other phone: "You are the son of
Lt. John L. Withers of North Carolina?"
John II said.
Bergren turned to see her father. His eyes had filled
whispered: "I know John Withers."
Weigen wondered if he would recognize John Withers as he
waited, three weeks later, at Gate A-1 of Hartford's
Bradley International Airport.
were old men now. Mr. Weigen was 72, with feathery white
hair and hearing aids. Mr. Withers, 84, wore a tan cap on
his bald head and was shorter now than his old friend.
The men embraced.
John," Mr. Weigen recalled saying.
said Mr. Withers.
were inseparable all weekend, holding hands and
reminiscing while their families got to know each other.
Mr. Weigen had told his children that a black soldier
helped him during the war, but he hadn't said much more.
His wife had asked more than once why he didn't use the
Greensboro address to contact the lieutenant. "He
wouldn't even remember who I am," Mr. Weigen said he told
showed Mr. Withers yellowed photos from their time
together, many of which Mr. Weigen's children and
grandchildren had never seen. Nor had they known that Mr.
Weigen had been called Peewee. Mr. Withers tried to call
him Martin, but Mr. Weigen patted his hand and said, "No,
no, John, to you I'm always Peewee."
and his wife started asking Mr. Weigen about the Nazi
camps. Edward Weigen and Ms. Bergren silently worried
that this would be too painful for their father. But with
Mr. Withers at his side, Mr. Weigen opened up. Over one
dinner that the family captured on videotape, he talked
about his childhood and what his father had done for a
living. "You ever hear that?" Edward, 43, said to Ms.
Bergren. "I didn't."
past, their father rarely got beyond generalities before
he grew quiet, or his eyes welled. Then his children
would back off. "His way of survival was that you can't
immerse yourself in that, you have to always move
forward," said Ms. Bergren, 53.
Mr. Withers it was different. Now when Mr. Weigen's
emotions got to him, according to Edward, "he'd slow
down, take breaths," and then dig deeper into his
memories. One day Mr. Weigen told how some food he'd
scrounged from an abandoned cellar near Auschwitz made
him ill. "Listening to him, you know that this is the
first time he has spoken of or thought of it since it
happened," Edward said.
talked about life in the Starachowice ghetto and
described his journey to Dachau. He drew a diagram of the
first room the soldiers gave him. He pulled out more
photos his kids had never seen, including one of him with
his sister, Klara, in the ghetto.
the help of Mr. Weigen and John II, Edward began his own
exploration of the past. He obtained the Jan. 26, 1945,
list of Auschwitz prisoners transported to Buchenwald,
which included his father. He learned that Mr. Weigen had
altered his birthdate at Auschwitz to make himself two
years older. He confirmed that Mr. Weigen's mother, and
probably his sister, had died at Treblinka.
At the 2001 reunion, standing from left,
John Withers II and Daisy Withers;
sitting from left, Martin Weigen with grandson
Christopher Weigen, John Withers and Margareta
summer of 2001, the entire Withers family attended the
wedding of Mr. Weigen's granddaughter in Connecticut. Mr.
Withers sent cards, letters and birthday gifts to the
Weigen and Bergren children. In e-mails, Ms. Bergren
referred to John II as "my newfound brother." In the
summer of 2002, Edward and his family visited the
Witherses in Maryland. Health problems kept Mr. Weigen
from traveling, but this year the families began planning
another Connecticut reunion for the fall.
weeks ago, Mr. Withers stepped off another plane in
Hartford, not for a reunion, but to bury
Weigen died Oct. 16. He was 75. He'd been diagnosed with
colon cancer in September. Near the end, Ms. Bergren told
the doctor, "He's a Holocaust survivor. He can't suffer
40 people attended his memorial service at a funeral home
near Hartford. Two easels and an album displayed photos:
Mieczyslaw with his sister and mother on a summer day;
Peewee and Salomon grinning with a black soldier named
Dave; Messrs. Weigen and Withers hugging.
room fell silent as Ms. Bergren stood and told how Mr.
Withers gave her father "a new beginning." She asked Mr.
Withers to stand. "For what you did that year to bring
him back to us, we will be forever grateful," she said.
"We love you for it."
Mr. Withers, 87, rose to speak. Behind him lay Mr. Weigen
in a mahogany casket, wearing his favorite sweater and
clutching a dried rose from his seaside house. Mr.
Withers felt sad and a little confused. He'd thought that
Mr. Weigen, as strong as he was, would hold on for a few
smiled and said, "My name is John Withers, and I have
known Martin longer than anyone in this room." He spoke
of how Mr. Weigen had cheered his men, and how his gentle
manner would endure in the two families who loved him.
Finally, he recited the lyrics to a song Mr. Weigen had
sung when he was simply Peewee, "Taps":
to Bryan Gruley at email@example.com
Gone the sun,
From the lakes,
From the hills,
From the sky.
All is well,
God is nigh.