The late Dr. John Withers was an Army lieutenant during World War II who risked his career and a chance at furthering his education after he helped two Polish-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Withers’ compassion saved the lives of the boys, and he was reunited with one of them much later in life.
Withers was born in 1916 in Greensboro, N.C. A brilliant student who developed a love of opera and literature, he viewed education as his pathway to escape the racist Deep South and forge a middle-class life. A graduate of North Carolina A&T, Withers sought to earn a Ph.D and become a college professor after earning his master’s from the University of Wisconsin in 1941. However, funds weren’t available at that time, but he learned of the Army’s G.I. Bill and enlisted.
Although he never saw combat, Withers became a newly-commissioned Army lieutenant and led an all-Black supply unit in Germany. His group was stationed near Munich and not far from a liberated concentration camp at Dachau. When two starving and tattered young men, 16 and 20, came to his camp, Withers nearly turned them away but after meeting them decided to help instead. He and his troops hired the two as helpers for the unit, and fed, clothed and hid the young men from their superiors, as the discovery of the victims would have led to a dishonorable discharge and a risk to his G.I. Bill.
After the war ended, Withers went to the University of Chicago and earned a Ph.D in Political Science. He taught classes in North Carolina and Michigan then joined the U.S. Agency for International Development. Dr. Withers retired in 1979 from the position and settled in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md.
The Withers family traveled around the world with their father, but he never forgot “Salomon” and “PeeWee” and shared the stories often with his children. He used the moment of his life as a lesson to show kindness to others despite one’s station in life.
In 2000, Withers’ son, John II, a ranking official at the State Department, began tracking down the survivors his father helped. This led him to Mieczyslaw Wajgenszperg, who’d changed his named to Martin Weigen when he and his wife arrived in America. After making a life as a businessman in Connecticut, Weigen, the young man known as PeeWee, suppressed the memories of the Holocaust and never shared details of his experience with his family.
Everything came out in the open when Weigen and Withers reconnected. For two years, they spent a lot of time together. Unfortunately, Weigen had been battling cancer for some time and Withers outlived his younger friend. He and his family attended the funeral.