China remembers John Rabe, its own local Schindler


John Rabe (1882-1950), known as the Oscar Schindler of China, was an employee of Siemens and a Nazi party member when he helped establish the International Safety Zone (ISZ) toward the end of 1937 to provide a refuge for Nanjing’s noncombatants.

As a result, he is credited with helping save the lives of some 250,000 Chinese from the marauding Japanese troops. As a Nazi, Rabe got more respect from the Japanese than his other Western colleagues running the ISZ and on a few occasions by showing his swastika armband he managed to stop Japanese soldiers in the midst of raping Chinese women. In general, however, the good intentions of the ISZ were ignored by soldiers allowed to run amok for six gruesome weeks.

Were it not for the timely intervention of the German President Johannes Rau in 2003, Rabe’s house in Nanjing would have been bulldozed for a road-widening project. On a visit to the city, Rau prevailed on local authorities to move their roadwork elsewhere, and in 2004, Siemens agreed to provide funding to help restore the dilapidated house.

It opened as the John Rabe Research and Exchange Center for Peace and Reconciliation in October 2006. Its mission is to “refresh memories and learn lessons paid with blood from this agonizing period.” According to the director, Dao Luan Tang, the message of the Rabe house is a hopeful one, offering a contrast to the unremitting inhumanity on display at the Massacre Memorial.

Rabe emerged from the dustbin of history due to the research of author Iris Chang. She managed to unearth his unpublished diaries and included excerpts in her controversial book, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII” (1997). Subsequently the diaries were published as “The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe” (1998).

Rabe, precisely because he was a Nazi, is an especially inconvenient eyewitness for the revisionist Japanese historians who try to deny, minimize, shift or otherwise evade responsibility for the Imperial Japanese Army’s savage rampage in Nanjing.

In February 1938, Siemens recalled Rabe to Germany, where he gave lectures about the outrages in Nanjing and showed a film shot by the American missionary John Magee depicting the brutal consequences of Japan’s reign of terror. He also made the mistake of writing to Adolf Hitler, detailing the atrocities, leading to his arrest by the Gestapo, apparently for activities inconvenient to bilateral diplomacy. He was released due to the intervention of Siemens, but forbidden to lecture, write, show films or converse on the phone concerning what had happened in Nanjing.

After the war, Rabe got caught up in a de-Nazification program that left him unemployed and destitute. When news filtered back to Nanjing, where he was lionized for his good deeds, the grateful citizens raised $2,000 for him, a grand sum at the time, and every month sent food parcels. The statue of Rabe that now stands in front of his house in Nanjing was built with money raised by overseas Chinese students in Hamburg, Germany, where he was raised.

Nestled at the edges of the leafy Nanjing University campus across the street from the Angel beauty salon, the Rabe house gets relatively few visitors — It has, in total, only seen about 10,000 since it opened.

Currently the exhibits, which consist mostly of documents and photographs, have Chinese and English explanations, but I was told a draft Japanese translation is being checked for accuracy and should be ready in 2009.

The Rabe house is an intimate space that helps one imagine Nanjing at the time, and the staff is friendly and helpful. On request, they will show versions of the video displays with English captions for non-Chinese speakers.