Historical Adjacencies

I am not going to make it to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. While holocaust is a trope of every good Jewish boy's and girl's upbringing, I am trying not to make it a theme of my personal travels. Plus, Iris Chang did well to bring me up to speed. However, not planning tourist excursions around something is different that not knowing about it. So, a quick word about one of my current neighbors.

A block down from my hotel is the John Rabe House. Rabe, of course the subject of a new major motion picture (aren't they all?), was Nanjing's Oskar Shindler. Perhaps, given the scale of his efforts, he was Nanjing's Raoul Wallenberg. When the Japanese entered the city, there was little protection for the Chinese here. The army had largely fled or surrendered and the Japanese, reports say, killed with little rhyme or reason, other than women were sometimes spared death for the purposes of brutal and repeated rape. The little authority that could be exerted in the Chinese defense rested in the hands of a few westerners who did not flee in advance of the Japanese army.

The westerner who wielded the most influence was likely John Rabe, who was in China working for Siemens and was, nominally at least, a member of the Nazi Party. Given the alliance between Japan and Germany, Rabe was chaired the International Committee of the Nanjing Safety Zone, a small area centered around Nanjing University. The Zone was ostensibly off limits to the Japanese army, though was, in fact, only a permeable barrier, as frequent raids were made. The efforts of Rabe and his International Committee colleagues were difficult and imperfect, but did end up saving the lives of countless Chinese who either lived in Nanjing or were refugees from the countryside to the erroneously perceived safety of the city.

Soon after the Japanese invaded Nanjing, Rabe wrote a personal letter to Hitler asking for Germany to exert its influence and have Tokyo call back the army. Nothing happened. After seven weeks the worst of it was over and the war moved on to other gruesome chapters. Upon his return home to Germany, Rabe and his family fell into poverty, a result from his affiliation with the Nazis, though he seemed relatively apolitical and showed little interest in their inhumane policies. In the last few years before his death, Rabe received food and support from Nanjing and the Chinese government in thanks for his service to the people of Nanjing.

Entrance to the International Safety Zone Memorial Hall and the former house of John Rabe


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