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Portrait of John Rabe

The Life of John Rabe

   John Rabe, who would later be remembered as the ˇ§Oscar Schindler of Chinaˇ¨, was born on November 23, 1882 in Hamburg, Germany, as the son of a shipˇ¦s captain. When his father passed away, young Rabe had to leave his school, and worked as an apprentice for a Hamburg export firm for two and a half years. Afterwards, he worked for an English firm at Lourenacois Marques, a Portuguese colony in Africa and became fluent in the English language. In 1906, Rabe returned to Germany due to an outbreak of malaria.

   In 1908, he went to China and in 1909, he married his childhood sweetheart, Dora in Shanghai. Rabe lived in China for the next 30 years, working for the Hamburg firm. In 1911, he joined the Siemens China branch corporation, and continued to run the office in Beijing even during China's involvement in World War I. After the war in 1919, Rabe was forced out of China along with other Germans, but he soon returned in 1920, and became director of the Siemens branch in Nanjing, the Nationalist capital of China, in November 1931. As the director, Rabe carried out his work by selling telephones, turbines, and electrical equipment to the Nationalist government.

   After the seizure of power by the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler January 10, 1933, Rabe saw the Nazism as a socialist movement which he supported and joined, saying, "I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organizer of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent." Rabe became the leader of the Nazi party in Nanjing. However, during World War II, he did not know of or support the persecution of Jews or other atrocities committed by the Nazis, but joined solely because of his beliefs in socialism.

   During the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937, Rabe and other foreigners were advised to leave the country, and many obliged. However despite the urging of friends and embassy officials to evacuate, Rabe was one of the few people who chose to stay, stating "...there is a question of morality here... I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me, and it is touching to see how they believe in me."

   Aware of the upcoming danger and violence, Rabe and fourteen other foreigners organized the International Committee on November 10, 1937 and was given administrative authority over Nanjing after the evacuation of the city's mayor, just as the Japanese entered the city. The committee created what is known as the Nanjing Safety Zone, a temporary neutral area in Nanjing to provide aid and shelter for the innocent civilians or refugees who did not wish to be caught in the midst of "Sino-Japanese crossfire".

   Little did the committee members foresee the horrors and atrocities -- the Nanjing Massacre -- which was to be unleashed upon the once glamorous city of Nanjing. Despite the zone being "neutral" or off-limits to Japanese rampages, the walls of the sanctuary were often breached. Nevertheless, Rabe and other committee members worked tirelessly to satisfy the needs of over 250,000 refugees.

   Rabe tried many methods to prevent the onslaught of violence in Nanjing which he recorded in a diary, including contact with Adolf Hitler, but most were to no avail. On February 28, 1938, Rabe returned to Germany promising to make the terrors of the Nanjing Massacre known to the world, however, he was arrested for his attempts and after severe questioning, was denounced by the Nazi party. Eventually, he was officially "de-Nazified" by the Allies in 1946, and lived in poverty and obscurity in Germany where he died from a stroke on January 5, 1950 at the age of 68.