Sunday, February 24, 2019

Book Review - "The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe

I had delayed reading this important book for a long time simply out of sheer fear of having the atrocious scenes imprinted on my mind.

In June 2011, I had attended a talk by Iris Chang’s mother, Dr. Ying-ying Chang, in Vancouver about her book The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking. At that event I had also seen a documentary recording the heinous acts committed by the Japanese soldiers during the invasion and occupation of Nanking between 1937 and 1938. (As mentioned in this book, the film documentary was produced by Rev. John Magee, an American missionary.) So I was mentally prepared going into The Good Man of Nanking. Still, I found myself consciously skimming the photos in the book as best as I could.

I had not previously read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the research of which in fact relied heavily on these diaries, which were not published as a book until forty-nine years after John Rabe’s death in 1949. The fact that John Rabe had not intended for his diaries to be published (he had only meant them for his family members’ reading) adds to the value of the book as an authentic and unassailable true account of what really happened, without any hidden agenda. The plain, sometimes emotional, but always from the heart, monologue style of writing, while speaking to readers’ mind and soul, gives good insight into the selfless and compassionate character of this good-hearted German. The monstrosities that he had to try to deflect from some 250,000 Chinese refugees were in ironic contrast to the humanitarian efforts of a handful of Westerners including him who happened to be in Nanking.    

The first entry was made on September 21, 1937 and the last one was dated February 28, 1938.

This January 25, 1938 entry gives a good idea of the gist of the events on record:

“There is one case that we don’t record: A Chinese worker, who has worked all day for the Japanese, is paid in rice instead of money. He sits down in exhaustion with his family at the table, on which his wife has just placed a bowl of watery rice soup: the humble meal for a family of six. A Japanese soldier passing by plays a little joke and urinates in the half-full rice bowl and laughs as he goes his merry way.

The incident made me think of the poem “Lewwer duad us Slaav” (“Better Dead than a Slave”), but one simply can’t expect a poor Chinese worker to behave like a free Frisian. The Chinese are far too downtrodden, and they patiently submitted to their fate long ago. It is, as I said, an incident that is given the scantest notice. If every case of rape were revenged with murder, a good portion of the occupying troops would have been wiped out by now.”

After Rabe and his wife returned to Germany in April 1938, they went through days of hunger and destitution in 1945 and 1946. When the Chinese Military Mission in Berlin made him an offer to resettle in China in exchange for appearing as a witness for the prosecution at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, Rabe declined.

In a message he left for his grandchildren, he explained: “I didn’t want to see any Japanese hang, although they deserved it…..There must be some atonement, some just punishment; but in my view the judgment should be spoken only by their own nation.”

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