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French missionary saved 300,000 people

    French missionary saved 300,000 people

    Robert Jacquinot de Besange (center) among refugees in his “Jacquinot Safe Zone” in this file photograph.

    “The Japanese are coming!” Shanghai resident Li Fengxiang, 92, can still recall the late-night cries that awakened the city to horror and prompted her family into a desperate flight.

    It was autumn, 1937, when Shanghai was the frontline of China’s war against Japan. An influx of refugees had forced what was then the French concession, their initial destination, to close down. In despair, they heard rumors about another refugee zone in the Chinese city.

    They found shelter in a flour trading station where there were so many refugees that each family was restricted to one blanket on the floor, but at least they were spared from the bombings, slaughter and rape outside night after night.

    “Steamed buns and bread were handed out every day. Students patrolled the zone,” Li said. “There, we finally felt out of danger.”

    Back then, Li did not know the camp in the “Nanshi Refugee Zone”, also known as “Jacquinot Safe Zone”, was initiated by French missionary Robert Jacquinot de Besange, who is believed to have saved 300,000 Chinese and inspired the creation of future wartime havens.

    Though many of the camps are unrecognizable in today’s metropolis, survivors’ accounts and experts’ calls for a UNESCO inscription have projected the haven into public spotlight.

    Su Zhiliang, a history professor with Shanghai Normal University, said the zone consisted of nine areas and covered one third of the old city. Facilities included an amusement park, a mosque, a Taoist temple and a Buddhist monastery, among others.

    Established in November 1937, it was operational till 1940, with more than 100 camps opened. Its success was largely credited to de Besange’s diplomacy and donations from China and beyond.

    Marcia Ristaino’s 2008 book “The Jacquinot Safe Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai” recorded some scenarios of the missionary’s hard campaign for donations to keep the haven alive. In 1938, he “achieved his refugees ‘mission of mercy’” after meeting Franklin Roosevelt and secured a generous relief fund from the US president, it said.

    Pan Dacheng (also named Pan Da), a Communist party intelligence officer assigned to work as de Besange’s assistant, assisted in the zone’s management. His account was told to Xinhua news agency by his son Pan Guang.

    According to the elder Pan, the zone had its own administrative organizations, police force, schools and hospitals and ran workshops.

    Pan Guang and Su are among campaigners seeking to add the zone and the city’s old Jewish ghetto to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

    “The Shanghai safe zone was one of the most successful refugee rescues in World War II,” Su said. Its success inspired similar safety zones in Nanjing, Hankou and Guangzhou and in France, and was written into the Geneva Convention on wartime civilian protection.

    Su is “racing against urbanization” to protect zone sites, some of which have been torn down or turned into other facilities. The offices of de Besange, for instance, are now fast food outlets.

    The younger Pan, also a researcher on the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, drew a link between the zone and the 30,000 Jewish refugees the city sheltered from Nazi persecution.

    “The numbers 30,000 and 300,000 are important for Shanghai,” Pan said.

    The city sheltered 30,000 Jews during the war, meanwhile Chinese would not forget their foreign friends’ protection of the 300,000 Chinese, said Pan.

    The application was also suggested as a tribute to de Besange’s work in China. Born in 1878, the French missionary spent over 20 years in China and dedicated himself to helping civilians.

    He named himself Rao Jiahua — meaning China home — to show his love for China as his second hometown.