Re­call­ing the hero­ics of Nan­jing’s Amer­i­can hero

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By LI XUEQING in Shang­hai


On Sept 2, the day of the 70th an­niver­sary of the end of World War II, the New York Univer­sity (NYU) in Shang­hai held a talk to pay trib­ute to Ge­orge Ash­more Fitch, an Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary whose heroic acts helped save tens of thou­sands of Chi­nese dur­ing the Nan­jing Mas­sacre (1937), also known as the Rape of Nank­ing.

About 300,000 Chi­nese civil­ians and dis­armed sol­diers were slaugh­tered in the weeks fol­low­ing the fall of Nan­jing. Based on the find­ings of the Tokyo War Crimes Tri­bunal, there were ap­prox­i­mately 20,000 cases of rape in the city dur­ing the first month of the oc­cu­pa­tion.

Fitch had served as di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of Nan­jing Safety Zone when the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Army oc­cu­pied Nan­jing, then the cap­i­tal of China, on Dec 13, 1937. The zone mea­sur­ing 3.86 square kilo­me­ters pro­vided shel­ter to some 250,000 refugees. Fitch had also risked his life by re­veal­ing to the world the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the Ja­panese in­vaders.

Giv­ing the talk at NYU’s cam­pus was Fitch’s grand­son David, who is work­ing as a bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity. He gave an emo­tional ac­count about his grand­fa­ther’s life dur­ing the war and the ex­tra­or­di­nary mea­sures he had taken to help the Chi­nese.

Fitch was born into a fam­ily of Pres­by­te­rian mis­sion­ar­ies in 1883 in Suzhou. He later be­came the head of YMCA (Young Men’s Chris­tian As­so­ci­a­tion) in Nan­jing. In Novem­ber 1937, fol­low­ing the fall of Nan­jing, Fitch and a group of for­eign­ers es­tab­lished the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee for Nan­jing Safety Zone to pro­tect civil­ians. Other mem­bers of the com­mit­tee in­cluded mis­sion­ar­ies, doc­tors, pro­fes­sors and busi­ness­men from the United States, Bri­tain, Den­mark and Ger­many.

One of the no­table char­ac­ters was John Rabe from Ger­many who was also head of Siemens in China. Rabe’s di­aries, which were first pub­lished in 1997, are among the most im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­als that doc­u­ment the mas­sacre which took place in the city.

Fitch was a wit­ness to how the peace­ful city had be­come a hell hole filled with an­ar­chy and hu­man bru­tal­ity. In a let­ter writ­ten on Christ­mas Eve in 1937, he wrote about how houses were looted and razed while many civil­ians were shot, stabbed and burnt alive at will. The Ja­panese had even used peo­ple for bay­o­net prac­tice and killing com­pe­ti­tions.

In his memoir My Eighty Years in China, Fitch wrote that the Ja­panese had lit­tle re­gard for the safety zone as

Ge­orge Ash­more Fitch, dis­armed Chi­nese sol­diers were of­ten dragged out and ex­e­cuted. He claimed in the let­ter that com­mit­tee mem­bers were at times threat­ened with bay­o­nets and the ap­peals to the Ja­panese Em­bassy to cease the crimes and help pre­vent women from be­ing ab­ducted and raped were all made in vain.

“Hun­dreds of in­no­cent civil­ians are taken out be­fore your eyes to be shot or used for bay­o­net prac­tice and you have to lis­ten to the sound of the guns that are killing them; while a thou­sand women kneel be­fore you cry­ing hys­ter­i­cally, beg­ging you to save them from the beasts who are prey­ing on them,” Fitch wrote in the let­ter.

In Jan­uary 1938, Fitch was per­mit­ted to leave Nan­jing for Shang­hai at the in­vi­ta­tion of some­one named Hol­lis Wil­bur. Fitch brought with him eight reels of 16mm film neg­a­tives which con­tained ev­i­dence of the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the Ja­panese. Most of the ex­po­sures were cap­tured by another Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary named John Magee.

Smug­gling the film neg­a­tives out of Nan­jing might have been the most dan­ger­ous thing his grand­fa­ther did back then, said David. To avoid de­tec­tion by the Ja­panese, Fitch had sewn the neg­a­tives into the lin­ing of his coat.

“Had the films been dis­cov­ered, he would have been killed on-site,” said David.

When he ar­rived in Shang­hai, Fitch made four copies of the film be­fore trav­el­ing to the US to share his ex­pe­ri­ence about the Nan­jing Mas­sacre and gain sup­port for China’s re­sis­tance against the Ja­panese ag­gres­sion.

“It is a story of such crime and hor­ror as to be al­most un­be­liev­able…Yet it is a story which I feel must be told, even if it is seen by only a few. I can­not rest un­til I have told it,” wrote Fitch in the let­ter.

Af­ter one meet­ing where he re­vealed ev­i­dence of the crimes, a Ja­panese man ap­proached Fitch and ac­cused him of telling lies about the sit­u­a­tion in Nan­jing. The man said his peo­ple were in­ca­pable of such bru­tal­ity and de­manded that Fitch re­tract his claims.

“I told him that I had many Ja­panese friends, and I knew that most Ja­panese were in­deed in­ca­pable of such acts. But un­for­tu­nately, ev­ery­thing I said was true. And then I could re­tract noth­ing,” wrote Fitch in his memoir.

At the end of 1938, Fitch re­turned to China and con­tin­ued work­ing with the YMCA and later with the United Na­tions Re­lief and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion un­til 1947. In 1946, Fitch and other mem­bers of the Safety Zone Com­mit­tee filed an af­fi­davit of ev­i­dence for the In­ter­na­tional Mil­i­tary Tri­bunal at the trial of Ja­pan’s Class-A war crim­i­nals. He later went on to serve in the YMCA in Korea. Fitch re­tired in the US in 1961.

David said that his grand­fa­ther was a mod­est man who rarely talked about what he did in Nan­jing. He added that the heroic ac­tions of Fitch and other for­eign­ers in Nan­jing demon­strate that one in­di­vid­ual’s choice can make a dif­fer­ence to the lives of many.

Chen Jian, a his­to­rian at NYU Shang­hai, shared the same sen­ti­ment.

“These he­roes showed the world the best in hu­man na­ture dur­ing its dark­est times,” said Chen.

Hun­dreds of in­no­cent civil­ians are taken out be­fore your eyes to be shot or used for bay­o­net prac­tice and you have to lis­ten to the sound of the guns that are killing them.”

an Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary in China dur­ing the Nan­jing Mas­sacre


Ge­orge Ash­more Fitch (third from left) was awarded acts in Nan­jing in this file photo.

for his heroic

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