Plaque honors city's WWII 'safe zone'

A memorial plaque – the Nanshi Refugee Zone Monument – in honor of the city's "safe zone" during WWII, which protected around 300,000 people, was unveiled at the City God Temple.
Plaque honors city's WWII 'safe zone'

The WWII ‘safe zone’ plaque

A memorial plaque — the Nanshi Refugee Zone Monument — in honor of the city’s “safe zone” during World War II, which protected around 300,000 people, was unveiled yesterday at the City God Temple in Huangpu District.

The ceremony marked the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the safe zone.

The zone, also known as the “Jacquinot Safe Zone,” was initiated by French missionary Robert Jacquinot de Besange (1878-1946), who is believed to have saved 300,000 Chinese during the war and inspired the creation of future wartime havens.

“The Shanghai safe zone was one of the most successful refugee rescues during World War II,” said Su Zhiliang, a Shanghai Normal University history professor and one of the driving forces behind setting up the monument.

It inspired similar safe zones in Nanjing, Hankou and Guangzhou, and in France, and was written into the Geneva Convention on wartime civilian protection.

De Besange came to Shanghai in 1913. He was known as the “one-armed priest” because he lost his right arm in an explosion while conducting chemistry experiments in his youth.

In 1937, the missionary father persuaded the Shanghai government and the Japanese army to agree to the establishment of a demilitarized safe zone.

Established in November that year, it was in operation until 1940. Its success was largely credited to de Besange’s diplomacy and donations from China and beyond. 

The zone was between Fangbang and Renmin roads and alongside the former French Concession. It consisted of 9 areas and covered a third of the old city. Facilities included a park, a mosque, and a Buddhist monastery.

“The zone was filled with refugees ... even the zigzag Jiuqu Bridge in Yuyuan Garden was filled with inhabitants,” recalled Fu Jianqiu, one of the refugees who took shelter in the zone with his family when he was just 9 years old. Fu shared his experiences with visitors yesterday during the plaque’s unveiling.

“At the beginning, we refugees had to filter the water in the lotus pond to drink and later Father de Besange brought us free gruel and built 24 hot water houses for us,” Fu reminisced.

Su said that scholars like himself and Pan Guang, head of the Jewish Studies Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, have been “racing against urbanization” to protect the zone sites, some of which have been torn down or transformed. 

Pan 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 city sheltered 30,000 Jews during the war.

Plaque honors city's WWII 'safe zone'

Robert Jacquinot de Besange

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