Why Stories of Rescue Matter

Posted by Fran Sterling on June 2, 2015

Acts of moral courage are not common, they are exceptional. People actively create opportunities to rescue or choose to help others. It can happen in a blink of an eye or after long deliberation, but these moments are not accidental.
Many recent world events point out individual acts of moral bankruptcy and harm. More than ever our students need to hear and know that, as Robert Kennedy said, "it is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped."

Would I stand up and act with courage? It's a question I've asked myself on many occasions. Sometimes the answer is a simple yes or no. But most of the time it's much more complicated. I believe that people become more willing and able to help others the more we hear stories of others who helped, even rescued, their neighbors or total strangers.

As we look at stories of rescue from history, some of the most truly remarkable are from wartime, when individuals risked their own safety and their families' safety to help people—oftentimes strangers—whose lives were very different from their own. While researching the history of World War II in Asia for Facing History and Ourselves' new resource The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War, I came across one such story that made me pause and sit in awe of the capacity for individuals to extend themselves when others are in dire need.

When the Imperial Japanese Army fully advanced into China’s then capital city of Nanjing in December 1937, many Chinese residents were unable to leave, and refugees who had fled to the city from other parts of China were trapped. Foreign governments urged non-Chinese residents to leave Nanjing and find safety. Despite these pleas, a group of Western businessmen, missionaries, and physicians—all of who had lived in the city for years and considered Nanjing their home—decided to remain in order to help their Chinese neighbors. They established a "safety zone" for hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees, and Nanjing's poor and elderly, who had nowhere else to go.

Members of the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee. Photo courtesy of Ernest H. Forester Collection, Yale Divinity School Library
Members of the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee. Photo courtesy of Ernest H. Forester Collection, Yale Divinity School Library

John Rabe, a longtime Nanjing resident who was head of German operations at Siemens Corporation—as well as a proud member of the Nazi Party—was one of those that stayed behind. In a diary entry from September 21, 1937, Rabe wrote:

All the rich or better-off Chinese began some time ago to flee up the Yangtze to Hankow…Many American and German have departed as well. I've been seriously considering the matter from all sides the last few nights. It wasn’t because I love adventure that I returned here from the safety of Peitaiho [vacation destination for many foreigners in China], but primarily to protect my property and to represent Siemens' interests. Of course the company can't—nor does it—expect me to get myself killed here on its behalf. Besides, I haven't the least desire to put my life at risk for the sake of either the company's or my own property; but there is a question of morality here, and as a reputable Hamburg businessman, so far I haven't been able to side-step it.

Rabe went on to become the chairman of The International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone, a group of approximately 26 who distributed food and medical care, set up shelter, and provided various other civic functions for the displaced, noncombatants, and women during what came to be known as the Nanjing Atrocities. Rabe's Nazi affiliation did not go unnoticed. Fellow Safety Zone member Dr. Robert Wilson noted how difficult it was to reconcile Rabe's tremendous heart and work ethic with his adulation for Adolf Hitler.

Collectively, the Safety Zone rescued upwards of 200,000 Chinese nationals during the height of the violence and went on to inform the world about the atrocities that took place in Nanjing.

Members of the committee wrote a steady stream of memos to the Japanese Embassy in Nanjing, citing the blatant misconduct of Japanese soldiers and protesting the lack of intervention to stop the carnage. In one video captured by committee member and Episcopal priest John McGee, another committee member is seen treating the unimaginable wounds and injuries of Chinese victims. That video, smuggled out of China, ultimately made its way to United States government officials and the German foreign minister, and continues to stand as an important documentary evidence of war crimes committed by Imperial soldiers in Nanjing. A clip of the video is available here, though viewer discretion is advised as it is graphic in nature.

Many committee members (including McGee) went on to testify at the International Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trials, after the violence ended. Prosecutors used many of their records and documents as evidence in their prosecution of Japanese leaders. The moral strength and commitment of committee members to act righteously at a time of tremendous peril stands out today as profoundly as it did over 70 years ago.

There are many questions we can ask ourselves and young people when looking at this history:

  • Why did these foreigners put their own lives at risk to save others?
  • What informed their courage and acts of altruism?
  • Why was such a tremendous commitment made to document the events as they occurred?
  • What purpose did this effort serve?
  • How could a member of the Nazi Party lead the effort to save Chinese refugees?

While there may not be simple answers to explain the motivations of rescuers, examining the range of circumstances, responses, and opportunities to help rather than harm can be a source of inspiration and self-reflection in our classrooms.

Here are some resources and lessons to enrich studies of rescue during times of collective violence, war, and atrocities:

  • Two Who Dared: The Sharps' War tells the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who risked their lives to help feed, shelter, and rescue thousands of refugees, including anti-Nazi dissidents and Jews. The site includes essays, a rich collection of primary sources, and connection questions.
  • The Rescuers traces the efforts of 12 diplomats who served in Europe during the Holocaust and, at great risk to themselves (and at times their loved ones), assisted Jews in their attempt to flee Nazi persecution.
  • "Rescuers of the Holocaust: Taking a Stand" is a lesson plan on why and how individuals chose to rescue victims of the Holocaust and organize open resistance to the Nazis.
  • Courage to Care contains profiles of Jews saved by non-Jews during the Holocaust and of individuals during the Third Reich who helped protect Jews in France, Holland, and Poland. The film is available from the Facing History library to educators who have taken a Facing History professional development offering.

Topics: Rescue, Facing History Resources, Teaching, Genocide/Collective Violence, Teaching Resources, History

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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