RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the Chinese city of Nanjing, a museum has opened to honor the man known as China's Oscar Schindler. When Japanese troops invaded in 1937, it's estimated they killed 300,000 Chinese in what's known as the Rape of Nanjing. Many more would have died if not for the efforts of a little known German businessman.
NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Nanjing.
LOUISA LIM: There can seldom have been so complicated a hero as John Rabe. A member of the Nazi Party, he wore his swastika armband with pride. Yet he used that same swastika armband to moral ends, brandishing it in the faces of invading Japanese troops to stop them from raping women and looting houses. He was instrumental in setting up an international safety zone to shelter Chinese civilians, which saved an estimated quarter of a million lives. And he set it all down in his diary.
Unidentified Man: (Reading) In my garden, about 70 girls and women are on their knees, banging their heads against the ground. They don't want to leave my garden camp because they are quite rightly afraid they will be raped by Japanese soldiers. They keep wailing, you're our father, our mother. You have protected us till now. I have allowed them to stay on.
(Soundbite of music, applause)
(Soundbite of fireworks exploding)
LIM: A ceremony in that very garden where 600 Chinese civilians were once given refuge. John Rabe's house has now reopened as a museum and an International Center for Peace and Reconciliation.
Mr. THOMAS RABE (John Rabe's Grandson): Oh, it's a very big day for me and my family.
LIM: Thomas Rabe, grandson of John Rabe.
Mr. RABE: The Chinese people recognize what my grandfather did here in 1937 and ‘38 here for the Chinese people. And in Germany, my grandfather is not very well known. In China, here, he's one of the heroes here.
LIM: As a tour guide takes visitors around his house, John Rabe is finally being honored. The man known as the Good Nazi died in 1950 after spending his last years miserably in Germany. Attempts to alert Hitler about Japanese atrocities backfired. He was detained briefly by secret police and effectively demoted by his employer, Siemens.
His story is not just one of history forgotten. It's also one of history used for political ends. Several films are now being planned about John Rabe, including a Hollywood blockbuster with Chinese government backing. Sixty-nine years have past since those events, so why suddenly all the attention?
Historian Jian Liang Chin(ph) from Nanjing University says one reason is to counter what China perceives is a growing Japanese trend of historical revisionism.
Professor JIAN LIANG CHIN(ph) (Historian, Nanjing University): (Through translator) Starting in the 1980s, the problem with Japanese textbooks emerged. These emphasized that Japan hadn't invaded China, that it was liberating and helping China. That was part of the historical process leading to the opening of the Rabe House.
LIM: In Japan, the voices of denial, though in a small minority, are loud and clear.
Mr. HIDEAKI KASE: It is impossible that the Japanese army killed 300,000 people as the Chinese claim.
LIM: Japanese ultranationalist, Hideaki Kase. When asked to explain eyewitness accounts of corpses piled in the streets, this was his answer.
Mr. KASE: In an utter confusion, I'm not denying that our army, unfortunately killed - I don't know, 1,000 or 2,000 civilians. The Chinese are notorious for stealing or killing their own countrymen in such a chaotic situation.
LIM: Such views are abhorrent in China, and the government here is spending $75 million, expanding its official monument to the victims of the massacre ahead of the 70th anniversary next year. In a huge, empty courtyard there, 78-year-old Jungan Foo(ph) sits hunched on a bench. He was just nine years old when the Japanese invaded. One of seven children, he remembers hiding from the soldiers.
Mr. JUNGAN FOO(ph): (Through translator) The Japanese heard my baby brother crying and came. They found my mother and tried to rape her. She resisted. Those Japanese devils - they grabbed the baby and dashed him to the ground. My mother wanted to cradle his body. A soldier shot twice at my mother and killed her, too.
LIM: Him father was taken away, never to return. His sister was killed by Japanese soldiers, her head cleaved in two. Another sister went out with another brother to find food. Neither returned. By the end of the Nanjing Massacre, he only had one brother left alive. The younger generation must not forget, he told me. And this must never ever happen again.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Nanjing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.