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A simple headstone marks resting place of remarkable man

HONG KONG (SE): A tombstone stands in memory of Father Robert Jacquinot de Besange sj in the cemetery of Heiligensee, France. Two significant things suggest that it is not simply marking the burial spot of an insignificant Jesuit.

The memorial stone was placed there by Jiang Yuchun, a Chinese person who is active in the John Rabe Communication Centre in Heidelberg, Germany, which was founded by Thomas Rabe, the grandson of John Rabe, a former manager of Siemens in Nanjing during the Japanese occupation and rape of the city.

The elder Rabe was known as the good German, as he saved thousands of Chinese people from the marauding Japanese troops.

However, the Monsignor Schraven Institute in the Netherlands says in a press release that while history dedicates much space to Rabe, Father de Besange gets scant attention, yet he was responsible for the creation of safe zones in Shanghai, which also saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

His work is now chronicled in the protocols and conventions of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

An historian from the United States of America, Marcia Ristaino, discovered much information about the role he played when she was researching the history of Shanghai in the 1930s.

The former China expert from the Library of Congress in Washington dc documents his work in The Jacquinot Safe Zone: Wartime refugees in Shanghai (Stanford University Press), published in 2008, just 67 years after his death.

Father Jacquinot was born in Saintes in the west of France on 15 March 1878. In addition to being a priest, he was a professor of English language and literature when he was sent to China by the Jesuits.

He lived in China from 1913 until 1940. His superiors described him as strong willed, as well as intelligent, creative and sometimes a little over adventurous. Once when demonstrating how to make fireworks in the classroom, there was an explosion and he lost his right arm.

Father Jacquinot earned his place in the history books in 1937 during the Chinese-Japanese War. He negotiated for a safety zone to be set up in Shanghai, which is said to have saved the lives of some 300,000 Chinese people.

After he returned to Europe, he travelled to the razed city of Berlin in Germany during 1945 as the head of a Vatican delegation to assist refugees and displaced people.

However, while he was in Berlin he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Ristaino comments in her book that he kept his spirited outlook on life right up until the very end and, on the day of his death, when asked if he wanted to receive the sacrament of the sick, he replied that he wanted a bottle of champagne.

She notes that he could only take a spoonful, after which he invited those around him to join him in a toast.


Father Jacquinot, the almost forgotten friend of refugees and those in danger during wartime, died on 10 September 1946.

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