Weihsien – a story of Chinese heroes

Dark times: A file photo showing the Weihsien camp during WWII. — China Daily/ANN

JINAN: A museum on the former site of a World War II concentration camp in east China has opened to visitors to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World War II.

The Weihsien concentration camp, located in Weifang city in Shandong province, was used by Japanese invaders from 1942 to 1945 to detain over 2,000 expatriates, including more than 300 children, from the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries. Weihsien is the former name of urban Weifang.

“The concentration camp is a testament to history, speaking about the Japanese aggression and persecution of citizens from Western countries, ” said Ji Shuchun, curator of the Weifang Museum who also serves as curator of the Weihsien concentration camp museum.

In 1882, Americans built a compound called “the Courtyard of the Happy Way”, which was used as a church, hospital and school for decades.

During WWII, the compound was converted by the Japanese into a concentration camp to incarcerate Westerners, who formerly lived in areas such as Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong and Henan.

The camp was liberated as a rescue team sent by the American troops in China parachuted to the site on Aug 17,1945, two days after the Japanese troops surrendered.

The passage of time has left them with peeling walls, broken windows and sunken foundations, but they are a unique part of Chinese history.

Nearby, a well-designed square houses a 20m sculpture that depicts a group of foreigners holding hands with Chinese people.

The base is covered by carved Chinese characters that spell the names, ages, professions and nationalities of 2,008 people – 327 of them children – from more than 30 countries.

Among them were renowned politicians, artists, scientists and even sportsmen, including R. Jaegher, a foreign-born adviser to Chiang Kai-shek and Arthur W. Hummel, former US ambassador to China.

The Weihsien concentration camp was the largest Japanese camp in China.

Canadian Edmund Pearson, 78, was just six when he was interned.

“I have many memories of the camp, such as being counted by the Japanese three times a day and being hungry most of the time. We had a lot of eggplants, but very seldom meat, and when we had it, it was often rotten, ” he said.

For another internee, Mary Taylor Previte, 81, the story of the camp is one of heroes, hope and triumph.

“Weihsien is a story of Chinese heroes – farmers who risked their lives to smuggle food over the wall to prisoners and those who brought us food so generously when the war was over, ” she said.

“Apart from the Japanese, only Zhang Xingtai and his son, who cleaned the latrines, could enter and leave the camp freely.

“They took many risks to help internees deliver important messages and also helped Arthur W. Hummel (called Heng Anshi in Chinese) to escape, ” he said.

“The Japanese army was losing ground in most of China in 1945 and victory was almost assured, but the news was blocked.

“It wasn’t until the US arranged rescue planes to liberate the camp on Aug 17,1945, that people knew their days in hell were over, ” said Cheng.

Liberation came as a surprise to Previte.

“I heard the drone of an airplane over the camp. Racing to the window, I watched it sweep lower, slowly lower, and then circle again. It was a giant plane, emblazoned with an American star. Beyond the treetops its belly opened. People poured to the gate to welcome the heroes, ” she said.

She said conflict is a catastrophe that destroys everything.

“War and hate and violence never open the way to peace, ” she said. — Xinhua/China Daily/ANN

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