Zindel Wrings His Hands: Emily Hahn on the Early Work of the Red Cross in Hong Kong

He was not permitted to visit any of the military camps, He wrung his hands and sat in his office, and hired more people (Swiss) to do the paper work that mounted and mounted.[1]

Thus did American writer Emily Hahn sum up the early activity of Red Cross Delegate Rudolf Zindel. She’s talking about the period from late June 1942 to January 1, 1943; on June 26 Edouard Egle arrived from Shanghai to help Zindel set up the Delegation (not, as Hahn claims, to inspect it) and at the start of 1943 Zindel took over most of the legal side of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke’s relief operation, leaving the Director of Medical Services free to concentrate on the illegal side, although how much Zindel knew about that is uncertain.

Hahn’s first claim is wrong, although not badly so.

On July 3 Zindel and Egle, accompanied by Colonel Tokunaga and several of his officers visited, Argyle Street, North Point, Shamshuipo (all POW camps) andSt Teresa’s Hospital and Bowen Road Military Hospital. [2] He gathered a little information about the Indians at Ma Tau-chung Camp but he was forbidden to concern himself with them – as Asians, they would be looked after by the Japanese as part of the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. I’ll return to this visit later.

As to the second claim – that the new Delegate indulged his own feelings of impotence while hiring his co-nationals to do paper work unrelated to any actual relief of distress – I’ll summarise Zindel’s own documentation of what he was doing in the second half of 1942.

It’s of no importance to the subject in hand, but I think Hahn is probably wrong to state that Zindel had lived in Hong Kong ‘for years’, although I’ve seen this in other sources too, one stipulating twenty of them. In 1927 he sailed to New York via Britain on his way to live in China. [3] In 1937 he left Genoa on the journey back to Hankow (now part of Wuhan) where he had been living before what was presumably a visit home.[4] When the Japanese attacked in December 1941 he still had possessions stored in his former apartment in Hankow.[5] All this, and the pattern of references in the South China Morning Post, make me think he came to Hong Kong in about 1939 after 12 years in China. His job, at any rate, is not disputed: he was a ‘Kaufmann’ or merchant, working for a German-founded company, Arnhold Trading, which had been in Hong Kong since 1867, a year after it was first set up in Shameen (now part of Guangzhou). In the 1930s this became part of the powerful Sassoon conglomerate.[6]

The Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941. The Zindel family’s flat on the Peak was destroyed by a shell on December 20. The early months of the occupation found Zindel, his wife Alice and daughter Irene (aged 8) ‘settling down under present changed conditions’ in a ‘nice little apartment on MacDonnell Road’. He was cheered by the resumption of the mail from Hong Kong to Switzerland and his wife’s parents sent them greetings over the Swiss radio. But the money situation was ‘tight’ and the breadwinner out of work and needing a job.[7] The appointment as Red Cross Delegate obviously turned round Zindel’s financial position. A money transfer from Switzerland he had requested was no longer required.[8] Later his salary was to be 1200 Swiss Francs a month, and if it was anything like that at the start it would have given him a comparatively comfortable life at this early stage of the war.

In so far as Zindel was doing anything in the first months of the occupation, he was looking after the interests of Arnhold and Co. He had no previous connection with the Red Cross or relief work – so how did he become Delegate?

In early February the British forwarded an alarming report on conditions in Hong Kong to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. The Swiss consul attempted to get permission for an ICRC delegate to visit but failed. On March 30 another alarming report was forwarded to Geneva,[9] backed up by a cable from the Canadians asking for the ICRC to try to secure an independent report. In spite of being overstretched in Europe, the ICRC was already pressing the Japanese, but meeting with a complete lack of co-operation. There were almost no Japanese prisoners, so reciprocity was not possible. In March they offered a concession above the recognition of Fritz Paravicini in Tokyo: they agreed to the appointment of a delegate in Shanghai – Edouard Egle was chosen. The ICRC hoped to be allowed a delegate in Hong Kong too, and after speaking to his uncle in a Swiss village, settled on Zindel, who, they were assured had been a diligent employee of Arnhold,had an ‘honest and open nature and healthy spirit’ and, his uncle assured his questioners, the necessary qualities for such a task. [10] If  a post-war newspaper interview with Zindel is to be believed, the Japanese gave him full Delegate status only by mistake!

As we have seen, his mission began at the end of June, 1942 when Egle came down for an extended stay to help him get started and together they visited all of the ‘European’ camps including Stanley, which Zindel was allowed to re-visit without Egle on July 18.

Then something strange happened. Egle’s formal account of these inspections was sent back to Geneva on August 7 – and a cable about the POW camps actually went off on July 10th. But Zindel didn’t draw up his report until December 15, sending it to the ICRC a few days later. His explanation was that ‘the work involved {as Red Cross Delegate} had rather outstripped my capacity and that I found it difficult to keep pace with the many new problems which constantly cropped up’. As he promised to ‘organize my office as rapidly as possible, in such a way as to be able to meet all legitimate requirements without undue delay’ the implication was that lack of secretarial support had also contributed to the delay.[11] All this is unconvincing: Zindel was a businessman of long experience and the idea that he couldn’t put together two reports of little more than half a dozen pages in total for over four months is absurd.

My guess – and it is only a guess – is that he realised he was in an impossible position: if he told the truth about the camps, the Japanese, who read all his reports and other correspondence, would at the very least censor the critical passages out, perhaps end his mission and even imprison him (Red Cross work gathering information for the outside world about prisoners, internees and casualties looked rather like spying to them anyway, so they wouldn’t have to go far for an excuse). But if, as in fact happened, he chose to give an idealised picture of life in the camps, he would be accused of inaccuracy and bias in their favour.

Hahn hated Egle, who she obviously regarded as a Japanese toady if not actually an outright supporter,[12] and his report certainly seems to be genuinely enthusiastic:

(Stanley)  indeed looks more like a summer colony than an internment camp. Mr. Zindel and I were there for about three hours and were left absolutely free to move amongst the prisoners and converse with them. I did not see a single sentry inside the camp, internees appeared to have complete freedom, some played lawnballs (sic), others had a sun bath, practically all looked in perfect health, internees have permission for swimming, the canteen seemed well stocked, internees receive a liberal supply of food and comfort parcels….[13]

Not surprisingly he soon felt the need to defend himself to the ICRC – he probably became aware of the very different accounts carried out of Hong Kong by escapees or American repatriates. A self-justificatory letter was sent back to Geneva on August 27 suggesting, among more convincing things, that the sun-bathing was contributing to any weight loss experienced by the internees.[14] e’d Perhaps Zindel understood the reality of internment better and was reluctant to be forced to either promulgate an idealised picture to the outside world or face the possible consequences I outlined above.

Whatever the reason for his dilatoriness, Zindel’s exculpatory account of what he had been doing belies Hahn’s claim that he ‘wrung his hands and sat in his office’:

A great deal of my time has been taken up by the interviewing of large numbers of destitute Third Nationals {neutrals}and others applying for relief. Moreover, there are several hundred families (dependents of Prisoners of War) living in Hongkong, many of whom rush to my office whenever some fresh rumour regarding the Camps or its inmates crops up. I might also mention that my office, since the middle of August, has handled 1,399 individual remittances to prisoners of war and Civilian Internees in local Camps.

He points out that he hasn’t been able to use cheques so every transaction involved a cash withdrawal which only he was authorised to make.

In August 1943 Zindel reported that he was no longer allowed by the Japanese to relieve Third Nationals.[15] As the accounts of his 1942 activities that he’d sent to Geneva in March hadn’t arrived, he enclosed duplicates which give a glimpse of some of 1942 work and are also a good source for the historian of Third Nationals during the occupation.

Most of those he helped were White Russians, who made up the largest non-interned ‘European’ community in Hong Kong. Other recipients were Latvian, French, Hungarian, Portuguese, Filipino, Czechoslovakian, Costa Rican, and Polish. Some, but not all, of these were in the category of  ‘British dependents’ which was to prove one of the biggest problems for the Red Cross as the occupation wore on. But perhaps the most interesting thing in the detailed accounts Zindel provides is the fact that from the middle of 1942 a number of German residents were coming to him for help. Most of Hong Kong’s Germans had been sent to various locations after the outbreak of the European war, but a number managed to stay on and, for all their country’s alliance with Japan, they seem to have had the same kind of experience as the neutrals.

By August he and his four ‘girl’ assistants and Chinese staff were running  ‘well organisated (sic – one of Zindel’s rare mistakes in English, which was one of the four languages he knew) shopping service for benefit of pows and internees who prefer receiving parcels instead of money’. This meant a lot of work and he felt the need for more employees.

Another major responsibility arrived in mid-November 1942 with the first remittance of ‘British Funds’ to spent for the benefit of prisoners, internees and their dependents[16]. This came at an opportune time: the resources of the International Welfare Committee, a body set up in Stanley Camp to work with Selwyn-Clarke’s Informal Welfare Committee (more diverse naming and a different acronym would help the historian!) had just about reached the end of its resources. Zindel was able to use the British Fund (provided by the London Government) to offer emergency assistance to the destitute and to offer Stanley bulk supplies of healthy food and small ‘pocket allowances’ for the internees to spend at the canteen. All went well with the British Fund until spring 1943 – I’ll discuss the problem that arose in another post, as it forms part of Hahn’s indictment of the Swiss.

But that was in the future. Zindel ended 1942 by sending each Canadian POW – just over 1500 officers and men – a Christmas gift of ten yen in individual envelopes with a pine tree motif to remind them of home. He needed special authorisation to use the Fund for this purpose, and it seems the Canadian Government reimbursed the British.[17]

That wasn’t all Zindel was doing, not by a long way. Another 1942 task was dealing with requests from Stanley to try to salvage personal belongings from the internees’ former homes. Such visits required him to get an individual permit in each case.  With the help of two Belgian bankers, he and his staff acquired more than 5000 books for Stanley, the POW Camps and Bowen Road Military Hospital. They had to check each book page by page to make sure none contained a secret message! [18]

All this – and more – was done before January 1, 1943, when he took over as much work as possible from Selwyn-Clarke. In December he was obviously preparing for that transfer and there’s a fascinating letter from Selwyn-Clarke in this part of the Archive that give the best picture I know of the work of his Informal Welfare Committee.

This is hardly a picture of hand-wringing inactivity. In a future post I’ll consider the other aspects of Hahn’s negative portrait of the Red Cross: that Zindel was too scared and ineffective to do his job properly, that he let his Roman Catholic prejudice against ‘common law’ wives interfere with his work, and that he was, in any case, Swiss and thus one of a nation of cowardly neutrals who spent the war looking after themselves while others fought to bring down the Axis.

[1] Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed. (1944), 372.

[2] ‘Interim Report On First Visit To Prisoners Of War Camps And Military Hospitals In Hongkong’, in Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva) BG 017 07-061 (first dossier).

[3] Ancestry.com. UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.

[4] Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

[5] Letter from Zindel to Hoffmeister, July 21, 1942 in Zindel, R. Hong Kong: E2200.122#1000/156#47 (Swiss Federal Archives, Bern).

[6] http://www.arnhold.com.hk/about-arnhold/

[7] Letter from Zindel to Hoffmeister, 24 April 1942 in Zindel, R. Hong Kong: E2200.122#1000/156#47 (Swiss Federal Archives, Bern).

[8] Letter from Zindel to Hoffmeister, July 21, 1942 in Zindel, R. Hong Kong: E2200.122#1000/156#47 (Swiss Federal Archives, Bern).

[9] Caroline Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross, HarperCollins, 1998, 473.

[10] Moorehead, 474.

[11] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 10/42, December 18, 1942, AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[12] Hahn, 372-374.

[13] Report by Mr. Egle, 7 August 1942 in Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva), BG17-07-062.

[14] Letter fom Egle to ICRC, 27th. August 1942 in BG017 07-062.

[15] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 73/43, 21 August, 1943, AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[16] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 4/42, November 16, 1942 in AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[17] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 13/42, December 23, 1942 in AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[18] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 10/42, December 18, 1942, AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.


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One response to “Zindel Wrings His Hands: Emily Hahn on the Early Work of the Red Cross in Hong Kong

  1. Pingback: ‘The Necessary Boldness’ – Rudolf Zindel’s Red Cross Work | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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