John Rabe’s birthday

Based on:  Hua-ling Hu and Lian-hong Zhang, The Undaunted Women of Nanking: The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-fang. Carbondale, 2010
Thomas Rabe, John Rabe. Sein Leben, seine Zeit. Heidelberg 2009

John Detlef Heinrich Rabe was born on 23 November 1882 in the harbour area of Hamburg. His father, Marcus Rabe (1846-98), went to sea and later became a naval captain for the Hamburg South American Line. He died of cancer when John was just 15 years old. John’s mother, Anna (1849-1916), like Marcus, was originally from Uetersen, a city in Holstein, 30km northwest of Hamburg. In his biography, John Rabe writes that he owes his English first name to his great-uncle John George Rabe (1840-1913) who had emigrated to Australia in his teens.

On 23 November 1937, three weeks before Nanjing falls to the Japanese, Rabe writes in his diary:

My 55th birthday – congratulations, Rabe! The first present today was overcast weather – which is highly welcome! From Mutti I received a telegram and a very nice scarf. Many thanks, Mutti!

Mutti is a German word for ‘mummy’ and is the term Rabe uses to refer to his wife Dora. Note that the English translation by John E. Woods mistakes  the ‘overcast weather’ Rabe mentions with his supposedly ‘gloomy and overcast’ mood.

Portrait of Dora and John Rabe based on a photo taken in 1947. CC-0

Also Minnie Vautrin mentions the cloudy weather in her diary entry on 23 November 1937 and that no airplanes were spotted over the city despite two alarm warnings.  Vautrin writes that in the afternoon she participated in a reception by Chinese officials who assured all foreigners of their safety in the city.  The Chinese hosts included mayor Ma Chaojun and General Tang Shengzhi. Among the “50 present — representatives from all Embassies, foreign business interests, a few missionaries, a number of newspaper men” was also John Rabe. He writes that he liked the Chinese proposal to establish a roundtable of Chinese officials and the remaining foreigners in Nanjing to stay updated on the situation in and nearby the city.

On the same day, Rabe also notes in his diary that he had learnt through Smythe that Reuters telegram service had prematurely reported the idea of  a safety zone in Nanjing which was still a secret. Rabe writes he and Smythe sent a telegram to the Japanese authorities in Shanghai to appease them.

Cite this blog post
Torsten Weber (2019, December 18). John Rabe’s birthday. John Rabe's Nanjing Diaries. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from

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