Refugee Physicians and the Aid China Movement

In the 1930s Hong Kong was used as base for Communist and Nationalist activities in support of China’s plight against the Japanese. One key organisation in this fight was the China Defence League (CDL) established in 1938 and presided over by Madame Soong Ching-ling, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s widow, the leader of the 1911 Revolution and the founder of the Chinese Republic. The CDL was in many ways an embodiment of the internationalist nature of the Free China movement in Hong Kong; with Chinese, New Zealanders, British and Americans working together on the CDL committee. The main function of the CDL was to provide medical and other forms of relief to the fighting fronts in China, particularly the guerilla areas set up behind Japanese lines by the Communists. With the help of leftist committees in Britain, Norway and the CDL in Hong Kong, 17 European doctors were recruited into the Medical Relief Corps (MRC) of the Chinese Red Cross. Known locally as the ‘Spanish doctors’ thanks to their work in the International Brigades in Spain, they were actually Jewish refugee volunteers who had escaped Nazism from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania. They joined hundreds of young medical school graduates from China and the Chinese diaspora to bring relief to China’s soldiers.

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Members of the China Defence League. From left: Israel Epstein, Deng Wenzhao, Liao Mengxing, Soong Ching Ling, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, Norman France and Liao Chenzhi. Photo courtesy of China.org

 

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Walter Freudmann (middle) was one of the so-called ‘Spanish doctors’ who worked in the Medical Relief Corps in China. Photo courtesy of DOW.

 

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Bishop Ronald Hall, photo courtesy of Christopher Hall

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, a British Leftist, was integral to the recruitment of these Jewish refugees. She became involved as the CDL’s Honourary Secretary soon after moving from London to Hong Kong in 1938, and was known as ‘Red Hilda’ as much for her vibrant hair colour as her political sympathies. She was married to Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the new Director of Medical Services, and the husband and wife duo formed part of a small coterie of western liberal progressives who supported the resistance efforts in China. Sympathy for China was pervasive in Britain’s political leftist circles, but also prevalent amongst Christian groups. The Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, was highly active in providing aid to Chinese refugees and was also involved in the Chinese Red Cross. Much like Madame Soong and the Selwyn-Clarkes, he recruited Jewish refugees in China in support of the Free China movement, placing physicians in missionary hospitals and refugee camps across his See, which extended beyond Hong Kong and into southern China. Hall employed refugees such as Dr. Karl Hans Fritz Harth, who had a background in law and took charge of the Chinese Red Cross in Haiphong. He Anglicized his name to ‘Charles John Frederick Harth’ and converted to Anglicanism, later becoming secretary to Hall and warden of the Church Guest House in Hong Kong. He courageously defended St John’s Cathedral and its treasures during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong.

At the cessation of hostilities in 1945 some Jewish refugee physicians stayed on in China, whilst others went on to new missions in South East Asia or rebuilt their lives in Europe, America and Australia.