He was a guard at a cement works, but in China he is revered as “the Shining Buddha” and “the Greatest Dane”.
Bernhard Arp Sindberg rescued thousands of Chinese during the Japanese imperial army’s orgy of violence in Nanjing in 1937. He is only now getting national hero status in Denmark.
Queen Margrethe II was unveiling a 3m (10ft) bronze statue of Sindberg in a park in Aarhus, his home city, on Saturday.
The ceremony comes nearly 36 years after his death in the US.
The statue is a gift to Aarhus from the city of Nanjing – the work of three award-winning artists: China’s Shang Rong and Fu Licheng and Denmark’s Lene Desmentik.
Sindberg’s courage has been compared to that of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust by employing them in factories, and who was immortalised in the movie Schindler’s List.
What did Sindberg do?
Sindberg was just 26 when he witnessed the Japanese army atrocities in Nanjing – what came to be known as the “Nanjing Massacre” or “Rape of Nanjing”.
Soren Christensen, head of the Aarhus City Archives, says Sindberg provided shelter and medical care for 6,000 to 10,000 civilians at a cement factory on the outskirts of Nanjing, where he and a German colleague were working as guards.
Chinese estimates put the number saved higher – at about 20,000.
Mr Christensen describes Sindberg as “a man who died in virtual oblivion and poverty, but who perhaps, after all, is one of the greatest heroes we’ve had”.
A German, Karl Günther, helped Sindberg to create a safe haven – a makeshift camp and hospital – for the Chinese.
Sindberg started work in December 1937 at the factory, which was being built by Danish firm F. L. Smidth, and soon after that Japanese troops conquered Nanjing.
The Japanese then rampaged through the city for six weeks, torturing, raping and murdering civilians and captured Chinese soldiers, in a massacre that cost an estimated 300,000 lives.
Many of the victims were women and children. The number of women raped was put at about 20,000.
Besides the many Chinese witnesses, Westerners such as Sindberg documented the atrocities.
Various Japanese officials and historians have disputed the death toll since the war, angering China.
Sindberg painted a giant Danish flag (Dannebrog) on the cement factory roof, to ward off Japanese bombs. He and Günther also planted the Dannebrog and German swastika around the site, as a deterrent against the Japanese army.
At the time, imperial Japan was not hostile to Denmark or Nazi Germany, so the flags were respected.
Peter Harmsen, author of a book about Sindberg, says that “prior to the war, there was absolutely nothing special about him.
“He was 172.5cm tall, the exact average for young Danish males in the late 1930s. He received average grades in school.
“But something extraordinary happened to him during the dark winter of 1937-1938 in Nanjing. Faced with the abject cruelty of the Japanese army, he decided to act.”
What did people say about him and those events?
Zhou Zhongbing, a 15-year-old boy at the time, said: “There was a refugee camp run by a Dane. The camp had people on guard duty and patrolling the area. When the Japanese arrived to make trouble, the Dane would walk out and stop them.”
Another Chinese witness quoted by Harmsen was Guo Shimei, a peasant woman who was 25 in 1937.
“When the Japanese arrived at the refugee camp, the foreigner [Sindberg] would walk out to talk to them, and after a while they would disappear,” she said.
“If the Japanese came looking for women, the foreigner would pull out a [Danish] flag, and after they had exchanged a few words, the Japanese would turn around and leave.”
In a letter to a friend, Sindberg described his shock at the Nanjing massacre: “You have no idea how much blood there is everywhere. Since August I have had ample opportunity to study the horrors of war. Blood, blood and yet more blood.”
Dai Yuanzhi, a Chinese journalist who has researched the massacre, says conditions at the cement works camp were wretched.
Quoted by the Shenzhen Daily, Dai wrote: “Huge crowds of people stood or sat next to each other. The sheds were very close; there wasn’t even space for toilets.”
Who was Sindberg?
He had only a basic education: in his early teens he left school and went abroad, doing various jobs on ships. He spent a few months in the French Foreign Legion in 1931, but deserted.
He arrived in China in 1934, where he demonstrated Danish rifles, then worked as chauffeur for Philip Pembroke Stephens, a British foreign correspondent. Stephens was shot and killed by a Japanese machine-gunner while covering the invasion of Shanghai in November 1937.
Sindberg documented the atrocities he witnessed in Nanjing, and left for the United States soon after the massacre.
He served in the US Merchant Marine in World War Two, then settled in California and rarely spoke about the horrors of Nanjing. He died in 1983.
His heroism in Nanjing was honoured with a yellow rose called “Nanjing Forever – the Sindberg Rose”, which grows at the Nanjing Memorial and was created by Danish rose-cultivator Rosa Eskelund.
Peter Harmsen told the BBC that Sindberg “opened a door for the Chinese refugees, but metaphorically speaking he also opened a door into his own soul”.
“That makes Sindberg’s story universal. It’s about what it means to be human in extreme conditions. None of us knows for sure how we will react if placed in front of a great injustice. Will we look the other way? Will we hide? Or will we act?
“Luckily most of us never have to face a trial like that. Sindberg had to, and he passed the test.”