War is the manifestation of the most extreme levels of human conflict, as tensions culminate in mass violent action. In such circumstances, rules, codes of honor, and care are frequently sacrificed as the goal of triumphing over an opponent — whether civil or international in nature — becomes central. Yet it is worth noting that in certain cases, wartime has been recognized as a time where showing more humanity (rather than less) may be warranted as the best in people is brought out on rare occasions. In this account, we scour exceptional cases including the Japanese boy who fed a starving POW, a Luftwaffe pilot who escorted his intended victim to safety and a Nazi officer who protected Chinese citizens from rapacious Japanese Imperial Army troops.
10. John Rabe and the Chinese
Germany and Japan may have officially been co-members of the Axis but one German businessman and bonafide Nazi party member based in Nanjing, Jiangsu province presented an unusual juxtaposition of loyalties in the annals of war history. Considered a hero and a humanitarian, John Rabe was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1882 and moved to China in 1908 to pursue his work with the Siemens Company, a German business with operations in China. He moved his family to China and developed strong ties with the local populace, including the Chinese workers and their families. Rabe established a German school in Nanjing in the year 1934, which he placed and operated on his property. By the time the Japanese Imperial Army was invading China, Herr Rabe had already become an enthusiastic member of Germany’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party through his work with the German school.
In the same breath as he talked about what being a Nazi meant to him in terms of supporting German workers, he also acted as a humanitarian. He described facing a “moral dilemma” in Nanjing, and ended up playing a key role in establishing a demilitarized safe zone. While he was technically an ally of the Japanese, he used that nominal alliance as a Nazi party member to protect Chinese civilians and even soldiers despite great risk from Japanese atrocities. While there were many he could not save, he protected hundreds of Chinese refuges in the safe zone, using the Nazi armband, Nazi flags and Swastika emblems to keep his Japanese allies from harming his Chinese trusters to the greatest extent possible.
9. Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown
It’s not often in history that the person officially tasked with killing you becomes your guardian without having even met you. It is even more exceptional for that person to eventually meet their intended victim and subsequently become good friends. But the pilot of the deadly Messerschmitt BF-109 that was in the process of intercepting a B-17 bomber over Germany had a change of heart as a Luftwaffe airman with a sense of fair fighting. Despite the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, it is known that a certain number of German combatants fighting for the Third Reich retained a sense of proper conduct.
One of the most spectacular examples of this wartime honor that went far above and beyond is the case of Luftwaffe fighter pilot Franz Stigler and American B-17 pilot Charlie Brown, whose life and the life of surviving crew onboard were spared in the course of the interception over Germany. Instead of shooting down the badly damaged B-17, Stigler chose to escort the bomber to safety, waving to the pilot and flying alongside the plane to prevent it from being shot down until it could get within range of the English coast. The pilots did not discuss the incident until after the war, when Stigler and Brown found each other following a newspaper notice placement. The two men became friends until death. Stigler had immigrated to Canada, while Brown had remained in the USA.
8. Fumio Nishiwaki and Carl Ruse
American soldiers captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II could not expect good treatment, and a certain Carl Ruse was no exception. Imprisoned in the Yokkaichi-Ishihara Sangyo Japanese prison camp, Ruse was underfed and poorly treated by guards and could have faced death through stress and starvation. After surviving what would eventually be called the Bataan Death March of April 1942, Ruse had arrived at the camp where he faced the daunting prospect of forced labor. By the time of his liberation and repatriation to the United States in 1945 following the closing of World War II hostilities, Ruse was in lousy shape, to say the least, but fortunately still alive. His survival, however had not been a matter of mere personal strength and determination.
A young boy, later found out to be a very young factory worker by the name of Fumio Nishiwaki, took a liking to the imprisoned Ruse and formed a friendly acquaintance with him. Aware of the starvation rations that put Ruse’s very survival at risk, the young Nishiwaki snuck in food for Ruse on a steady basis, supplementing his far too meager rations. Nishiwaki also gave Ruse a picture of himself to keep, which Ruse took with him upon his departure aboard the USS Rescue in September 1945. Ruse’s grandson Tim was backed by a non-profit to discover more about the boy who had saved his grandfather. The work enabled a Japanese man named Takeo Nishiwaki to be found, who explained that his brother, who died at age 30, had given a prisoner of war food at the age of 14 while working at a factory.
7. Hasan Jusovic and Aco Nenadic
One of the tragedies of war is that not only are spoils and brief moments of success at others’ expense commonly sought, but those in close proximity may be turned against each other. It is even more remarkable when wartime hostilities bring those who know each other into the dubious status of being legitimate enemies. When honor and loyalty prevail over politics and states of war, being saved by the enemy stands out as a remarkable twist in the annals of history. In the horrific conflicts between Bosniak and Serb forces in 1992 in former Yugoslavia, a 19-year-old Serbian man named Aco Nenadic, who was in the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), was part of a convoy that was violently attacked while in the process of withdrawing from Sarajevo.
The convoy’s attackers were Bosniak members of the Territorial Defence Force of Bosnia, or TO, which were reacting to what they viewed as a provocation aggression in the form of Yugoslav People’s Army takings of military supplies. In the midst of the violence, Aco Nenadic heard a voice that was most familiar to him urging him to keep quiet and offering safety and protection. The voice was that of his friend Hasan Jusovic, who had earlier urged him to leave his home due to mounting hostilities. Jusovic smuggled Nenadic to his home under pretense and, soon enough, a civilian disguise and cared for him for a month. He then arranged for him to get to his own family home. After the conflict, the men had lost touch but in later years, they reunited in friendship in 2009 with the assistance of a TV show called All for Love.
6. Wilhelm Hosenfeld, Leon Warm, and Wladislaw Szpilman
The German Wehrmacht was hardly the best friend to Jewish victims of National Socialist military and political aggression. As the German national army, the Wehrmacht was at the beck and call of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. Yet amongst the fairly uniform consensus of aiding, abetting or simply complying with aggression and anti-Jewish and anti-minority group human rights abuses, individuals existed who were sometimes willing to put the welfare of intended victims ahead of their own mandates or even personal safety. German Wehrmacht Officer Wilhelm Hosenfeld, born near Fulda, Hessen in 1895, grew up Catholic and was a German patriot. He became a soldier in World War One, survived, and became a teacher, marrying and then having five children.
Although initially a supporter of National Socialism, Hosenfeld became disturbed by the violence against persecuted identifiable groups and the hostile content of Mein Kampf. As a Wehrmacht officer stationed in Poland, he first saved Leon Warm by hiding him under a false identify and employed position after he escaped a Nazi train en route to Treblinka. He then rescued Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish musician, and gave him survival provisions in the final stages of World War II (as depicted toward the end of the film The Pianist). Things did not go so well for Hosenfeld, however. The Nazis did not get him, but in 1945 he was arrested and taken into Soviet captivity, remaining in prison until his 1952 death despite petitions from the two rescued Jewish men, Warm and Szpilman. In June 2009, Hosenfeld received posthumous honor and recognition as “Righteous Among Nations” in the Israeli Yad Vashim Holocaust Memorial for his work in saving, instead of persecuting, those labeled as targets by Nazi Germany.
5. Najah Aboud and Zahed Haftlang
The Iran-Iraq War lasting from September 1980 to August 1988 was characterized by innumerable human rights abuses and hostilities that pitted determined combatants on both sides, following the Iraqi invasion of Iran under the rule of Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein. Zahed Haftlang was an Iranian recruit into the paramilitary Basij forces that made the use of underage soldiers to take the brunt of battle confrontations and pave the way for experienced soldiers. Just 13 years of age when he signed up, Zahed was thrust into the ghoulish conflict that left 1.5 million people dead but managed to survive the chaos and violence, becoming a medic in time. He soon had the opportunity to save the life of an enemy soldier, Najah Aboud, an Iraqi fighter intent on being married but conscripted and thrown into the midst of hostilities as Saddam ordered the ill-fated invasion of Iran that led to a protracted struggle over territory, people, and politics.
Haftlang found a seriously injured Aboud and was under orders to kill, even being subjected to physical violence from a superior intended on driving the point home. But after finding a picture of the Iraqi man’s fiancée and baby, Haftlang put humanity over military aggression and did all he could to provide clandestine emergency medical care and save Aboud’s life until orders were changed to take Iraqi prisoners of war alive. Aboud spent 17 years in Iranian captivity, while Zahed ended up serving more than 2 years in Iraqi captivity. Then, 20 years later, a despairing Zahed was interrupted by a caring roommate in the middle of a suicide attempt in Canada, and ended up at the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture when he encountered Aboud, and the two reunited and remain close friends.
4. Major Josef Gangl, the Americans, and the Prisoners
One of the most remarkably complicated instances of being saved by the enemy is the case of Itter Castle in Austria. The castle was being used as a prison by the Nazi regime for high profile prisoners including French political and military leaders and cultural icons, apparently intended to be used as hostages for negotiation purposes if needed. Among the ranks of prisoners were no less than Marie-Agnes Cailliau, sister of General Charles De Gaulle, and former French Prime Ministers Paul Reynaud and Edouard Daladier. However, as the Nazis began losing the war in an increasingly obvious way, the prisoners were abandoned in the castle, but could not escape as the area was full of Nazi personnel. Heinrich Himmler’s SS intended to seize control of the castle and put the prisoners to death.
French prisoners sent out scouts on bicycles, only to have them encounter German Major Josef Gangl. Major Gangl opted to save the French, but he and his men could not do so alone. Major Gangl strategically surrendered to American forces, and then joined forces with them to fight the SS and save the prisoners. The castle was captured and the prisoners freed, but sadly Gangl himself was killed in the fighting that followed, shot in the head by an SS combatant. If the prisoners had not been rescued, saved by the joint forces of their official enemy and the Americans to whom their enemy surrendered, French figures who played a great role in rebuilding France would have been killed and never able to make their vital contributions.
3. Hoichi “Bob” Kubo and the Japanese Standoff
In the history of World War II, the fact that the United States and Canada were immigrant countries — and some racially and ethnically based policies were still in place in both countries — meant that at times, there could be a conflict between one’s ethnic background and perceived loyalty in the wartime environment. In the case of Japanese Americans for example, there were widespread detentions and concerns about their suitability for US armed forces service against Japan. Yet Japanese American serviceman Hoichi “Bob” Kubo was determined to serve the US, seeing a cultural parallel to a Japanese story about a conflict between family loyalty and Imperial loyalty and served with conviction.
In July 1944, an incident in the Battle of Saipan materialized where 130 Japanese soldiers and civilians were hiding in a cave, the civilians standing around the soldiers. Previously, the bloody conflict had been defined by a number of mass deaths to suicide by civilians and soldiers who saw surrender as dishonorable. Kubo, however, volunteered to address the tense situation in hopes of saving lives. He talked the 130 Japanese out of killing themselves and into surrendering. So, all these Japanese people were saved from suicide or from being killed in a fight with American forces by one man, who was their enemy by nationality but was ethnically Japanese, using his culture bridging skill to bring a solution to a potentially horrific and bloody impasse.
2. Gino Farnetti-Bragaglia and the Canadian Trio
Encountering Canadian soldiers or other Allied forces would not be the best fate for combatants fighting for fascist Italian forces in World War II. Many civilians were unfortunately killed by Allied air raids or as a result of collateral damage in the course of ground based battles. In both the Kingdom of Italy under fascist rule, and the puppet state the Italian Social Republic established following the surrender of the Kingdom of Italy and a switching of sides to join the Allies in 1943, a great number of lives were lost on both the Allied and Axis sides. For the young Italian war orphan Gino Farnetti-Bragaglia, however, a group of Canadian soldiers saved him from near certain death in the Italian province of Frosinone in June 1944.
After finding him in bad shape and alone following the death of his parents in the war and separation from his brother, the boy was cared for by three Canadian soldiers named Lloyd “Red” Oliver, Paul Hagen, and Mert Massey. He referred to the men as his “Guardian Angels” and stayed in touch after he was left in Italy, following the departure of the soldiers for Western Europe in February 1945 and his being placed in the care of a family in the region. It was agreed that he would be able to remain in contact and he did throughout his life until the death of the last soldier, “Red” Oliver, in 2012. Immensely thankful for being rescued by the Canadian soldiers, the rescued Gino Farnetti-Bragaglia traveled to Canada upon invitation to recognize the soldiers who saved him.
1. Gerhard Kurzbach and Yisrael Fruman
The World War II era mass murder of Jewish people wantonly taken as prisoners and refugees stands out starkly among global war crimes. Yet amongst the ghastly happenings, the actions of German Wehrmacht commander Gerhard Kurzbach stand out so strongly that his picture hangs on the wall of a Jewish Holocaust survivor in Israel, as well as having been recognized as “Righteous Among Nations” for his lifesaving good deeds amongst the overwhelming horror and treachery that defined the worst moments of World War II. The clever, most honorably devious Kurzbach used his strategic position as the person in charge of a military vehicle repair shop making sure vehicles used by Nazi forces were in good working order.
Kurzbach is a classic example of one who might seem to protest too much, for he ranted and yelled abuse at Jewish prisoners and seemed to be just a little too die hard in spilling hate speech. In fact, the truth to which no one caught on before enough time had passed for hundreds of Jewish prisoners to be saved from deportation, was that Kurzbach was pretending to persecute Jews and then hiding them in the workshop before arranging escapes. One survivor, Israeli citizen Yisrael Fruman (pictured above), may be one of the few Holocaust survivors to have a World War II German officer’s portrait displayed in honor upon his wall. Fruman acknowledged the good Kurzbach in a letter to his family and has been preparing to meet the German Sergeant’s grandson. Tragically, it appears Kurzbach paid for his actions with his life, being arrested by Nazi fanatics at gunpoint in 1942, and remains presumed dead.