Aaron Zhang
Aaron Zhang
Lover of history and Torah.

‘China Hwang’ of the Nazi camp for women

Nadine before the liberation of the camp in 1945, Archivo China España
Nadine before the liberation of the camp in 1945, Archivo China España

“Remember only that I was innocent
and, just like you, mortal on that day,
I, too, had had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy,
quite simply, a human face!”

Benjamin Fondane, Exodus
Murdered at Auschwitz, 1944

Those who have visited Yad Vashem might have read the poem on the wall of the Name Hall. As we commemorate the Yom HaShoah or the Holocaust Memorial Day, the name of a Chinese lady has been lingering in my mind — Nadine Hwang with many different identities: cross-dresser, lawyer, horse rider, car driver, pilot, colonel, polo, cricket and ice hockey player, lesbian cosmopolitan, spy against Nazis, internee in a Nazi camp for women, etc. Her life is probably one of the most forgotten stories in modern Chinese history and till now almost nothing was written about her in Chinese language…

Nadine in the late 1920s, Biblioteca Nacional de España

Born in Madrid, Spain in 1902, Nadine Hwang was the daughter of a Chinese diplomat father and a Belgian mother, the sister of the writer and translator Marcela de Juan. She grew up in an upper-class family and spent her earlier life in Spain and China. She was remembered as both a fashionable lady with unusual beauty and very often a “handsome” cross-dresser since childhood. She was trained to be a lawyer but was later stationed as a lieutenant in the Chinese army under marshal Chang Hsueh-liang in 1929. Later she got an important economic position under China’s Beiyang government and worked as confidential secretarial staff for Prime Minister Pan Fu. However, in the early 1930s, she suddenly moved to Paris and eventually became the mistress of the well-known feminist writer Natalie Clifford Barney.

In Barney’s salon gathered a large group of intellectuals and artists from around the world, including many leading figures in French literature as well as American and British Modernists called “The Lost Generation” of the last century. Recently with more and more evidence has surfaced that enables us to know that Nadine Hwang had another major identity — an agent spying against Nazis on behalf of the French Resistance.

Nadine described as an aviation colonel in the Chinese National Army in a Spanish magazine in 1929, Biblioteca Nacional de España

In November 2015, while I was attending a curatorial lecture at Yad Vashem (which was part of the Weiss-Livnat program of University of Haifa) something special got my attention: Apiece of red cloth from Ravensbrück concentration camp with a Chinese signature “黄China” (“Hwang China”) at the bottom(see the right photo below). Now it is displayed in the main exhibition hall even though hardly anybody noticed that there’s a Chinese lady’s signature on it (partly covered by the display window frame).

The artifact donated by Yehudit Aufrichtig to Yad Vashem. Photo by Aaron Zhang, 2015

This “China Hwang” became an unforgettable mystery in my mind. After some research I found her name —“Nadine Hwang” (much later her original Chinese name “黄娜汀”). However, many questions surrounding her life remained unanswered. In November 2016 I had the luck to have a cup of coffee with Dr. Peter Plieninger, chairman of the Ravensbrück International Friends Association (IFA), while I was doing an internship at Jewish Museum Berlin. He explained that this piece of cloth was most likely cut from the corner of a Nazi flag, likely from the “Siemenskommando” of the camp. Around the time of the “White Bus Operation” (April 22-26, 1945), many internees of the camp finally saw some hope but they were still unsure about their final fate. In this situation, the prisoners showed their solidarity as a collective by embroidering their names on this strip of cloth by using a needle with their own hands. I am not sure how much it meant to the owner of this object, but even as an outsider looking at an embroidery created 76 years ago, I can still feel the warmth and heaviness of the scarf with many names embroidered in different unique styles, as if that particular moment became a moment of eternity.

Chinese historians often mention the special economic and military relations between China and Germany before WWII in their historical writings. The history of the persecution of the Chinese communities in Europe under Nazi rule, however, is largely neglected. Between 1933 and1945 many Chinese in Germany were either forced to escape or were eventually deported into concentration camps. Before the end of WWII, the Chinese quarter in Hamburg as well as the Chinese communities in Berlin, Bremen had all been liquidated. Even “Aryans” were arrested if they had a relationship with the Chinese, which were considered lower race by the Nazis.“Rassenschande” or “racial shame” was considered a severe crime and racial laws were enforced upon everyone within the German border.

It is already no secret that the concentration camps of Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, etc. all detained some Chinese for racial or ideological reasons. Zhu Min, daughter of the top marshal of Communist China — Zhu De–for example, was deported by the Nazis from a school for young children in Belarus to a Nazi camp in 1941. After suffering torture as a little girl for four years in the camp while trying her best to hide her identity in order not to make trouble for her family, she was left with incurable physical injures and lifelong trauma. Her story later became the prototype for the character “Chu Chu” in the WWII-themed film “red cherry” produced in the 1990s.

A poster of the film “Red Cherry” (public domain)

To a certain degree, Germany today enjoys an overly positive image among many Chinese. Average Chinese people love things made in Germany, German football, beer, and music or fashion brands like Hugo Boss. There are people, though not the mainstream, who love Germany so much that they lost any critical sense when dealing with Nazi history. For them, the designs of the Hugo Boss’ Nazi uniforms are of greater interest than the ideology and policies behind these uniforms. These self-proclaimed “patriots” might find the nationalist ideologies of the “Fuehrer” very attractive.

Memorial plaque dedicated to the perished Chinese nationals in Mauthausen in 2003 (Photo by Chinese Embassy Austria)

If the tragic consequences of “class conflict” during China’s Cultural Revolution are not enough of a warning, I do hope they could learn a little bit more about what happened under the Nazi rule, to Germans, to Jews as well as to Chinese, and keep in mind the final fate of the “China town” in Hamburg.

In the early 20th century thousands of Jews from the world once came to China and settled down in cities like Harbin, Shanghai or Hong Kong either for business or for refuge. They lived among Chinese people, contributed greatly and left a deep mark in these Chinese cities. However, this is not the whole story. On the other side of the globe, Jews and Chinese in Europe were on the same boat, especially during the darkest times of the Holocaust.

After the collapse of the Manchu Empire and the establishment of Republic, Nadine’s father returned to China to become the Director of the Protocol Division of the new China. Nadine then started to study in a French Catholic school in Beijing and later got trained to be a lawyer. As a young girl from a family with high social status, Nadine had the privilege to meet important figures of her time like Mao Zedong, Lin Yutang or Hu Shi, who were invited as guests to her home.

It is no wonder that she already achieved something unparallel for a woman in her time when she was still quite young. The Japanese-American artist and designer Isamu Noguchi recalled that he met a “beautiful lieutenant in the army of the young marshal Chang Hsueh-liang” in 1930 and described her as looking “piratical”. It seems that Isamu Noguchi and Nadine Hwang, both of mixed races, established a strong friendship. It also appears that, for about four years, wearing a male uniform, Nadine performed some sort of press relations role for the “Young Marshal” Chang Hsueh-Liang. Also in this period, she expanded her skills from sports like polo, cricket, horse riding to driving a car and a plane. As a modern woman, she achieved what is unthinkable for the average Chinese ladies of her time, who were just freed from the thousand-year-old tradition of “three-inch lotus feet” to be able to walk freely.

Australian report on her visit to the UK in 1936, National Library of Australia

The modernization of Republican China under Nationalist rule in the early 1930s was threatened by internal political upheavals and an increasingly aggressive Imperial Japan. It means Nadine could never get the life she wants in China, even in the cosmopolitan Shanghai which was often nicknamed “Paris of the Orient” by the many thousands of foreign expats living in this city at the time. In 1933 Nadine moved to Paris and embraced the bohemian lifestyle and eventually became the lover of Natalie Clifford Barney, a prominent member of the city’s salon scene.

British writer Diana Souhami mentioned Nadine in the biography of Natalie Barney saying, “She had imported a new lover […] Nadine Hwang, who had been a colonel in the Chinese army and then moved to Paris in the early 1930s. Natalie employed her as her chauffeur, secretary, and personal assistant.” According to a description in the writings of Helene Nera, Nadine suffered suffocating racism because of her Chinese identity and deadly jealousies among the many lovers and admirers of Barney. It was almost like a drama of “palace concubines” fighting for the favor of the “emperor”.

In 1940 the whole of Europe was shadowed by the influence of the Nazis and Paris was no exception. Natalie Barney followed Romaine Brooks and fled the German invasion to Florence. The newly released details of the film “Nelly & Nadine”(in production, to be released in 2021/2022), sheds light on some previously unknown stories about her, as well as Peter Hore’s book “Lindell’s List” (2016), which disclosed abundant information about the British, American and French agents detained in the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. We now know that during the Nazi occupation Nadine participated in the French Resistance and was eventually arrested by the Nazis and was transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in May1944.

Self-portrait of Romaine Brooks (1923), one of Nadine’s friends in Paris (public domain)

In 1944 Nadine was interned in the infamous “Women’s Hell” — Ravensbrück concentration camp, which is located 90 kilometers north of Berlin. According to the estimate of Yad Vashem, around 92 thousand out of 130,000 women of this camp eventually died from the shooting, poisoning in the gas chamber, starvation, hard labor, torture or medical experiments.

Among the inmates, there were a Jewish woman called Emma Esther Yang, who was the wife of a Chinese man living in Germany, and their daughter. All inmates in the camp were required to do heavy labor, Nadine, for example, was listed in the “Siemenskommando” which built the V-2 rocket parts for the company Siemens & Halske.

According to the documentary “Every Face Has A Name”, in the camp a Jewish lady called Irene Krauszand her family got to know Nadine. Irene saw her as a unique woman: well educated, lively and with a strong personality. In 1945 Nadine organized, through Mary Lindell, a captured British spy in this camp, that Irene and her mother Rachel were included in the list with British people to be rescued by the White Buses. Rachel promised Nadine that if Irene ever gave birth to a daughter, she would name her “Nadine”. After the war, Irene married and lived briefly in a kibbutz in Israel and then moved to South Africa. She kept her mother’s promise and named her daughter “Nadine”. Nadine is not among the recognized “righteous among nations” by Yad Vashem, but the fact that there’s a Jewish girl in this world named after her tells us, how deeply Nadine was connected to this Jewish family and how much the name “Nadine” means to them to survive the hell of a camp.

In 1945 Nadine moved to Brussels via Sweden and started to live together with Nelly Mousset, who miraculously survived both Ravensbrück and Mauthausen. They reunited as a couple in Brussels and soon after left Europe and started their new life in Venezuela. They claimed that they are cousins and lived together for two decades in the capital Caracas. Due to Nadine’s worsening health conditions, the couple returned to Europe in the late 1960s. They left a shoebox containing many personal items to their friend Jose Rafael, including many photos and letters in English, French and German language. As Alexandra Lovera, the daughter of Jose Rafael, recalled a few years ago, Venezuela back then was a conservative Catholic society, it was taboo to talk about sexuality and unfortunately, her parents in the end silently got rid of the personal items of the couple, including a photo of Nadine as a young man dressed in what seems to be German military uniform, along with letters from a Gestapo officer.

Chinese writer Eileen Chang once wrote, “Life is a beautiful gown that is crawled all over by fleas.” (1939) Initially, I thought the fleas of Nadine’s “beautiful gown” could be the “suffocating racism” and “jealousies” she experienced as Natalie Barney’s “on-off” lover, the mental and psychological burden and fear as an agent, and the inhumane sufferings in the Nazi camp plus the social pressure of having a lesbian lifestyle in a conservative Catholic society. The soon-to-be-released film “NELLY & NADINE” made me realize that the jumping fleas could bite and suck the blood of a whole family at the same time and the fleas almost swallowed a major part of the memory about Nadine.

The full name of Nadine’s lover is Nelly Mousset-Vos, a successful singer and a currier for the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation. She once had a family and a daughter before being arrested and deported to the camp, meeting Nadine and falling in love with her in a dramatic and romantic manner. In the never published archives shown in the film a story was told, how Nelly and Nadine met in Ravensbrück and how their love made them survive the horrors in the camps and how their love troubled a family for half a century.

Nelly’s daughter Claude could not overcome the fact that her mother chose to live with Nadine and felt abandoned. After many decades, Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie Bianchi finally found the strength to deal with the complicated and painful family history by opening the many boxes with Nelly and Nadine’s unseen personal archives, which have been kept in a farm’s attic near Paris. Otherwise, much of the story could be forgotten and buried forever.

Nadine Hwang is a legend and mystery. She lived, shined, adventured and loved. As we commemorate the Yom HaShoah, let us put all the tags aside and remember her — “China Hwang” of the Nazi concentration camp for women and remember that she has a face and a name and a story. And during the darkest times of the twentieth century, she chose to fight against the Nazis and tried to help her Jewish friends to survive and escape the hell of sufferings.

About the Author
Gained M.A. in German studies. 4th cohort in the Weiss-Livnat MA program in Holocaust Studies. Licenced tour guide. Interested in China-Israel topics. Lover of history and Torah.
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