Brutality of Hope

The end of the Jewish Resettlement Plan

During the last week of June 1939, H.H. Kung had dinner with Chiang Kai-shek at his residence twenty miles outside Chongqing. The city itself, a hilly promontory at the confluence of two rivers, was regularly hit these days by Japanese bombing raids, so most of the government facilities and residences had moved out of town to the surrounding area. The invitation had sent Kung into a frenzy of excitement: tonight he would get Chiang’s answer. He had introduced the petition for the Jewish Resettlement Plan as planned on the twenty-second of April, and the responses of the lawmakers had sent his hopes soaring. T.V. Soong, brother-in-law to both Kung and Chiang Kai-shek and one of China’s most prominent businessmen, was very vocal in his support, though that had been expected, as he and Kung had been urging Chiang for some time to cut all ties with the Germans. Even more stirring was the enthusiasm of Foreign Minister Wang Zhongwei, and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs K.C. Wu; they had actually moved ahead with implementation by setting up the first phase of the administration, quietly, of course, to avoid ruffling German feathers. Yet inevitably word had leaked out, and two weeks earlier, the First Secretary of the German Embassy had dropped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Chongqing on a pretext. Before leaving he said, as if casually, “Remember, all Jews regard Germany as their enemy. You should avoid damaging relations between our countries.” Kung had been praying ever since that Chiang Kai-shek would not find out about the warning. Fortunately for Kung, the Generalissimo, now fighting an all-out war against Japan alongside the Communists he despised, was too busy to give much thought to the Jewish plan. He was surely aware of the support it had in the Legislative Yuan, though, and tonight Kung had little doubt he was going to give his approval. Why else would he have invited Kung to dinner? The meal was spartan. With the Generalissimo there were never aperitifs, and certainly no chatting or lightheartedness of any kind. The food was Cantonese, Chiang’s home cuisine; he ate nothing else, and chefs traveled with his armies everywhere. The valet served a soup of crab meat and fish maw that was as delicate as crystal, followed by braised river fish, minced quail with pine nuts, and flash-fried pea shoots. Chiang sat bolt upright as he always did, in a tightly tailored Chiang Kaishekuniform and cinched leather belt, selecting morsels sparingly, saying little. Kung followed his lead, and pretended he always ate this way. In fact he was used to meals in which dishes piled up like the debris of some great battle, and liquor flowed in place of this abstemious tea. But he would do anything to win Chiang’s approval for his plan, even eat rocks. The plan was everything. He was aware that people thought him lazy and indolent, but this was God’s work now, and not self-interest. Yes, it was true that Kung had a great many highly lucrative business interests in Britain and the U.S., and that a humanitarian plan as grand as this one would burnish his reputation and probably drive up his profits, but that was irrelevant. He had plenty of money, he could not avoid making money; all he had to do was breathe, and it flowed in. This was something different, this was the first time in years he had felt the same way he felt as a young man, in his twenties, when he had organized Christian relief charities to avert widespread famine in his native, flood-ravaged Shanxi. He felt as if he had shaken off a long sleep; he was a man again, and it was time to act. He was the one with the vision, the connections, and the power to engineer something that would save people. This was what the bible meant by mercy, and he was to be its instrument. For the first time since Shanxi he felt at one with God and also with the principles of the Sage, Confucius, his revered ancestor. Everything locked together; he saw that fate had prepared him for this act all his life, and that this was why he had accumulated wealth and influence as easily as the padding around his middle. There was only one more step before he could start, and that was Chiang’s answer. The Generalissimo rested his chopsticks and signaled the valet for more tea. A gaggle of aides waited quietly outside in the hall, clutching sheaves of memos and directives. One coughed; another emitted a brief rustle of paper. Chiang turned slightly in his seat while still holding his spine perfectly straight, and signaled his readiness to his aides with a nod. Before he pushed back his chair, though, he met Kung’s eyes. “Trautmann telephoned me today.” Kung felt the color drain from his face. Trautmann was the Nazi Ambassador to China. “He threatened me,” Chiang said, brushing imaginary crumbs from his pristine uniform as he turned toward the door. Then he glanced back over his sharply defined shoulder. “That Jewish plan of yours has to go.”