I belatedly found the remarkable story of Nadine Hwang (1902–72) through the documentary
- Nelly & Nadine (Magnus Gertten, 2022), currently available on BBC iPlayer. *
It’s the last in Magnus Gertten’s documentary trilogy on the lives of women rescued from Nazi concentration camps in 1945, preceded by Harbour of hope (2011) and Every face has a name (2015) (cf. this site).
While it makes sense within the trilogy, I’m not sure that the contrast between the nightmare of Ravensbrück and the couple’s later carefree life in Caracas quite works. Of course, it was a common reaction for survivors to remain silent about their hellish experiences; for Nadine and Nelly this was compounded by the double burden of their sexuality. In the film, recreating the story in rural France features too prominently, with little context about either the resistance, the camp system, or the Swedish rescue missions. It works better as a love story, in particular that of two brave women.
The story of Nadine asking Nelly to sing an aria from Madam Butterfly on Christmas Eve in Ravensbrück might lead us to the remarkable story of M. Butterfly.
* * *
The story of Ravensbrück and Nadine’s later ménage with Nelly tends to overshadow her earlier life—note articles here and here, the latter with a documentary:
Nadine was born in Madrid of a Belgian mother and a Chinese father, both Catholics. Her father was a diplomat; transferred back to Beijing in 1913 after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the family moved in high circles.
Nadine Hwang in the late 1920s. These and other images here from the articles cited above.
Nadine resisted conventional gender roles from young, learning to drive a car and fly planes, and wearing men’s clothes. She became a honorary colonel in the Air Force of Shandong warlord Zhang Zongchang and later a lieutenant in Chang Hsueh-liang’s army. By the age of 25 she was working for the Beiyang government as adviser to Prime Minister Pan Fu. As a 1928 German report described,
She changes her personality with her costume and appears in the twelve hours of the day as a tomboy par excellence, a dashing officer, a politician, a young society girl and an accomplished world lady. In the morning she is seen riding, fencing or playing tennis in a correct man’s suit, until she goes to her office punctually at 8 o’clock, at the flounce of her own car, with a chauffeur-soldier behind her.
But by 1933 unrest and Japanese incursions prompted her to move to Paris, giving lectures around Europe and the USA while leading a bohemian life. She became chauffeur and soon lover of the socialite Natalie Clifford Barney, taking part in lively artistic salons. Under Nazi occupation Nadine seems to have worked as a spy for the French Resistance. She was deported to Ravensbrück in May 1944.
Kerchief embroidered with names of Ravensbrück inmates.
For Republican China, see also Fou Ts’ong, and The qin zither under Maoism. Note the tragic story of Noor Inayat Khan; for occupied France, see Les Parisiennnes, and A life in secrets; as well as my posts on Ravensbrück (with more on Germaine Tillion here) and Sachsenhausen.
* Reviews e.g.