TROUT VALLEY – Although Sonya Sindberg had heard her grandfather tell this same story of his half-brother over and over, she didn’t mind spending a September Saturday in his basement listening to it once again.
This time, cameras were rolling as Ole Sindberg, 81, sat with his grandchildren, telling tales of his half-brother, Bernhard, and his life-saving actions in Nanking, China, during the brutal occupation by Japanese forces known as the Rape of Nanking in the late 1930s.
“It’s hard to hear a story like that and have it not have a big impact on you because there’s so much that happened – so many wonderful things that happened, and so many horrible things that happened,” Sonya Sindberg said.
Bernhard Sindberg, who died in 1983, is regarded as a hero by the Chinese government for sheltering thousands of innocent Chinese citizens in a Danish-owned cement factory throughout the worst of the massacre in 1937 and 1938.
The Chinese government estimates 300,000 people died in the first six weeks of the occupation, and Sindberg may have saved as many as 20,000 lives, although estimates vary greatly.
The story, which Sonya Sindberg said long has been a part of family lore, is being documented by a crew from the China Jiangsu Broadcasting Corp. The documentary will be part of a 10-part series dedicated to the heroes of that massacre.
Ming Liu, the director of the documentary, said Sindberg is one of the lesser-known heroes from the episode. To find out more about him, she reached out to Ole Sindberg, a native Dane and current Trout Valley resident.
“The way they see it, I’m one of the very few people that had regular contact with my brother during his lifetime,” Ole said. “I’m of that same generation. It’s a bit of a stretch, because he’s 23 years older than me, but we do have the same father, so they came.”
That contact didn’t actually start until Ole was an adult and he happened to cross paths with his brother when they were working in British Columbia, Canada, in 1962.
When they met for dinner in Vancouver and retreated to Ole’s hotel room, Bernhard told stories that lasted into the night, some of which Ole said sounded like “sailor’s yarn.”
“After a while,” Ole said, “I just wanted to go to bed.”
The two stayed in touch, and over time, Ole realized the stories were true. His half-brother made a number of stops after leaving Denmark as a teen – joining and deserting the French Foreign Legion, getting thrown into the brig of a ship traveling from the U.S. to China, selling motorcycles and machine guns – but his heroics began in 1937, when a Danish company put him in charge of a cement factory in Nanking, where civilians were being brutally murdered and abused by Japanese soldiers.
“He pretty soon makes up his mind that, ‘Wow, maybe I can do something to protect these exposed individuals, because I’m in charge of this place here,’ ” Ole said.
With the regular staff gone because of the hostilities, Bernhard invited civilians to the factory and painted a huge Danish flag on the roof. He maintained a good relationship with the Japanese soldiers in order to protect the factory and the Chinese citizens.
While the Chinese government never recognized his efforts during his lifetime, they did send a delegation to Denmark in 2000 to search for him. Although he had died years earlier, the government found his relatives, including Bernhard’s niece, Mariann Arp Stenvig.
In 2005, 60 years after the end of World War II, Mariann, Ole and other family members were invited to China and given the VIP treatment as Bernhard was honored by the government.
“We met some of the people that he sheltered,” Ole said. “They’re quite adamant that if it wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t be around.”
Since then, the family members have made it their business to keep their brother’s story alive. Mariann has made several trips back to China.
Ole inherited his half-brother’s documents, and, although he donated some of the original journals and photos to the University of Texas at Austin, he has dozens of documents and books that mention his brother’s life in his Trout Valley home.
He even has a 1954 motorcycle from the same company his half-brother once worked for, which he occasionally rides around town.
Ole spent three hours being interviewed by the documentary crew in Denmark this summer, then spent three more hours on camera telling the story to six of his grandchildren in his Trout Valley home, involving the whole family.
The desire to spread the story has reached younger generations. Sonya is planning to use her great-uncle’s story as the basis of her undergraduate thesis at Lake Forest College.
“My plan is to eventually write something about this, because obviously it had such a huge impact upon me,” Sonya said. “I knew it was an opportunity to have other people tell that story and have it have that same positive impact on them as it had on me.”