“Spanish Doctors” in China

December 8, 2015
By and

Twenty medical doctors serving in the International Brigades went straight from Spain to China to help the country defend itself against Japanese aggression. They are remembered fondly in China today.

Dr. Norman Betune in China, 1938-1939. Library and Archives Canada/PA-160718.

Dr. Norman Betune in China, 1938-1939. Library and Archives Canada/PA-160718.

It is widely known that hundreds of doctors from all over the world volunteered to join the International Brigades to fight fascism in Spain during the civil war of 1936-1939.  However, few in the West are aware that some of these doctors, immediately after serving in Spain, volunteered to serve with the antifascist front in China against Japanese aggression.  In fact, 20 of these doctors volunteered from 11 countries. The Chinese called them the “Spanish Doctors,” because of their earlier activities in Spain, even though none of them were Spaniards.

Among these doctors, the Canadian Norman Bethune was the first to arrive in China in 1938.  He is well known and honored to this day in China. He brought mobile blood units to the battlefields in both Spain and China. After working tirelessly in China for over a year, he died of an infection contracted while operating on a Chinese patient.

Following in Dr. Bethune’s footsteps to China, was an Indian, Dr. Menhanlal Atal.  After serving in the International Brigades in 1937, he was called back to India by the Indian National Congress for a mission to China.  He led a team of five Indian doctors bringing medicine and medical equipment, and arrived Yan’an in 1939.

The third Spanish Doctor was an Indonesian, Dr. Tio Oen Bik. After serving in Spain for two years, Bik was interned in Camp de Gurs in France in 1939. After much trouble, he left the camp and reached Yan’an in 1940. He served in China for eight years.

The remaining 17 Spanish Doctors responded to the call by the British and Norwegian Committee for Medical Aid to China in 1939. At the time, many of them were still interned in the French camp. Their urge to fight fascism was only strengthened after being defeated in the Spanish Civil War. They were excited to learn that they were chosen from some 50 physician applicants to head for China.

The Spanish Doctors were anxious to apply the lessons they learned from the battlefields in Spain.

They came to China via three groups. The first had three doctors, Becker, Jensen, and Kisch. They sailed on ship Eumaus from Liverpool, England on May 1, 1939, and reached China a month later. Then on August 5, 1939, another group of  four doctors, Baer, Freudmann, Iancu, and Kaneti boarded the Aeneas from London to Marseille to pick up eight doctors, Flato, Jungerman, Kamieniecki , Kriegel, Taubenfligel, Kranzdorf, Schoen, and Volokhine along with two medical assistants, Ms. Markus and Mrs. Kamieniecka, who had also served in Spain. They traveled via Hong Kong to Tuyunguan on October 16, 1939.  The last group of two, Coutelle and Kent arrived China in 1940.

In the beginning, they expected that their destination would be Yan’an, the center of the Chinese revolution.  Instead, they were sent to the headquarters of the Chinese Red Cross at Tuyunguan near Guiyang to join the Medical Relief Corps.  They were very disappointed.  Zhou En-Lai convinced them that they could make significant contributions regardless of where they served in China, since the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party had already united to fight against the Japanese invasion. Reluctantly, they agreed to serve at Tuyunguan in the territory of Kuomintang.

In the past, many foreigners came to China for money or fame. But the Spanish Doctors asked nothing from China.  They ate the same rations and slept on the same kind of straw-padded beds as Chinese soldiers. Their only request was that they be sent to the battlefronts. They were anxious to apply the lessons they learned from the battlefields in Spain.

They were divided into several teams as mobile medical units. One or two Spanish Doctors led a team of stretcher-bearers and translators. Each group was provided with a map, detailing the route and their destination. In this fashion, they traveled all over China reaching many provinces. German Dr. Rolf Becker recalled later that often the roads became inaccessible due to Japanese bombings. Sometimes, the Chinese would destroy the roads to slow the enemy’s advancement. “We had to walk on foot, each carrying a 45-kilo backpack and marched 20-30 kilometers a day to reach battlefronts,” Dr. Becker said.

The extreme shortage of resources in wartime China prompted them to be creative. Bulgarian Dr. Ianto Kaneti said, “Bamboo is very useful for food or building material. We used bamboo to construct bathing devices. Water was warmed by sun, and then flowed through bamboo troughs to bathing stands for soldiers to take warm showers.”

They established field hospitals wherever they went. Once Dr. Becker evacuated all the tall Buddha statues from a temple near the Cambodian border and set up rows of wooden boards, each on top of two columns of bricks, as makeshift beds for patients. Although he was the only doctor there, he was able to treat 500 patients with only the help of a few nurses.

A few Spanish Doctors had some unpleasant memories from Tuyunguan. German Dr. Karl Coutelle complained that he had to wait a long time for his job assignment.  Moreover, he said, “We almost became prisoners. Every week we had to report to the police station in Guiyang.” This was because they were citizens of enemy countries.

In the early days at Tuyunguan, they slept in a rat-infested warehouse. Austrian Dr. Walter Freudmann was bitten by a rat while sleeping and lost part of his earlobe. One day, he wrote, they woke up and found their passports missing. A few days later, their passports miraculously reappeared. Presumably the Kuomintang authority suspected these Spanish Doctors of being Communists, so it “borrowed” their passports for examination. But the people in Tuyunguan were friendly. Dr. Robert Kesheng Lim, the head of the Medical Relief Corp in Guiyang, was a liberal; he embraced all who wanted to help China, regardless of their political views. He protected the Spanish Doctors from political interference, and became their trusted friend.

In 1942, nine Spanish Doctors (Baer, Coutelle, Flato, Freudmann, Iancu, Kisch, Kriegel, Taubenfligel and Volokhine) were on loan to work as Liaison Doctors under U.S. Army General Joseph Stilwell in the battle against the Japanese army in the China-Burma-India Theater, where they worked in harsh jungles. Freudmann was once sick with fever in a bamboo chabola outside of Mytkina in Burma ; but he insisted on cheering a group of wounded Chinese soldiers with a famous German song “Freiheit.”  They understood him, because he sang the entire song in Chinese!  This was the same song he had sung a few years earlier when he treated wounded soldiers in Spain.

Dr. Freudmann, sick with fever, insisted on cheering up a group of wounded soldiers with the German song “Freiheit”—singing it entirely in Chinese.

After the victory against the fascists in 1945, the Doctors returned to their own countries with the help of General Stilwell.  Dr. Kaneti arranged his return to Bulgaria along with his young family. The remaining eight Spanish Doctors and two medical aides remained in China to join the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help China from 1946 to 1947.

It is extraordinary that the Spanish Doctors risked their lives in not one, but two antifascist wars! But Dr. Kaneti considered it a natural response, not a heroic action. He said, “If history repeats, I would make the same choice.”

To commemorate the Spanish Doctors for their contributions in the war of resistance against Japanese aggression, a monument was erected in Tuyunguan in September 1985. This monument took the shape of a three-point star representing the logo of the International Brigades. On the three faces of the monument are the names of the Spanish Doctors in golden letters.

All the Spanish Doctors are dead. In 2015, the Chinese government was able to track descendants of eight Spanish Doctors and invited them to Tuyunguan for the 70th anniversary of the victory of the antifascist war and the International Medical Relief Corp (IMRC). The majority of the foreign doctors serving in IMRC were Spanish Doctors. At the commemoration ceremony on August 31, 2015, the descendants of the Spanish Doctors crowded around the monument, reaching with their fingers to gently touch the golden names. Then they walked to a nearby monument for the Medical Relief Corps of the Chinese Red Cross. Someone handed them yellow chrysanthemums. They unfurled a Spanish Republic flag with the logo of the International Brigades.  A crowd of reporters rushed over to capture this historic image.

The Chinese people keep the memory of the Spanish Doctors, just as the Spanish people remember the veterans of the International Brigades. The Spanish Doctors live on in the hearts of both the Chinese and the Spanish peoples.

Nancy Tsou and Len Tsou are authors of Los brigadistas chinos en la Guerra Civil: La llamada de España (1936-1939) (Madrid, 2013).

The Spanish Doctors

Nationality Name Chinese name
Canada Dr. Norman Bethune 白求恩医生
India Dr. Menhanlal Atal 爱德华医生
Indonesia Dr. Tio Oen Bik 毕道文医生
Bulgaria Dr. Ianto Kaneti 甘杨道医生
Germany Dr. Rolf Becker 白乐夫医生
  Dr. Karl Coutelle 顾泰尔医生
  Dr. Herbert Baer 贝尔医生
Poland Dr. Samuel Moses Flato 傅拉都医生
  Dr. Victor Taubenfligel 陶维德医生
  Dr. Wolf Jungerman 戎格曼医生
  Dr. Leon Kamieniecki 甘理安医生
Austria Dr. Fritz Jensen 严斐德医生
  Dr. Walter Freudmann 富华德医生
  Dr. Heinrich Kent 肯特医生
Romania Dr. Iacob Kranzdorf 柯让道医生
  Dr. David Iancu 杨固医生
Czechoslovakia Dr. Frantisek Kriegel 柯理格医生
  Dr. Frederick Kisch 纪瑞德医生
Hungary Dr. Otto Schoen 沈恩医生
Russia Dr. Alexander Volokhine 何乐经医生


Nationality Name Chinese Name
Germany Ms. Edith Markus 马库斯
Poland Mrs. Miriam Kamieniecka 玛丽安

3 Responses to “ “Spanish Doctors” in China ”

  1. Ewa Taubenfligel on December 22, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    Thank you!!!!!

  2. Karin Kleiner (Jungerman) on December 23, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you! It is so good to have the story come together, having heard it from many sources. It is my understanding that my father, Wolf Jungerman, was also a Liaison Doctor on loan to Stillwell.

  3. R Dijkstra on February 7, 2016 at 6:15 am

    As an addition to this magnificent article, the monument of the Spanish doctors is added to the Spanish Civil War memorial map (see http://bit.ly/1ELDbkD )
    and letters of Andre Marty about the selection of the doctors can be found in the online Komintern archive (RGASPI. F.545. Op.6. D.580)

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