Among the first, youngest, and least known heroes of World War II, 15-year-old Valentine Holdosi may have developed his extraordinary courage and compassion through his own harsh experience. Born in Vladivostok to a Russian mother and Hungarian father, Holdosi was orphaned at an early age. Another Russian woman and her husband, a Hungarian musician, took young Holdosi in.
Fleeing Communist purges, they reached Shanghai, where they survived in desperate poverty until the Japanese invasion of July 7, 1937.
Despite the difficulty of the family circumstances, which were such that Holdosi suffered from stunted growth due to malnutrition, they kept pets: Jackie, a German shepherd; Flock, a setter; a chicken named Murphy; and a cage of canaries.
Holdosi’s story is known from three sources: the North China Daily News, which originally reported it; the September 1937 edition of China Journal, which added a photo; and the November 1937 edition of The National Humane Review, a news monthly published by the American Humane Association from 1913 until 1976.
Of the three accounts, the latter is most complete. Editor Richard Craven, after receiving a clipping of the North China Daily News item, wrote to R.N. Swann, then the director of the Hong Kong SPCA, asking for verification. Despite the difficulty of corresponding during wartime, Swann promptly responded with full particulars and a photograph similar to the one used by China Journal. Both photos were apparently taken at the Canidrome race track in Macao, which then temporarily housed the Shanghai SPCA.
“With danger in the air and a general exodus from the area begun,” The National Humane Review reported, the family “decided to stand by their home and laid in a month’s supply of food. Then the storm broke and they were trapped . Pillaging, fire, and murder this boy saw day after day.”
The Hungarian musician disappeared while seeking passes that might enable the family to leave Shanghai. Trying to find him, Holdosi found and rescued two badly injured Chinese men instead, brought them home, and––at considerable personal risk––brought dressings for them from the only hospital in the area that was still functioning.
Unfortunately, Japanese troops found the men, killed them, and torched the neighborhood, destroying Holdosi’s home.
Animals were not spared. On August 15, 1937 a Japanese shell killed 42 of 160 racing greyhounds who were being evacuated from the area, along with seven Chinese civilians. But Holdosi kept his animals safe.
“At night the boy slept on a camp bed in the garden,” Craven wrote. “The pet chicken and one dog slept with him. The other dog stayed with his [adoptive] mother.
“By day the boy wandered through the streets, releasing deserted dogs who had been left chained” when their people fled or were killed.
“At last they determined to make an effort to get out,” recounted China Journal, “but not knowing what they would meet on their perilous journey, they left the two dogs and the birds in the house,” what was left of it, “with two days’ food supply and plenty of water, meaning to come back for them if they found it was possible to get through the zone of hostilities.”
Holdosi and his adoptive mother on August 26, 1937 reached Frenchtown, a suburb where the fighting was less intense. There they found the missing Hungarian musician, and one Inspector Thomas of the Shanghai SPCA. Thomas unsuccessfully sought passes that would enable Holdosi to go back for the animals.
Undaunted, Holdosi made his way back by a circuitous route that included being captured at one point and imprisoned in a boiler room, two and a half miles from the animals. Talking an Indian watchman into opening the door briefly, Holdosi bolted, evading Japanese patrols to make a clean escape.
“When the hero reached his home,” Craven narrated, “he found the fence had been smashed down. He raced around to the back. The dogs recognized his footsteps and set up a great commotion. They were safe, but he had arrived only in the nick of time, as some fiend had covered the dogs with a thick coating of tar and oil,” apparently meaning to set them ablaze, along with the building that housed the chicken and canaries.
“In his happiness at finding the dogs alive,” Craven related, “Valentine hugged them, tar and oil spreading all over his clothes, hands, and face.”
Taking a different route back to Frenchtown with the animals, Holdosi twice managed to hitch rides with police officers. Soldiers helped Holdosi to clean the animals.
From there, the family and their pets made their way to Hong Kong.
Editorialized China Journal, “The courage, resourcefulness and endurance displayed by Valentine Holdosi in the course of this thrilling episode places him amongst the heroes of the Shanghai War of 1937.”
Asked Craven, “What is the future for this boy? He deserves a glorious future, and it is a delight to know from Mr. Swann that friends of the Society are interesting themselves in his care.”
Opined Swann, “It seems possible that he will be properly cared for as soon as conditions permit.”
Inspector Thomas and friends apparently kept the Shanghai SPCA alive for at least two more years under Japanese occupation. In September 1939, the National Humane Review reported, the Shanghai SPCA successfully prosecuted two men for fraud after they were caught selling dog meat and cat meat as “rabbit.”
The case is of note today because it indicates that eating dogs and cats was not societally accepted then, even under wartime conditions.
Then managing shelters in both Hong Kong proper and Kowloon, the Hong Kong SPCA was obliged to suspend operations after Hong Kong fell to the Japanese invaders in December 1941. R.N. Swann had by then been recalled to Britain. His successor, Dorothy Ho Tung, died in 1949, frustrated by failed attempts to get the Hong Kong SPCA going again. It finally did revive in the mid-1950s.
Swann, after military service, returned to humane work with the Royal SPCA of Great Britain. Other members of the Swann family also maintained long involvement with the RSPCA.
But what of Holdosi?
Other than the papers documenting Holdosi’s deeds of July and August 1937, I have found no record of his existence. He may have been a casualty of the war.