The three He sisters led remarkable lives well before each of them attained the summits of scientific research in China, each in her respective field.

The eldest, Yizhen He, went into physics. Opportunities for advanced studies in China were very limited in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, the country was experiencing a period of constant unrest. She had the good fortune of being able to study in the United States, however, where she became the first Chinese woman to earn a PhD in physics.

Next in line was, Zehui He, who went to Berlin to study physics.

The youngest, Zeying He, studied botany at the University of Dongwu and then worked at the Nanjing Botanical Garden.

But soon war and occupation separated the three sisters by barriers that were much more formidable than the steepest mountains, the most parched deserts and the widest oceans. How could they stay in touch with each other and with their parents at a time when the postal service and telephone lines were cut? How could they receive news from loved ones when all contact with enemy territory was strictly prohibited?

For several long years, the three sisters shared the anguish of all families divided by war; month after month with no message, no news, coupled with daily radio reports of bombings, massacres and bloodshed.

The sisters' only respite from the interminable darkness of war was the occasional chance to exchange news at least between themselves, thanks to the 25-word messages delivered by the Red Cross via Geneva, Switzerland.

- Why 25 words?

- Why the Red Cross?

- Why Geneva?

It is common knowledge that the Red Cross was founded in 1863 on the initiative of Geneva citizen Henry Dunant. On 24 June 1859, Dunant had witnessed the grizzly spectacle of some 40,000 wounded soldiers left to die on the battlefield following the terrible Battle of Solferino. He published his account of this experience in a small book – A Memory of Solferino – which had an immediate impact. In it, Dunant described the suffering he had seen and then proposed the setting up of relief societies that would use the resources of private charity. This is the origin of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement which is now present in 186 countries. Dunant also urged governments to adopt a treaty to protect the wounded on the battlefield together with those who help them. Out of this effort came the Geneva Conventions and contemporary international humanitarian law.

The Red Cross was thus founded to help wounded soldiers. In A Memory of Solferino, however, Dunant stressed the need not only to treat physical wounds caused by weapons, but also to relieve the emotional suffering resulting from separation, captivity or the prospect of death: “Oh, Sir, if only you could write to my father to comfort my mother,” said young Corporal Mazuet of Lyons, their only son, as he lay dying.

That day a seed was sown.

The First International Conference of the Red Cross, meeting in Paris in 1867, addressed the question of identifying soldiers killed or seriously wounded in combat. It recommended that soldiers be issued a metal disk engraved with their name and other relevant information. This practice continues to this day -- all soldiers are supposed to wear identification tags around their necks.

But when postal services were not functioning, a channel was still needed to convey this information to the families of soldiers fallen in combat. This issue was addressed by the Second International Conference of the Red Cross, held in Berlin in 1869, which assigned the International Committee of the Red Cross the task of creating an information agency in neutral territory in the event of war.

“In time of war, the International Committee shall ensure that a liaison and information office is set up in a suitably chosen location, which shall facilitate, in every possible way, the exchange of communications and the sending of relief supplies.”

This marked the start of the Central Tracing Agency, which would be run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva during the two world wars.

The agency would of course have been blind and deaf without cooperation from the National Red Cross Societies and the ICRC delegations around the world. When postal services ceased functioning, the National Societies and the delegations collected family messages and sent them to the central office in Geneva. There, the messages were sorted and forwarded to the National Societies of the destination countries, which delivered them to their recipients. Responses followed the reverse course.

Naturally, no warring country would tolerate the free exchange of messages with an enemy country without first checking the content. The messages therefore had to be vetted by the censorship office of both the country of origin and the destination country. These offices were inevitably overwhelmed with work. This led to the requirement that messages not exceed 25 words and comprise exclusively personal or family news.

We can thus reconstruct the path of a message sent by Zehui He in Berlin to her sister Yizhen in the United States: Zehui He gave her message to the German Red Cross, which forwarded it to the German censors, who checked it and then gave it back to the German Red Cross, which sent it to the ICRC agency in Geneva, which sent it to the American Red Cross in Washington, which gave it to the American censors, who checked it and gave it back to the American Red Cross, which delivered it to Yizhen He in Berkeley, California. The reply would follow each of these steps in the reverse order.

Even if it took months on end to arrive, each message that reached its destination was a miracle – what with ports being bombed, ships attacked by submarines, cities destroyed, and people uprooted by the war.

And a miracle indeed to be able to read, in the midst of war, messages such as: “We are well. Our parents are well. They are in good health. Your sister has had a baby girl. We think about you constantly!”

25 Words explores this miracle of the messages passed between Nanjing, Berlin and Berkeley, and meticulously preserved by the three sisters like family jewels heavy with history.

More than 24 million messages from civilians were delivered during the Second World War across front lines via the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency in Geneva. These 24 million messages were written in dozens of different languages and had to be deciphered and then re-addressed before they could reach their intended recipients.

Twenty-four million miracles. In 25 words.

We have Liu Shen to thank for bringing this marvel out of the shadows of history. In this book and in a film, Liu Shen sketches the lives of the three He sisters and the messages they exchanged during the war and meticulously preserved when the hostilities ended.

Red Cross messages are as relevant today as they were during the Second World War. In 2009, 250,000 family messages were collected and distributed to dispersed family members affected by armed conflict or natural disaster. These days, electronic systems are commonly used besides the paper messages used in the Second World War, but the goal remains the same: to restore contact between family members. For the sense of isolation and the uncertainty about the welfare of loved ones inflicts emotional wounds no less painful than those caused by fire and iron.

François Bugnion
Independent consultant in humanitarian law and humanitarian action