Ho Feng Shan: A man of compassion, courage

Updated: 2015-04-24 11:18

By May Zhou(China Daily USA)

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Next week, the Holocaust Museum of Houston will honor Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe. Yet while Ho Feng Shan was alive, nobody, not even his family, was aware of the scope of what he had done, May Zhou reports from Houston.

On April 21, an historic ceremony took place in Vienna. A bronze plaque was unveiled at the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel to commemorate the heroism of a Chinese diplomat more than seven decades ago.

Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese consul general to Vienna from 1938 to 1940, was one of the first foreign officials to save Jews from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe. It was only after his death in 1997 that the story of his humanitarian feat - buried for six decades - finally came to light. In July 2000, Israel bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations, one of its highest honors, on Ho Feng Shan "for his humanitarian courage" in the rescue of Jews.

Next week, on this side of the Atlantic, the Holocaust Museum of Houston (HMH) will honor Ho Feng Shan with the Lyndon Johnson Moral Courage Award. The award will be accepted by his daughter, Ho Manli, on April 30.

"To recognize a Chinese person for contributions in the European Theater in this 70th anniversary year of the end of World War II is historic, both in Vienna, where the rescues of Jews took place, and in America, where many of the survivors found new lives after the war," said Ho Manli in a recent interview from San Francisco.

The tri-lingual commemorative plaque in German, Chinese and English was placed at the site of the former Chinese Consulate General building in Vienna, now part of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. It was from this location, following the Anschluss, or union of Germany and Austria in March 1938, that Ho Feng Shan began issuing visas to the Chinese port city of Shanghai, helping thousands of Jews escape from the Nazis.

Shanghai impact

Ho's impact, however, extended well beyond Austria and the recipients of his visas; his actions put Shanghai on the map and into the consciousness of Jews in other Nazi occupied territories as a refuge of last resort.

As a result, from 1938 to 1940, some 18,000 European Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai to escape certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

That's why Nancy Li, Houston, chair of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association and trustee of the HMH, became instrumental in nominating Ho as an honoree.

"When it comes to the history of WWII, very little research has been conducted about China in the West. Through events like this, I hope to raise awareness that China suffered at the hands of the Japanese just as Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Moreover, even while China suffered under Japanese occupation, Chinese like Dr Ho were willing to extend a helping hand toward the Jews in Europe," said Li.

Mark Mucasey, chair of the HMH, said the nomination of Ho stemmed from his visit to China in 2013 to attend the conference of the Association of Holocaust Organizations.

While there, Mucasey visited Unit 731 Museum. "It showed the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre and chemical warfare and medical experiments conducted by the Japanese," he said.

"We turned a corner and there it was, an oven where the bodies were burned. It looked exactly like the oven in Auschwitz, Poland, which I had just visited. This was the same appliance and the same cruelty. This is what the Germans were doing to the Jews and what the Japanese were doing to Chinese," Mucasey added.

Mucasey and his group also visited the Shanghai Ghetto. "We saw where they (Jews) escaped the ravages of Europe," he said. "All these were new to us, and based on what we learned, we decided to honor Ho, and reach out to our Asian neighbors."

Yet while Ho Feng Shan was alive, nobody, not even his family, was aware of the scope of what he had done. After his death, his daughter, Ho Manli, a journalist by training, began an 18-year odyssey to uncover the history of her father's deeds.

"I began this search by chance, shortly after my father's death in 1997," Ho Manli said. "But, by doing so more than six decades later means that we shall never know the full extent of his humanitarian efforts."

Trying to retrace the history, she said, was "like looking for a pebble in the ocean."

"There was no 'Schindler's List' of survivors. The survivors had scattered all over the world. Most of the adults who lined up in front of the Chinese Consulate to obtain visas are no longer with us, and did not necessarily tell their children the details of how the family escaped," Ho Manli said.

After the end of the World War II, China was plunged into a civil war. There were few Chinese archival documents left to be found, she added.

'Sheer persistence'

However, Ho Manli painstakingly scoured archives in Washington, Vienna and Israel, and doggedly looked for survivors. Little by little, through what she termed "sheer persistence and serendipity", she was able to fill in the history piece by piece.

Posted to Vienna in 1937, Ho Feng Shan was appointed China's consul general in April 1938, one month after the Anschluss, and witnessed the fierce anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews that followed the Nazi takeover.

Many Jews from Austria and Germany tried to emigrate, but found almost no country willing to allow them entry. Their plight was further exacerbated by the July 13, 1938, resolution of the Evian Conference, which made it evident that nearly none of the 32 participating nations was willing to accept Jewish refugees.

To force Jews to emigrate, the Nazis instituted methods combining coerced expulsion and economic expropriation, Ho Manli said. Nazi authorities told Jews that if they showed proof of emigration - such as an entry visa with an end destination - they, as well as relatives deported to concentration camps, would be allowed to leave.

In his memoir Forty Year of My Diplomatic Life, Ho would later write: "Since the Anschluss, the persecution of Jews by Hitler's 'devils' became increasingly fierceI spared no effort in using any means possible to help, thus saving countless Jews!"

However, unlike his fellow diplomats, Ho Manli said, her father faced a unique dilemma at the time: Most of his home country and all its ports of entry had been occupied by the Japanese since 1937. Any document or entry visa issued by a Chinese diplomat would certainly not be recognized by the Japanese occupiers.

"In order to help Jewish refugees, my father came up with an ingenious way to use an entry visa as a means of exit or escape," she explained.

Ho's entry visas were issued to only one end destination - the Chinese port city of Shanghai, Ho Manli said. The Shanghai visas would provide Jewish refugees in Austria with the proof of emigration required by the Nazis to leave.

Practicing what he called a "liberal policy", Ho authorized the issuing of visas to any and all who asked. Armed with a Shanghai end destination visa, Jews could then obtain transit visas to escape to other countries.

"I knew that the visas were to Shanghai 'in name' only," Ho would later recall. "In reality, they provided a means for Austrian Jews to find a way to get to the United States, England or other preferred destinations."

Many Jews were also released from the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald on the strength of these Shanghai visas, Ho Manli said.

Shanghai itself, however, required no entry papers. In 1937, the city had fallen into the hands of the Japanese. The Chinese Nationalist government had retreated to Chongqing, leaving Shanghai harbor wide open, without passport control or immigration. As a result, anyone could land without documents, Ho Manli explained.

"My father knew that and in making Shanghai an end destination, he would spread the word to Jews in other Nazi occupied territories that there was in China a refuge which required no entry papers," Ho Manli said.

"He wanted to provide a failsafe to refugees not able to land elsewhere," she continued. "That is why the majority of the 18,000 Jewish refugees who ended up in Shanghai were from Germany, not Austria. Most of the Austrian Jews who were able to obtain visas from my father's consulate used them as a means to escape elsewhere - Cuba, the Philippines, England, North and South America and Palestine."

First visa recipient

The first visa recipient Ho Manli tracked down was the late Eric Goldstaub of Toronto, who did go to Shanghai.

Goldstaub told her he visited 50 foreign consulates in Vienna before obtaining 20 visas at the Chinese Consulate. It was to a place, Goldstaub recounted, most Austrian Jews had never dreamt of going to, much less heard of. When the anti-Jewish program known as Kristallnacht erupted in Germany and Austria on November 9-10, 1938, both Goldstaub and his father were arrested and imprisoned, but with the Shanghai visas as proof of emigration, they were released within days and embarked on their journey to Shanghai.

"On Kristallnacht, my father himself faced down the Gestapo at gunpoint to help his Jewish friends, the Rosenbergs," Ho Manli said. "He had provided the Rosenbergs with visas to Shanghai and had come to their home to see them off. Because of my father's intervention, Mr. Rosenberg was released from detention, and the family was able to leave Vienna safely for Shanghai."

Other families, such that of Karl Lang, did not have such personal intervention on Kristallnacht. Lang's daughters, Marion Alflen and Susie Margalit, later told Ho Manli that their father was arrested and deported to Dachau concentration camp. He was only released after their mother was able to obtain a Shanghai visa and present it to Nazi authorities as proof of emigration. The Lang family left Austria for England and finally made their way to the United States.

In the meantime, Chen Jie, the Chinese ambassador to Berlin and Ho's direct superior, was concerned that Ho's issuing of visas on such a large scale would damage Sino-German relations. He ordered Ho to desist, but Ho disobeyed the order and continued to issue visas. Ho was later punished for his disobedience with a demerit in his record.

In early 1939, the Consulate building - on which the plaque was placed in his honor last week - was confiscated from Ho by the Nazis. He was forced to relocate to smaller quarters at his own expense. He remained undaunted throughout, Ho Manli said.

Ho Manli says that she is often asked how many visas were issued and how many lives were saved under her father's watch.

"After more than seven decades, there is no way of finding exact figures," she said. "During his lifetime, my father said very little about his humanitarian efforts, and it was only after his death that this long buried history came to light."

According to Ho Manli, the best that can be determined is that the visas numbered in the thousands. Based on the highest serial numbers of visas that she has found, close to 4,000 were issued about a year after the Anschluss. How many more were issued in the remaining months before the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, when routes of escape began to shut down, is hard to determine, she added.

Other documents

The only surviving Chinese documentation that Ho Manli has found indicates that the Chinese Consulate in Vienna issued an average of 500 visas a month to Jews in the nearly two years after the Anschluss. There is also evidence that in addition to visas, Ho issued other documents to help Jews, she said.

"As to how many lives were saved, even my father himself never knew," Ho Manli said. "He was never reunited with any of those he had helped. Actually, the majority of them never knew his name."

Another question that Ho Manli is often asked is: Why would a man from China save Jews in Europe when others would not?

"My immediate answer is that if you knew my father, you would not need to ask," Ho Manli said. "What he did was totally in character. He was a man of conscience and courage with a compassionate heart."

Ho's own explanation for what he did was simply this: "On seeing the Jews so doomed, it was only natural to feel deep compassion, and from a humanitarian standpoint, to be impelled to help them."

Another reason that would have propelled her father to extend his hand to Jews, Ho Manli said, is that he came from a generation of Chinese who felt that China had been humiliated and persecuted by 100 years of foreign imperialism. In fighting Japanese aggression, this generation was determined not to allow that humiliation to continue. In that sense Ho Feng Shan was very sensitive to persecution and to bullying of any peoples, Ho Manli said.

'Greatest feat'

Born into poverty in rural China, Ho Feng Shan obtained his PhD from the University of Munich in 1932, where he witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler. He joined the Chinese Foreign Service in 1935 and served for nearly 40 years before retiring to San Francisco. Ten years after his death in 1997, in accordance with his wishes, he was buried in his beloved hometown of Yiyang in China's Hunan province.

Ho Manli is writing a book on the history that she has uncovered. "I would say this is my greatest feat as a journalist," she said. "I had to learn the history and politics of both China and Europe during that era. And I feel a responsibility not just to my father, but to the survivors and to history to record it accurately."

"When I began this search nearly 18 years ago, I never imagined that it would keep unfolding as it has," she continued. "As I waded deeper into these unknown waters, the story became panoramic and grew to encompass the hitherto un-chronicled history of escape from genocide in Europe, and how a singular action led to the creation of a refuge on the other side of the world - in China."

"What my father did in those two short years in Vienna has to be placed in a much larger context, which is the interplay of Chinese and Western history in the 20th Century," Ho Manli said. "That is the task I have given myself as I attempt to gather all of this into a book."

Contact the writer at mayzhou@chinadailyusa.com

 Ho Feng Shan: A man of compassion, courage

Ho Feng Shan and daughter Ho Manli in 1977. Provided to China Daily

 Ho Feng Shan: A man of compassion, courage

The commemorative bronze plaque unveiled in Vienna on April 21 at the site of the former Chinese Consulate General building. Provided to China Daily

 Ho Feng Shan: A man of compassion, courage

A period photo of Dr. Ho Feng Shan when he was consul general of China to Vienna, circa 1938. Provided to China Daily

Ho Feng Shan: A man of compassion, courage

Ho Feng Shan: A man of compassion, courage

(China Daily USA 04/24/2015 page20)