Remembering a true hero of WWII

Updated: 2014-04-01 11:02

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily USA)

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For San Francisco resident Hedy Durlester, the memory of how her Jewish family escaped from the Nazi-occupied Europe to Philippines had been sealed up for years. Her parents never wanted their daughter, three years old at the time, to remember the fear they lived through.

 Remembering a true hero of WWII

Hedy Durlester stood before her family picture at a Sunday symposium held at Consulate General of China in San Francisco for Ho Feng-shan, who was serving as the Chinese Consul General in Vienna from 1938 to 1940. Chen Jia / China Daily

But she clearly knows a Chinese name today - Ho Feng-shan, a diplomat who, while serving as the Chinese Consul General in Vienna from 1938 to 1940, helped thousands of Jews like her and her family get visas and escape the Holocaust.

"He is a very special person, how do you describe somebody like that? I don't know if I could do what he did," she told China Daily on Sunday. "My three children living in the Bay Area all know the story, and we have a movie about him at home."

She and her husband Mervyn Durlester were among hundreds of members of the San Francisco Jewish community who participated in a Sunday symposium held at the Consulate General of China in San Francisco for Ho Feng-shan.

In 2000, Israel bestowed its highest honors - the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" - on Ho posthumously "for his humanitarian courage" in rescuing Austrian Jews.

Remembering a true hero of WWII

"When my father died in 1997, the story of his humanitarian efforts was completely unknown," Ho Manli, Ho Feng-shan's daughter, said on Sunday.

"Perhaps it was grief - not wanting to let go just yet of my father, perhaps it stirred my journalist's instinct for a good story, which propelled me, a month after my father's death, to embark on an unplanned odyssey into uncharted waters to bring to light a history buried for more than seven decades," she recalled.

With the Nazi takeover of Austria in March of 1938, anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews erupted in full force. Nazi authorities told Jews that if they showed proof of emigration, they, as well as relatives deported to Nazi concentration camps, would be allowed to leave.

Many Austrian Jews 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.

Having been turned down by other foreign consulates, the Jews came to the Chinese Consulate, which issued visas to Shanghai, China. Occupied by the Japanese in 1937, Shanghai had no passport control and thus required no documents for entry. Ho's intent in issuing visas to Shanghai was to provide Jewish refugees with proof of emigration so that they would be allowed to leave Austria.

 Remembering a true hero of WWII

Old visa of San Francisco citizen Hedy Durlester's mother. Her Jewish family escaped from the Nazi-occupied Europe to Vietnam when she was three years old, while Ho Feng-shan was serving as the Chinese Consul General in Vienna from 1938 to 1940. Chen Jia / China Daily

By issuing visas to Shanghai as a "destination", Ho placed the Chinese port city on the map as a refugee of last resort for Jewish refugees, and some 18,000 European Jews escaped to there in 1938 and 1939.

In Ho Manli's memory, her father used to say he knew that "the visas were to Shanghai in name only. In reality, it was a means for Austrian Jews to find a way to get to the US, England, or other preferred destinations".

"I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, this is the way it should be," Ho told his daughter.

"In the conflict, Ho saw some of the darkest chapters of human history, here is a story that speaks to all lives hoping for a better world," said John Perez, speaker of the California State Assembly, who spoke at the symposium for Ho Feng-shan.

Describing Ho as a "brave soul" to stand up, he said the descendants of every person who Ho saved should have the belief that "any of us has the obligation and ability to make a difference" for justice and human dignity.

Yuan Nansheng, the Consul General of China in San Francisco, said on Sunday that he is proud to be a Yiyang native because of Ho Feng-shan and his "humanitarian courage". Yiyang is a city in China's southern province Hunan.