Dr. Ho Feng-Shan – rescuer of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust – passed away 21 years ago this week (September 28).
Ho was born into a poor family on September 10, 1901 in Yiyang, a province of Hunan, China, and his father died when he was just seven years old. But Ho – who was educated with assistance from the Norwegian Missionary Society – was a very good student and was able to obtain a scholarship to attend the prestigious College of Yale-in-China. He subsequently studied at the University of Munich and received a PhD in political economics in 1932.
In 1935, he joined the Foreign Service and three years later was assigned to the post of Chinese Consul-General to Vienna in a country with 185,000 Jews, many of whom sought to flee in the wake of Kristallnacht in November of that year.
On that Night of Broken Glass, the Nazis rounded up and interned approximately 30,000 Jews in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and other concentration camps. Among them was Dr. Hugo Weihs, whose son, Daniel, currently heads the robotics department of Israel’s Technion and formerly served as the chief scientist for Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry from 2010-2011.
“My father was arrested in Vienna in April 1938 for being a socialist and a Jew,” he told The Jewish Press. “He was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. At that time, it was not an extermination camp.”
In order to get Jewish prisoners released, friends and relatives needed to produce a visa with a final destination listed or, alternatively, a valid boat ticket to another country. Generally, the Nazis only were cooperative if the visa holder could emigrate from Germany almost immediately.
“My mother’s family were able to obtain a visa to Shanghai for my father from Ho Feng-Shan, the Chinese diplomat in Vienna…. The visa was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. My father was released by the Germans on condition that he leave the country within 15 days. Otherwise he would be returned to the camp.”
In 1938 almost no country was willing to accept more than a relative handful of Jews, leaving Jewish refugees with very few options. The only two exceptions to this rule were China and the Dominican Republic.
Ho Feng-Shan, who witnessed the fierce anti-Semitism in Austria, fashioned an ingenious a plan to help Jewish refugees escape. Knowing that passport control at the Shanghai harbor was non-existent and that no immigration authorities were checking documents at the port, he decided to issue visas listing Shanghai as the final destination.
These visas could be used, not only to travel to Shanghai, but also to pass through other countries from where Jews could travel to alternative destinations.
“Luckily, my mother’s family could afford transportation out of the Reich. My maternal grandparents, my parents, two aunts together, their children and their husbands, and a paternal uncle traveled by train to Trieste, Italy and then continued by ship to Egypt where they stopped for a day or so. In the summer of 1939 they arrived in Shanghai. They were able to escape only because they obtained visas from Ho Feng-Shan.”
Long lines of Jews stood outside the consulate hoping to obtain visas to Shanghai. Ho’s daughter Manli told The Jewish Press that some people “stood in line for days in order not to lose their place.”
Soon the building that housed the Chinese consulate at 3 Beethovenplatz, though, was confiscated by the Nazis on the pretext that it was “Jewish-owned.” Funds to relocate the consulate were refused by the Chinese government, claiming there were none available because it was at war with Japan.
But Ho forged ahead. He rented smaller premises at 22 Johannes Gasse – located around the corner from the previous Chinese Consulate – from a Jewish landlady using his own money.
Ho’s superior, Chen Jie, China’s ambassador in Berlin, adamantly opposed Ho’s activities, fearing it would ruin China’s diplomatic relations with Germany. But Ho disobeyed Chen Jie, who was so infuriated that he accusing Ho of selling visas. Chen Jie actually sent a subordinate, Ding Wen Yuan, to Vienna to investigate whether Ho was accepting bribes for visas. The agent failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing.
Nonetheless, on April 8, 1939, Ho was punished, receiving a demerit for disobeying Chen Jie. Ho continued issuing visas until May 1940 when he was removed from his post.
Ho Feng-Shan’s successor to Vienna, Yao Ding Chen, drastically reduced the number of Chinese visas issued. For a sense of the contrast: here are Yad Vashem’s estimates for the numbers of Jews arriving in Shanghai during these years: 1,374 in 1938; 12,089 in 1939; 1,988 in 1940; and 4,000 in 1941.
“My parents got married in Shanghai in September 1939. My father, being a doctor, was able to gain employment through the Anglican Missionary Society, which had several missionary hospitals all around China.”
In December 1941, the Chinese consulate in Vienna closed down, and by December 7 the route to Shanghai via the Soviet Union and Italy was closed to all Jews. Only 7,000 Jews remained in Austria by November 1942.
“I was born in 1942 the same year that my parents moved out of the Shanghai ghetto to Kweilin. My parents needed a visa to leave the ghetto, so they had to travel to the German consulate in Canton to obtain it. My parents remained in Kweilin until 1944 when we had to evacuate because the whole city was bombed by the U.S. Then, in 1949, my family immigrated to Israel.”
In 1947, Ho served as ambassador Egypt where he remained until 1956. Subsequently, he served as ambassador to Mexico (1958-1965), Bolivia (1968-1970), and Columbia (1970-1973).
The final posting resulted in controversy with Ho being accused of misappropriating $300 of government funds. Ho vigorously denied the accusations, but his reputation suffered and he lost his pension despite 40 years of dedicated service to his country.
In 1973, Ho retired in San Francisco, California, where he dedicated the rest of his life to his church and community service.
In 1990, he published his memoirs, 40 Years of My Diplomatic Life, in Chinese. In the book, he writes, “Seeing the Jews so doomed, it was only natural to feel deep compassion, and from a humanitarian standpoint, to be impelled to help them.”
On August 8, 2000, Ho’s courageous behavior was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem which recognized him as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Amazingly, it was only after his death that his rescue activity really became known. In 2008, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution honoring him. And in 2015, a commemorative plaque was placed at the site of the former Chinese Consulate building in Vienna, which is now a Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Its unveiling was attended by Ambassador Zvi Heifetz of Israel, Ambassador Zhao Bin of China, a special delegation from Ho’s hometown, and Ho’s daughter, Manli Ho.