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Courageous diplomat lauded

IT was Dr Feng Shan Ho (1901-97), Chinese consul-general in Vienna, who saved several thousand Jews in Nazi-occupied Austria from the Holocaust by issuing them with Chinese visas in 1938 and 1939.

Pan Guang, dean of the Shanghai Jewish Studies Centre attached to Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said, "It was true that a visa was not required for entry to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. But a visa, as proof of destination, was necessary for Jews to be allowed to leave Austria."

Between 1938 and 1945, more than 20,000 Jewish refugees came to Shanghai from Europe. Of these, several thousand Austrian Jews carried Chinese visas Ho had issued them with, Pan said.

Ho was born in 1901 in rural Yiyang in Central China's Hunan Province. Ho's given name "Feng Shan" means "Phoenix on the Mountain." Poor and fatherless by age seven, he and his family were helped by the Norwegian Lutheran Mission. In 1932, Ho earned a PhD in political economics at the University of Munich.

In 1937, Ho was posted as First Secretary to the Chinese legation in Vienna.

Ho, a fluent German and English speaker, was very active in local cultural and intellectual circles in Vienna, which had the third largest Jewish community in Europe. Ho had a wide-ranging circle of friends, many of whom were Jewish.

Later in 1938, all foreign embassies and legations in Austria were closed. The Chinese legation was soon dissolved and Ho was appointed consul-general, and had to report to the Chinese Embassy in Berlin.

In March, 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and less than a month later, the first group of Austrian Jews were deported to concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald. They were told that if they emigrated immediately, they would be released.

Vienna became the centre for emigration of Austrian Jews. All foreign consulates in the city were besieged by desperate Jews day after day, but did not offer help.

Eric Saul, a San Francisco-based researcher wrote in his project "Visas for Life:"

The British consulate posted a sign saying no visas would be issued; the French would not accept any visa applications. The Swiss demanded that passports of Jews be stamped with a red "J" in order to bar them from crossing the border.

Ho recalled in his memoir: "Since the annexation of Austria by Germany, the persecution of the Jews by Hitler's devils became increasingly fierce. There were American religious and charitable organizations which were urgently trying to save the Jews. I secretly kept in close contact with these organizations. I spared no efforts in using any means possible. Innumerable Jews were thus saved."

The ‘means' Ho used was to issue them visas to Shanghai, China. He practised a "liberal" visa policy, authorizing the issuing of visas to any and all who asked.

Desperate refugees

Soon long lines of desperate Jewish refugees, as if seeing a light of hope at the end of a dark tunnel, formed at the Chinese consulate seeking the lifesaving visas.

Eric Saul recorded many moving stories of Jews Ho saved.

Eric Goldstaub, a 17-year-old Viennese Jew, was turned down by 50 consulates in Vienna before he went to the Chinese consulate, where on July 20, 1938, he obtained 20 Chinese visas for himself and his extended family.

On the strength of these visas, the family procured boat tickets to Shanghai. Before their departure, both Goldstaub and his father were arrested and imprisoned on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Using the visas as proof of emigration, the Goldstaubs were released within a few days and embarked for Shanghai.

Throughout this period, the Kuomintang (KMT) government continued diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany. KMT chief Chiang Kai-shek was an admirer of the Nazis and used German military advisers and weapons. He also had his younger son be schooled by the Nazis. This son became a second lieutenant and took part in the invasion of Austria in 1938.

Chen Jie, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, who was Consul-General Ho's direct superior, was adamantly opposed to giving Jews visas. He wanted to maintain good diplomatic relations with Germany and did not want to oppose Hitler's anti-Semitic policy.

Defying Chen's repeated orders, Ho kept issuing visas to Jews. Chen was outraged and sent a subordinate to Vienna to investigate rumours that Ho was "selling" visas.

The investigator returned to Berlin, empty-handed, without any findings of Ho's "wrongdoings."

Ho continued to issue visas to Jews. He had his wife and 11-year-old son with him, and despite diplomatic immunity, the risks under the Nazi regime could not be discounted.

Less than a year after the Chinese consulate was established, the Nazis confiscated the Jewish-owned consulate building. Ho asked the KMT government for funds to relocate the consulate, only to be refused.

Finally, Ho found smaller facilities and moved there and paid all the expenses out of his own pocket.

By July 1939, the Soviet Union had curtailed transit to Shanghai via Poland and Russia. In August, the Japanese authorities in Shanghai had begun to close the doors to further Jewish emigration.

In May 1940, Consul-General Ho left Vienna. There was little he could do. After the invasion and occupation of Poland in the autumn of 1939, Nazi policy had switched from coerced emigration to murder.

In December 1941, after the United States entered the war, China broke off relations with Germany and the Chinese consulate in Vienna was closed.

Ho spent the remainder of World War II involved in China's war efforts against Japan.

In 1947, he began a nine-year tenure as ambassador to Egypt and seven other Middle East countries. Later, Ho went to Taiwan and, in 1973, after four decades in the diplomatic service, Ho retired to San Francisco.

Once he had retired, the KMT in Taiwan launched a political vendetta to discredit Ho publicly with false allegations of a petty misappropriation of funds at his last posting.

Ho was even denied a pension for his 40 years of diplomatic service to the KMT.

Ho spent his remaining years living modestly in retirement. On September 28, 1997, Feng Shan Ho died at his home in San Francisco, attended by his wife and daughter.

The Chinese consulate in San Francisco, representing the People's Republic of China, sent a wreath to his memorial service. The Taiwan authorities made no mention of his passing.

Why was Feng Shan Ho willing to help the Jews of Austria when most others would not? His reason was simple: "I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be."

Copyright 2000 by Shanghai Star. All rights reserved.