Dr. Feng Shan Ho was one of the first diplomats to save Jews by issuing them visas to escape the Holocaust. He was responsible for saving thousands of Jews in Nazi occupied Austria in 1938 and 1939, yet he was completely unknown, even by the people whom he saved. Feng-Shan Ho, the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna, was given the title of Righteous Among the Nations for his humanitarian courage in issuing Chinese visas to Jews in Vienna in spite of orders from his superior to the contrary.
Dr. Feng Shan Ho was described as a man with a “compassionate heart.” That compassion was most likely the result of his background. Born on September 10 1901, in rural Yiyang in Hunan Province, China, his 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. Feng Shan Ho was educated in their schools and felt a lifelong gratitude.
A diligent and hard-working student, he managed to enter the Yali School in the provincial capital of Changsha and later Yale-in-China University. In 1932, he earned a PhD in political economics at the University of Munich, graduating Magna Cum Laude.
After Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany in March 1938, the 185,000 Jews there were subjected to a severe reign of terror, which resulted in intense pressure to leave the country. In order to do so, the Nazis required that Jews have entry visas or boat tickets to another country. However, the majority of the world’s nations refused to budge from their restrictive immigration policies, a stance reaffirmed at the Evian Conference, in July 1938.
Unlike his fellow-diplomats, Ho issued visas to Shanghai to all requesting them, even to those wishing to travel elsewhere but needing a visa to leave Nazi Germany. Many of those helped by Ho did indeed reach Shanghai, either by boat from Italy or overland via the Soviet Union. Many others made use of their visas to reach alternate destinations, including Palestine, the Philippines, and elsewhere, such as the parents of Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress and Vice Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Dr. Israel Singer, who traveled to Cuba.
Eric Goldstaub, who had immigrated to Canada, related how, in July 1938, he received Chinese visas for his entire family after spending “days, weeks, and months visiting one foreign consulate or embassy after the other trying to obtain visas for [himself, his] parents and [their] near relatives, numbering some 20 people.”
Lilith-Sylvia Doron, who had immigrated to Israel, met Ho accidentally as both watched Hitler entering Vienna, on 11 March 1938 — a time when physical assaults were being waged by the Nazis against the city’s Jews.
“Ho, who knew my family, accompanied me home,” says Doron. “He claimed that, thanks to his diplomatic status, the [Nazis] would not dare harm us as long as he remained in our home. Ho continued to visit our home on a permanent basis to protect us from the Nazis.”
When Doron’s brother, Karl, was arrested and taken to Dachau, he was released thanks to a visa issued by the Chinese consulate. Doron and her brother left Vienna in 1939 for Palestine.
The rush for visas assumed panic proportions during and immediately after Kristallnacht, in November 1938, when thousands of Jews were thrown into concentration camps, only gaining release if their relatives produced visas or tickets for travel to other destinations. Gerda Gottfried Kraus, based in Canada, relates that after Kristallnacht, her husband waited in a long line for admittance into the Chinese consulate. Seeing a car approaching the consulate’s gates, he thrust his application form through its window. “Apparently, the consul-general received it, because [my husband] then got a call and received the visas.”
Ho refused to abide by the instructions of his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, Chen Jie. Chen Jie, hoping to cement closer ties between China and Germany, had forbidden Ho to issue visas on such a large scale, estimated to run into the hundreds, perhaps even thousands. Although visas were not required for entrance to Shanghai, such a document was, as noted, a prerequisite for Jews wishing to leave Nazi Germany.
It is believed that the “demerit” which was entered in Ho’s personal file, in 1939, at the Chinese Foreign Ministry was linked to his insubordinate behavior towards his immediate superior, the ambassador in Berlin, on the issue of the visas. when the Nazis confiscated the premises that housed the embassy because it was owned by a Jew, Ho opened a new office with his own money to continue the rescue.
It was only after his passing that evidence by survivors who benefited from Ho’s aid began to reach Yad Vashem. After carefully evaluating the case, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous decided in the year 2000 to award Feng-Shan Ho the title of Righteous Among the Nations for his humanitarian courage in issuing Chinese visas to Jews in Vienna in spite of orders from his superior to the contrary.
The exact number of visas given by Ho to Jewish refugees is unknown. It is known that Ho issued the 200th visa in June 1938, and signed 1906th on October 27, 1938. The exact number of entry papers Ho issued — and the number of lives saved — may never be known, as too many have already been lost to time. But based on the serial number of one visa nearing 4,000, the best estimate is that thousands of visas were issued.
Throughout his long life, Ho never mentioned his heroic deeds during World War II — not to his wife, his children or friends.He was tireless in his pursuit of knowledge and self improvement. Ho possessed a dynamic, outgoing personality, boundless energy and a hot temper, offset by a quick wit and great sense of humor. But a large part of him was also very Chinese, and firmly rooted in Confucian principles. He named his two children after tenets of Confucianism, “Virtue” and “Decorum.” A man of both intellect and passion, he strove all his life to balance the two.
After the Communist victory in 1949, Ho followed the Nationalist government to Taiwan. He later served as the Republic of China (Taiwan) ambassador to other countries, including Egypt, Mexico, Bolivia, and Colombia. After his retirement in 1973, Ho settled in San Francisco, United States, where he wrote his memoirs, My Forty Years as a Diplomat published in 1990 (English translation 2010).
After his retirement in 1973, the ROC (Taiwan) government on Taiwan denied Ho a pension on the grounds that he had “not properly accounted for” the equivalent of USD 300 in embassy expenses. These charges are now widely believed to have been politically motivated. Despite repeated appeals, the ROC (Taiwan) has never exonerated him.
Ho Feng-Shan died in San Francisco, California at the age of 96. He was survived by his son, Ho Man-To, a Taiwanese-American expert in microbiology, virology, and infectious diseases; and by his daughter, Ho Man-Li.
Ho’s actions in Vienna went unnoticed during his lifetime, it was a black mark in his personnel file for disobeying orders. He was finally recognized, posthumously, when he was awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli organization Yad Vashem at a ceremony in 2001 and honored by Boys Town Jerusalem in 2004. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) press gave coverage to Ho’s story. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) ambassador attended the ceremonies. In September 2007,ten years after his death, Dr. Feng Shan Ho, was buried in his beloved hometown of Yiyang in Hunan Province. His daughter, Manli Ho took his an her mother’s ashes back to China and the city of Yiyang scheduled a commemorative event on September 28, 2007 in honor of his “homecoming. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution honoring Ho’s heroic deeds in 2008. In 2015, a commemorative plaque was placed on the former Chinese Consulate building in Vienna, which is now a Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Gilberto Bosques Saldivar
President Manuel L Quezon
Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies