Ho Feng Shan died at the age of 96 and took with him the secret of life. Like all other Jewish heroes, during his life, Ho never mentioned what he had done to anyone, including his wife, children, or friends.

A Schindler from China

The industrialist Oskar Schindler saved 12,000 Jews by employing them at his Polish factory and in the same fashion Chinese diplomat Ho Feng Shan risked his life by signing a series of exit visas for the Jews to fly to the port city of Shanghai. Thanks to Ho, about 18,000 Jews were allowed to fly to Shanghai to escape certain death in Nazi concentration camps.

In April 1938, Ho Feng Shan was appointed consul general of the Republic of China in Vienna. At that time, a large number of Jews in Austria made great efforts to leave there after Nazi occupied Austria. However, they were extremely desperate after the Evans Conference of 1938, on refugee affairs, in which 31 of the 32 countries refused to issue them visa except for the Dominican Republic.

Ho Feng Shan was called the “Schindler of China.” (Wikimedia/Public domain)

In his memoir, “My 40 Years of Diplomacy” (published in 1990) Ho expressed his anger at the Nazis and began to help the Jews. Ho decided to issue a visa to anyone who asked for one, and all visas were to Shanghai.

Thus, during his two years in office (1938-1940), Ho issued visas to thousands of people to leave Austria.

So far, authorities have not been able to determine the exact number of immigration papers he signed in that period and the number of people saved during the Holocaust when he was in office. However, according to visa serial numbers, it was estimated that thousands of visas had been issued by the Consulate general of the Republic of China in Vienna.

It is worth mentioning that, in 1937, Shanghai fell into the hands of the Japanese army. At that time, the government of the Republic of China was forced to withdraw to Chongqing and abandon its port city. It became the only area in the country with no applied immigration office. As such, anyone could enter Shanghai without a visa.

Why did Ho issue a visa to a place that did not require this document? In fact, that was ingenious. Actually, by holding a visa issued by Ho, the holder was not required to go to Shanghai, but could use this document to obtain a transit visa to a third country like the United States, Palestine, the Philippines, or anywhere really, to avoid the Nazis.

In their desperate effort to escape Nazi concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald, the “Shanghai visa” served as a ‘savior’ to the Jewish community in Austria. And in fact, with the visas by granted by Ho, they found a way to America, Britain, and many other countries.

The visas of courage and humanity

Chen Lie, the Chinese ambassador to Berlin, was Ho’s immediate supervisor. He was worried that the massive issuance of visas would jeopardize Chinese-German diplomatic relations. He ordered Ho to stop. However, disobeying orders, Ho continued his work saving people and accepted whatever punishment was to be dealt.

In early 1938, the Chinese Consulate was confiscated by the Nazis as it was a property owned by the Jews. At that time, Ho used his own money to open a new office elsewhere to continue his dangerous work. Ho Manli, his daughter once said, “It was my father’s character—very direct, straightforward, and upright. He is a conscientious and courageous man with a compassionate heart.”

Eric Goldstaub was one of the Jews who had been rescued thanks to a Shanghai visa issued by Ho. Goldstaub died in 2012 at the age of 96 in Toronto, Canada. His two sons and one daughter are still alive.

At the time he received the 20 visas that Ho issued to his family, he was only 17 years old. Goldstaub said before he met Ho, his family had knocked on the door of 50 consulates in Vienna and had been rejected by all. According to Goldstaub, most of Jews in Austria were unaware of the Chinese Consulate and they did not even know there was a savior for their lives.

Writing about his visit to the Chinese Consulate in Vienna, Goldstaub shared in his memoirs, “What a surprise that was, so unexpected! A warm welcome, a friendly smile, and the following message: Bring your passports here and we will give you visas to our country.”

Another family saved by Ho is the Karl Lang family. Lang was released only after his wife obtained a “Shanghai visa” to show the Germans the right to migrate. Lang’s family left Austria for England and eventually to the United States.

“Seeing that the Jews were so unlucky, compassion naturally emerged, it forced me to help these people.”

(Quote from memoirs of Ho Feng Shan)

While Ho was alive, no one (including his family) knew of his extremely dangerous job. Only after his death in 1997 did the final story come to light—decades after his death. Journalist Ho Manli (his daughter) began an 18-year journey to discover her deceased father’s past. She said, “I would like to say this is the greatest feat of my career. I feel responsible not only for my father but to the survivors. This is a task I set for myself—to try and gather all the details in a book.”

Memorial plaque dedicated to Ho Feng Shan at the Jewish Refugees Museum in Shanghai. This was the final destination for many of the thousands of Jews whose lives Ho had saved. Credit: Wikipedia

Perhaps, without Ho Feng Shan, many lives would not exit today. In July 2000, Israel awarded him the title “Ethical Person among Nations”—one of the highest honors of the Jewish State—“for his courage and humanity.”