‘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.’
Dr. Feng Shan Ho was born in 1901, in rural Yiyang in Hunan Province, China. His name Feng Shan means ‘Phoenix on the Mountain.’ His family was poor and his father died when he was seven, but he made the most of his education and became a diplomat. In the spring of 1937, he was appointed first secretary to the Chinese Legation (High Commission or Embassy) in Vienna, Austria. Because of his ease in German and his dynamic personality, he was very popular, and was often asked to speak on Chinese culture and customs.
A year after Ho arrived in Vienna, the annexation of Austria to Germany – the Anschluss – took place and almost immediately anti-semitic acts began to take place. Less than a month later, the first Austrian Jews were deported to Dachau and Buchenwald Concentration Camps.
Many of Ho’s friends in Viennese society were Jewish. Lilith-Sylvia Doron met Ho accidentally as both watched Hitler entering Vienna. ‘Ho, who knew my family, accompanied me home,’ she said later. ‘He claimed that, thanks to his diplomatic status, they [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.’ As things became increasingly difficult for Jews in Austria, many tried to leave the country, but with many nations enforcing strict immigration policies, it was necessary to obtain visas before they were allowed to leave. Having been turned down by other consulates, many approached the Chinese Legation in desperation.
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 territory. 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 alternative destinations, including the Philippines and Cuba. Among them was Lilith Doron’s brother, Karl. He had been arrested and taken to Dachau, but was released thanks to a visa issued by the Chinese consulate on Ho’s instructions. Doron and her brother were able to leave Vienna in 1939. The number of visas Ho issued is not known, but it probably amounts to thousands. Around 70,000 Austrian Jews perished under the Nazis.
Consul General Ho’s immediate supervisor, Chen Jia, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, was adamantly opposed to giving visas to Jews. He wanted good diplomatic relations with Germany and did not want to undermine Hitler’s anti-semitic policy. Having learned that the Chinese Consul in Vienna was issuing large numbers of visas to Jews, Chen Jia called Ho by telephone and ordered him to discontinue this practice. But Ho countered by saying that the Chinese foreign ministry’s orders were to maintain a liberal policy in this regard. Chen Jia sent his subordinate to Vienna on the pretext of investigating rumours that the Consul was selling visas. The investigator arrived unannounced in Vienna, but upon finding no evidence of wrongdoing, returned to Berlin.
While Ho continued to maintain an active diplomatic life under German rule, he had to be very careful about jeopardising his career. The Nazis confiscated his consulate building on the grounds that it was Jewish-owned. When Ho asked the Chinese government for funds to relocate the consul, the foreign ministry refused his request, claiming that war-torn China had no funds to spare. He was forced to find smaller facilities, paying the expenses out of his own pocket.
After a long diplomatic career, Ho retired in 1973, and died in 1997, at the age of 96.
It was only after his death that evidence by survivors who benefited from Ho’s aid began to be known. After carefully evaluating the case, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem awarded Feng-Shan Ho the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for his humanitarian courage.