On humanity's secret service

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2001, 12:00am

IN 1993, STEVEN SPIELBERG swept the board at the annual Academy Awards for his film about Czech businessman Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews by employing them in his factory. Although not on so lavish a scale, a travelling exhibition, Visa For Life: Diplomats Who Rescued Jews, showing in Hong Kong, honours a handful of similar people.

The project focuses on nine diplomats of various nationalities who covertly took advantage of their positions to rescue thousands of Jews from persecution, concentration camps and death. Per Anger, second secretary of the Swedish legation in Budapest, Hungary, for example, convinced German soldiers that documents such as Hungarian driver's licences and vaccination records were actually Swedish papers; Italian Giorgio Perlasca posed as a Spanish diplomat in Budapest, counterfeiting Spanish protective passes and setting up safe houses for Jews.

'Diplomats are usually viewed as bureaucrats who fulfil policy and procedure as is written down for them,' says Eli Avidar, Consul-General of Israel in Hong Kong, who opened the exhibition at Hong Kong Baptist University in Kowloon Tong last week. 'These diplomats risked their jobs, their governments' trust and sometimes their lives in order to help people they did not even know.'

One of the men featured in the exhibition is Dr Ho Fengshan, who was Chinese Consul-General in Vienna, Austria, from 1938 to 1940. Dubbed the 'Chinese Schindler', Ho was one of the first diplomats to save Jews by issuing them emigration visas to escape. According to his daughter, Ho Manli, who lives in San Francisco, her father rarely talked about his wartime experiences and it is only due to subsequent research that his heroics have come to light.

Ho came from a poor farming background in Hunan province, but he received an education thanks to the Norwegian Lutheran Mission in China. He subsequently graduated from the College of Yale-in-China, in Changsha, received a magna cum laude doctorate in political economics from the University of Munich in 1932 and began his diplomatic career in the foreign ministry of the Chinese Nationalist government.

He was posted to the Chinese embassy in Vienna in the spring of 1938. When the Nazis annexed the city shortly after his arrival, forcing all foreign embassies to close, he was ordered to set up a consulate and was appointed Chinese Consul-General.

Vienna was then home to the third-largest Jewish community in Europe. When the Nazis took over the city, Jewish homes, businesses and possessions were confiscated or destroyed; then came deportment to concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau.The only way the Jews could leave Vienna and avoid such persecution was to obtain visas to a specific country. Consequently, foreign consulates were beseiged by desperate people trying to get out. Countries such as Britain, France and the United States reduced the quota of visas they issued, but Ho gave visas to anyone who applied. 'Since the annexation of Austria by Germany, the persecution of the Jews by Hitler's 'devils' became increasingly fierce,' Ho wrote in his memoirs Forty Years Of My Diplomatic Career. 'The fate of Austrian Jews was tragic, persecution a daily occurrence. There were American religious and charitable organisations, which were trying urgently to save the Jews. I secretly kept in close contact with these organisations. I spared no effort in using any means possible. Innumerable Jews were thus saved.'

Although the visas Ho issued were for Shanghai, China was under Japanese occupation and entry visas weren't required. As Ho Manli points out, the purpose of these visas was not for entry to Shanghai, but a means for the Jews to escape Austria and death at the hands of the Nazis.

'The majority of Austrian visa recipients did not in fact end up in Shanghai but found their way elsewhere, often by hopscotching around,' she says. These visas also facilitated the release of Jews who had been arrested or deported to Dachau and Buchenwald, such as one survivor, Eric Goldstaub, who made it to Shanghai thanks to a visa issued by Ho. According to Ho Manli, it is impossible to put an exact figure on the number of people her father helped, particularly now that so many years have passed since the war.

'Not even my father himself knew exactly how many Jews he helped, other than to say 'innumerable',' she says. 'However, we have since found documentation that, under my father's watch, the Chinese consulate issued an average 500 visas a month for two years. That would obviously put the number in the thousands. Two of the visas we found were issued exactly a month apart and the difference in their serial numbers is 900.'

China's then-ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, was a fan of Hitler. He used German military advisers and weapons, and even sent his son to be schooled by the Nazis. Even after Kristellnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) took place in Austria and Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938 - 200 synagogues were destroyed, 7,500 shops looted and 30,000 Austrian and German Jews were sent to concentration camps - China was careful to maintain diplomatic ties with Nazi Germany. When Chen Jie, Chinese ambassador in Berlin and Ho's boss, found out about the consulate's liberal visa policy for Jews, he ordered Ho to stop. Ho ignored him and, although subsequent investigations into his visa-issuing activities proved fruitless, he had effectively blotted his copybook in the eyes of his government. When the consulate was confiscated by the Nazis for supposedly being Jewish-owned, Ho was forced to fund its relocation himself because the Chinese Government refused to pay for it. Yet even when he was punished with a demerit, Ho continued issuing visas.

'I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help,' wrote Ho. 'From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be.'

By the time war broke out in September 1939, almost 70 per cent of Austrian Jews had emigrated. Many of them didn't even know the people, including Ho, who had saved them.

In 1940, Ho was transferred from Vienna and spent the rest of the war involved in China's conflict with Japan. He stayed in diplomatic service as ambassador to Egypt, Mexico, Bolivia and Colombia until retiring in 1973. Although Ho remained loyal to the Chinese Nationalists even in the face of communism, a political vendetta was launched against him by the Chinese Nationalist party in Taiwan. He was publicly discredited, denied a pension for his service to China and his name has never been cleared. He died at home on September 28, 1997, and was never reunited with anyone he had helped. Unrecognised by his own country, he was awarded a posthumous title of Righteous Among Nations last year by the state of Israel, one of its highest honours, for his humanitarian courage during the war.

Assisted by the Israeli consulate in Hong Kong, the Visa For Life exhibition was co-organised by the student union, the department of government and international studies and the office of university relations at the Hong Kong Baptist University as part of this year's student festival. Comprising photo/story boards and video documentation, it took more than a year to compile.

'Even though the Holocaust happened in Europe and a long time ago, it was very touching to see how hard the students here worked on the exhibition and how involved they all got in events that took place before they were born,' says Dr Atara Sivan, associate professor at the department of education studies at the university. 'As well as wanting to educate others about the Holocaust, they want to broadcast the underlying message of acting in a humanitarian way in the face of adversity - which is particularly relevant with what is happening in the world today.'

Visa For Life: Diplomats Who Rescued Jews is on display at the Jewish Community Centre, 1/F, 1 Robinson Place, 70 Robinson Road, Mid-Levels, until December 19.