Israeli, Chinese consulates in S.F. honor ‘Schindler of the East’

(From left) Hedy Durlester, Lotte Marcus and daughter Naomi Marcus at a Dec. 8 event in San Francisco honoring Feng Shan Ho, who saved thousands of Jews from Nazi Germany. (Andrew Esensten)

He has been called “the Schindler of the East” for helping thousands of Austrian Jews escape the Nazis and almost certain death between 1938 and 1940.

On Dec. 8, the Chinese and Israeli consulates in San Francisco honored Feng Shan Ho, a Chinese diplomat posted to Vienna before and during World War II who issued visas to Jews when other embassies would not. Ho lived in San Francisco in retirement and died in 1997. Three years later, Yad Vashem posthumously honored him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Speaking at the event at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, Wang Donghua, consul general of the People’s Republic of China, said Ho was as a “great man” and “the Schindler of the East.”

Ho’s heroics began in the years before World War II. He was “appalled” by the rapturous greeting Hitler received in Vienna following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, in March 1938, according to his daughter, Manli Ho. And, she said, he was shaken when Nazi paramilitary groups and sympathizers carried out the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria later that year.

Ho decided to act. Defying the orders of his superiors, who sought to maintain good relations with the Nazis, he issued thousands of visas to Shanghai at the rate of 400 to 500 per month. The city was occupied by Japanese forces at the time, but they had left the port unattended so foreigners could enter unhindered. Some 18,000 Jews sought refuge in China during the war. Many used the Shanghai visas to secure transit visas elsewhere.

It was a clever sleight-of-hand that he pulled.

“By providing an end destination, it was the proof of emigration required by Nazi authorities to allow safe passage out of Nazi-occupied territories,” Manli told an audience of Chinese and Israeli government officials, including a delegation from Ho’s home province of Hunan. “It was a clever sleight-of-hand that he pulled.”

Born into poverty during the Qing dynasty, Ho earned a Ph.D. in political economics from the University of Munich and spent 40 years in China’s diplomatic corps. He decided to help Austria’s Jews for reasons having to do with both conscience and history, according to Manli. “My father came from a generation of Chinese who felt that China had been humiliated and persecuted by 100 years of foreign imperialism,” she said. “His generation was determined not to allow that humiliation to continue, so in that sense, my father was very sensitive to the persecution and to the bullying of any peoples.”

“The Chinese nation and the Jewish nation have gone through all kinds of hardships and tribulations that you can’t imagine,” Donghua said. “In the midst of the mass persecution and slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, the Chinese people stepped forward and came to the rescue of the Jewish people living in horror.”

Shlomi Kofman, Israel’s consul general for the Pacific Northwest, first learned about Ho’s courageous deeds when he was posted to Shanghai in 1998. “He knew what was the right thing to do, and he didn’t need a second thought to act upon it,” Kofman said. “He recognized that Jews were fellow human beings whose lives were as precious as anyone else’s. His selflessness and bravery are unparalleled, and his story is one that will live on forever, especially among the Jewish people here, in Israel, and everywhere else.”

Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco from Shanghai on the USS General M.C. Meigs, 1949 (Photo/Courtesy U.C. Berkeley Bancroft Library)
Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco from Shanghai on the USS General M.C. Meigs, 1949 (Courtesy U.C. Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Lotte Marcus was 11 years old when her family received one of Ho’s life-saving visas. “Anything to get out, we took,” Marcus said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

After arriving in Shanghai on a luxury cruise ship, Marcus said the family was taken by cattle truck to a refugee camp in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. They shared a cramped living space with more than 50 other people for a year. They stayed in China for nine years before immigrating to the United States.

“It was horrible,” she said bluntly when asked about that period of her life. Her daughter, Naomi Marcus, provided some context: “It wasn’t fun, but she was a teenager, and it was an amazing adventure.” (She pointed out that her mother didn’t tell her about her wartime experiences until Naomi was in her 30s.)

Marcus, who is 93 and worked as a clinical psychologist, bemoaned the fact that “there are too many bystanders in the world” and not enough activists. “This is what I admire about Dr. Ho: He acted when he needed to act,” she said.

Mo Budak, a member of the second generation of the dozens of Shanghailanders who settled in the Bay Area after the war, shared the story of his parents. Albert and Lilly Budak met in Shanghai and married in June 1947. They opened a Viennese restaurant, taking advantage of the black market to import various delicacies. “They did well there,” Budak said. “The best part of it was that my mother never got hungry.”

Asked about the significance of Ho’s efforts to save Jews, he said, “It’s really all about making my life and the lives of my children possible. His was such a heroic act, and I’m ever grateful.”

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