Chinese diplomat Feng-Shan Ho (1901–1997) helped thousands of Jewish people flee Nazi persecution between 1938 and 1940, while serving as consul general for the Republic of China in Vienna, Austria. Ho's courageous actions went unrecognized during his lifetime, but he was posthumously awarded the Yad Vashem, Israel's highest honor for non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jewish people during the Nazi Holocaust.
Feng-Shan Ho was uniquely prepared for his extraordinarily courageous role in helping Austrian Jews find safety during a dangerous time. He was orphaned as a child, raised by European missionaries, and educated in Western-run schools during the turbulent early years of the Republic of China. He entered the diplomatic service of the Republic of China (located in modern-day Taiwan) after earning a doctorate in political economics in Germany. His fateful posting to Vienna, Austria, in 1938 made him a witness to Nazi Germany's takeover of that country, and through his appointment as consul general to Vienna, he gained full authority to issue and deny visas to China. Horrified by the Nazis’ brutal treatment of Austrian Jews, Ho began issuing visas to Jews wishing to leave the country. Although his diplomatic career spanned four decades and many countries, its first two years earned him the gratitude of thousands of people.
Ho was born September 10, 1901, in Yiyang, in China's Hunan province, during the twilight years of both imperial China and the Qing [Ching] dynasty. War and famine had become commonplace in China during the previous century, and many millions had died, mostly from starvation. The last emperor, Puyi, attained the throne at age three in 1909 and would abdicate three years later; he would be involved in Chinese politics until 1949 when he was imprisoned by China's communist government for war crimes. Political struggles continued through Ho's youth, as communists and other factions battled for supremacy. At age seven, Ho was orphaned and was raised by Norwegian Lutheran missionaries, and he benefitted from an education at American-run schools and college.
When Ho was young, representatives of the U.S.-based Yale Foreign Missionary Society arrived in Hunan, hoping to establish a college in China. They chose rural Hunan because its people valued literacy and had a pioneering spirit. They accepted students from middle school on and first taught them English, which was to be the language of instruction. Ho was a perfect candidate for “Yali”, as it was then called, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. By his senior year, he was student body president, captain of the soccer team, and an officer of the school's Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Then trouble arrived, in the form of communist forces that, joined by a local warlord, began agitating against the school, declaring it an “imperialist aggressor.” Ho's graduating class in 1927 was Yali's last.
Ho supported casting off China's old imperial regime, but he also believed in fostering fairness and providing a better life for ordinary citizens. Although he found work teaching at a local law school, the political climate discouraged intellectual pursuits, and there were no students to teach. Hoping to find a place in this new political climate, Ho attended local communist gatherings but found them chaotic and increasingly dangerous. Three individuals shared life-and-death power over a very large region, with shifting priorities, agendas, and loyalties. Political executions had begun, with no end in sight. Worst of all for Ho, with his Western education, he stood out in the crowd and was viewed with suspicion. Friends advised him to flee.
Flee he did, taking the train to the city of Nanjing, where he hoped to find work with the army, as a friend had. The train was intermittently delayed by mobs of people, and when he arrived in the city and met his friend, he was warned away from army service. With rumors circulating that Nanjing would soon be invaded by a warlord's army, Ho boarded a train for Shanghai, leaving behind the crack of gunshots and the sight of people fleeing in all directions.
By the time he reached Shanghai, Ho had the equivalent of $12 in his pocket. He found a place to stay and soon a position as tutor to the children of a respected former governor of Hunan. New friends recommended him for a teaching job as well, and the political situation improved when popular and respected leader Chiang Kai-Shek assumed power. Ho soon received good news from home: a sympathetic governor had been appointed, and there would be work for Ho in the provincial foreign office, which dealt with foreigners doing business in Hunan.
Once returned to Hunan and in his new post in the foreign office, Ho met a representative from a large German company, and he was given a scholarship to study at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University. He excelled at his studies and made friends with people from around the world, including many Jews. By the time he finished his doctorate in 1932, he spoke five languages and had lived for a while in the United States, where he took postdoctoral courses at the University of Chicago and also attended the World's Fair. Before returning to China, Ho traveled to Washington, D.C., where he met President Franklin Roosevelt. Although he accepted a professorship at Hunan University, the foreign service beckoned. In 1935 he joined the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of China, and two years later he was assigned to a legation (or diplomatic group) in Vienna, Austria.
Ho arrived in Vienna with his wife and son via the Orient Express, excited to live in a city devoted to arts and music. While his duties consisted largely of giving talks to various clubs and associations on Chinese culture and related topics, Ho was well aware that the situation between Austria and Nazi Germany was volatile. Austria was a small country, a remnant of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had collapsed during World War I in 1918. After the war Austria was in financial ruin and was aided by the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. Germany, on the other hand, had recovered from its loss in the war and was now a strong military dictatorship led by Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. When Hitler made it known that he wanted Austria, his homeland, to become a part of the new Germany, the Austrian government resisted, diplomatically. Then, in early 1938, German troops rolled across the border, occupied Vienna, and annexed Austria to Germany.
Ho watched as Hitler and Nazi troops rolled through Vienna in a victory parade. With him was a Jewish woman who was in fear for her family. He told her he would walk her home and stay in touch with her family; the Nazis would not bother him because he was a representative of a foreign government. He soon furnished her family visas. When he stopped by another family's home to deliver visas, he was met by the Gestapo (Nazi state police) and asked for identification. He demanded theirs as well, and they left once they realized that he was a top diplomat. Soon Ho and his staff were forced out of their consular building by Nazi officials, since the building was owned by a Jew. Ho did not argue; instead, he found a new office, which he paid for with his own money.
The Nazi threat of relocation proved devastating. Jews were soon grabbed in the streets and forced to perform menial labor while Nazi storm troopers (Sturmabteilung) looked on and jeered. Thousands were pulled from their homes and sent to ghettos or concentration camps. One night in particular, November 9, 1938—called Kristall-nacht, “the night of broken glass”—saw German troops and Nazi sympathizers turn violent, ransacking Jewishowned businesses, pulling Jewish families from their homes, burning synagogues, and beating Jews on the streets. Kristallnacht marked the start of what is now called The Holocaust.
Word quickly got out that the Chinese consulate was a place to get visas; no other consulate in Vienna would help, despite the entreaties of Jewish citizens. Reasons were many: anti-Semitism was a prevailing sentiment throughout the world, and even the United States had turned away ships bearing Jewish refugees. Also, stories of Nazi atrocities against Jews seemed unbelievable. Ho's superior officer in Berlin ordered him to cease over concerns that it would damage relations between China and Germany. Ho ignored this order and continued issuing visas. It is not known how many visas he gave out in total, but a sampling of visa numbers tells the tale. In June of 1938, his office issued visa number 198; by the end of his tenure visa numbers were in the 4,000's. Scholars estimate that Ho saved the lives of as many as 5,000 Jews this way.
Ho made the strategic decision to issue all visas for Shanghai in China, even though Shanghai was an open-port city that required no papers of any kind. In this way, visa recipients could use the Chinese consulate document as a transit visa to get them out of Austria, and thus out of the clutches of the Nazis, after which they had several choices. While some traveled to Shanghai, where a Jewish colony formed and waited out the war, others went to Australia, the Philippines, Palestine, South America, and other locations.
Following World War II, Ho continued working for the foreign service of the Republic of China, and he followed this exiled government to Taiwan in later years. His record of service had one black mark—insubordination—reported by his superior in Berlin. In 1976 Ho retired to San Francisco, California, and rarely spoke of his years in Austria. In his Chinese-language memoir, My Forty Years as a Diplomat, Ho detailed every aspect of his career in many lands, yet included only a brief mention of helping Jews out of Vienna. He stated his sympathy for their plight and explained that he could not do other than helping them.
The refugees Ho aided remembered him well, and they petitioned the State of Israel to recognize his great service. He was awarded the distinction of Righteous among the Nations, an honor bestowed by Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, and this was accepted by his daughter, Manli Ho, in 2000, following hiss death at age 96 on September 28, 1997. In 2015, the president of the Republic of China awarded Feng-Shan Ho the President's Citation Award for valor. That same year, a plaque was placed, in his honor, at the former Chinese Embassy in Vienna.
Ho, Feng-Shan, My Forty Years as a Diplomat, translated by Monto Ho, Dorrance, 2010.
China Daily, September 26, 2007, Manli Ho, “Remembering My Father, Dr Feng Shan Ho,” p. 11.
International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation website, http://www.raoulwallenberg.net/ (January 15, 2017), Baruch Tenembaum, “Feng-Shan Ho, Chinese Savior.”
Toronto Star online, https://www.thestar.com/ (April 17, 2012), Amy Dempsey, “Unsung Hero Gave Toronto Family Ticket out of Nazi-Occupied Austria.”
Yad Vashem website, http://www.yadvashem.org/ (September 13, 2016), “Chinese Visas in Vienna.”❑