On September 12, 2015, President Ma Ying-Jeou of Taiwan posthumously awarded the President’s Citation Award to Dr. Ho Feng Shan, honoring for the first time a man whose courage and compassion had saved thousands of innocent lives in the years leading up to World War II.
The recognition was a long time coming.
Early Life and Education
Ho Feng Shan was born in Yiyang, Hunan province, in China. His given name (Feng Shan) translates to “Phoenix on the Mountain.” He was orphaned at age seven but was taken in by Norwegian Lutheran missionaries and educated in their school. He maintained a lifelong attachment to Lutheranism: after his retirement in 1973, he immigrated to San Francisco and became a founding member of the Chinese Lutheran Church in the city.
After his early education, Ho travelled to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, where he attended the elite Yali School. The school had been founded in the 1890s as a preparatory school for Yale-in-China, Yale University’s extension college. Upon graduation from Yali, Ho went on to Yale-in-China, and then earned a doctorate magna cum laude in political economy from the University of Munich in 1932.
In 1935, Ho joined the diplomatic corps of the Republic of China. His first posting was to Turkey. He had heard that Vienna was a center for European culture, so he wanted to go there. In 1937, he got his chance: he was appointed First Secretary to the Chinese legation in Vienna. His fluency in German (as well as English) undoubtedly helped him get this appointment, especially since the ambassador knew French but not German.
Ho quickly began to be involved in the cultural and social life of the city. He was in great demand as a lecturer on Chinese culture and customs.
After the Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria, all foreign embassies were converted to consulates. Ho was appointed Consul General in Vienna, answering to the ambassador in Berlin; the staff at the Vienna consulate was reduced to Ho and one subordinate.
Although Jews had assimilated into Austrian society and Vienna had the third largest population of Jews in Europe, anti-Semitism was simmering just beneath the surface. The Anschluss brought it out in force. Roving gangs of Nazis vandalized Jewish businesses and hauled their owners off to Dachau and other concentration camps. Ho’s compassionate nature was deeply offended by the Nazis, and he knew he had to do something to protect the Jews.
Ho recalled, “Since the annexation of Austria by Germany, the persecution of the Jews by Hitler’s ‘devils’ became increasingly fierce. There were American religious and charitable organizations which were urgently trying to save the Jews. I secretly kept in close contact with these organizations. I spared no effort in using any means possible. Innumerable Jews were thus saved.”
The “means” he had at his disposal were visas. The Nazis at this time permitted Jews to leave even from concentration camps if they had a visa to another country. The difficulty was that the vast majority of countries refused to give visas to the Jews, presumably out of fear of antagonizing the Nazis.
Ho was not going to let that stop him, however. China had instructed him to be “liberal” with visas, so he began issuing visas that were good only for travel to Shanghai. This was an unusual decision since Shanghai was under partial Japanese occupation at the time and was an open city, that is, no visa was required to go there. In practice, the real purpose of these visas was not so much to allow Jews into Shanghai, but to get them out of Austria.
Word spread quickly in the Jewish community that visas were available at the Chinese consulate. People who had been turned down at other consulates were welcomed by Ho and given visas.
While many traveled to Shanghai on Ho’s visas, others ended up in other countries such as the Philippines, Cuba, Canada, and Palestine. He issued visas that covered entire families, in at least one case numbering as many as 20 people.
One particularly memorable story involved the Doron family. Lilith-Silvia Doron bumped into Ho when Hitler was making his triumphal entry into Vienna on March 11, 1938. She explains, “Ho, who knew my family, accompanied me home. He claimed that, thanks to his diplomatic status, 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.”
Things took a turn for the worse when Doron’s brother Karl was arrested and sent to Dachau. Ho issued a visa for the family, and when it was presented to the authorities, Karl was released. The family left immediately and immigrated to Palestine.
Ho faced real challenges as he worked to save the Jews. His family was with him, and he was well aware that the Nazis might ignore his diplomatic immunity if they decided he was too much trouble. His consulate was in a building owned by a Jew, and when it was confiscated by the Nazis Ho rented another using his own money. He also on at least one occasion faced down an armed Gestapo officer to protect a Jewish family.
He also had problems with his own ambassador. The Republic of China wanted to maintain good relations with Hitler. Chen Jie, the Chinese ambassador to Berlin and Ho’s superior, ordered him to stop giving Jews visas. Ho replied that the Foreign Ministry—Chen’s superiors—had told him to maintain a liberal visa policy, so he would continue. Chen was furious and sent an inspector to Vienna to investigate a trumped up charge that Ho was selling the visas. Chen evidently could not figure out what Ho was getting out of the visas and assumed there had been kickbacks. There was no evidence of wrongdoing, however. Ho pointed out that the visas were free, so why would anyone pay for them? The inspector returned to Berlin, and all Chen could do was put a negative report into Ho’s record for his insubordination.
No one knows the total number of visas Ho issued. He had issued 300 by June, 1938; visa number 1906 was signed on October 27, 1938. He continued issuing visas until he was recalled in May, 1940. The total number is conservatively estimated to have been around 4000. How many were used is also unknown, but there is no question that Ho’s actions saved thousands of lives.
In 1947, Ho became ambassador to Egypt, a position he held until 1956. When the Communists won the Chinese civil war and the Nationalists withdrew to Taiwan, Ho remained loyal to the Nationalist cause. After his time in Egypt, he also served as the Republic of China’s ambassador to Mexico, Bolivia, and Columbia.
His final posting was marred by a controversy over embassy finances. One of his subordinates, whom Ho had turned down for a promotion, accused him of misappropriating $300 of embassy funds. The accusation was false, and Ho provided proof of his innocence, but political machinations nonetheless led to the end of his career. He was pushed out of the Foreign Service in 1973 and denied a pension after 40 years of service to the Republic of China.
Ho retired to San Francisco, where he dedicated himself to his church and to community service. He was a trustee of the Yale-China Association, and wrote a memoir entitled Forty Years of my Diplomatic Life. The book spends very little time on his efforts to save the Jews and he never spoke about it to anyone. His daughter only pieced the story together after he died.
Ho passed away on September 28, 1997. His daughter brought his ashes to China and buried them in his home town of Yiyang. The Communist government sent a wreath; the Nationalist government did not even mention his passing.
What made Ho work so hard at such great personal risk to save the Jews when other diplomats, with only rare exceptions, did not? His own answer is compassion; in his own words, “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.”
There is more to be said, though. His pastor, Rev. Charles Kuo, commented about him: “He knew he had received many gifts from God. He felt that they were not given to him solely for his own benefit, but to do for others, for his fellow man.” Ho said as much himself in a poem written to his wife Shauyun on New Year’s Day, 1947:
The gifts Heaven bestows are not by chance
The convictions of heroes not lightly formed.
Today I summon all spirit and strength,
Urging my steed forward ten thousand miles.
Drilling down even further, we see three interlocking influences in his thinking: his Christian faith; Western liberal education, itself the product in many ways of Christianity; and Confucianism. In fact, he named his children after two tenets taken from Confucius’ Analects, Virtue and Decorum. Add to those influences the fact that he was from Hunan province, whose people have a reputation of being courageous, energetic, and quick tempered—all of which were characteristics of Ho’s personality, leavened by a quick wit and a lively sense of humor—and you have a man providentially prepared and sent to Vienna to save lives even at great risk to himself and his family.
Taiwanese recognition of Ho’s remarkable efforts in Vienna is thus well deserved if long-delayed. Even though they do not seem to have acquitted him of the career-ending accusation of misappropriation of funds, they have gone a long way toward vindicating a true hero.
Have you ever experienced danger because of your Christian faith? If you have, encourage a friend who’s in similar circumstances. How do you think you would do under the kind of pressure Ho faced?
For an in-depth book, you can purchase “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power” at the Colson Center Store.