During the Holocaust, it is well-known that there were people who risked their lives and careers to become saviors to Europe’s Jewish population. However, few know of the Asian connection in the Chinese port city of Shanghai, which at the time was under Japanese military occupation. During this time, while most countries around the world closed their doors to Jews escaping the horrors of Europe, which would ultimately culminate into the Holocaust, Shanghai was one of the few cities which did not require entry visas. As a result, many Jews who were able, by almost impossible odds, to flee Europe found a relatively safe haven in the Japanese occupied port city of Shanghai. Oddly enough, Japan had allied itself with Germany, but had no interest in deporting its arrivals. When pressured by the Nazis in 1943 to impose its own brand of the Nuremberg laws, Japan showed its compliance of the surface by creating a ghetto in the Hongkou district, which housed the Jewish population, but still allowed them to carry on their lives in relative safety from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Though as many as 25,000 Jewish men, women, and children made it to Shanghai, the travel to this destination was difficult, and if not for the help of two Asian diplomats stationed in Europe, would not have been possible. These saviors, with their political connections, risked their careers in order to grant these people, who would have otherwise suffered the Holocaust, safe passage to Shanghai.
Feng-Shan Ho was the Chinese consul-general from 1938 – 1940, during the ‘Anschluss,’ which was Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Once occupied, the Nazis, without hesitation, initiated their program of harassment towards the Jewish population, which numbered about 185,000. Prior to this, when Austria was a democracy, the Jewish community had contributed significantly to daily life, including the areas of Art, Music, and Business, using its foreign connections to boost its once vibrant economy. However, this all changed with the Nazis’ implementation of the Nuremberg Laws, which effectively stripped Jews of all their civil rights, and subjected them to a living hell. As pressure mounted on them to leave the country, the Nazis did everything they could to make it difficult for them to do so, by requiring that they apply for visas or boat passes. Even then, most countries, including the United States, would not allow them entry visas, and along with most countries around the world, reaffirmed this stance at the Evian conference that same year. This move effectively shut the doors to people escaping persecution, and resulted in countless deaths in the blossoming atrocity known today as the Holocaust. Ho, rather than following suit with the other countries, issued visas, without exception, to anyone leaving Germany. As the Nazi torrent intensified with ‘Kristallnacht,’ an organized rampage throughout Germany and Austria, which saw Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses destroyed, as well as resulted in mass arrests, beatings and murders, Ho dedicated himself even further via issuing as many visas as he possibly could, until he was stopped by his superior, Ambassador Chen Jie. As a result, he was sent back to China, but not before rescuing nearly 2,000 Jews, who might have possibly perished in the Holocaust had it not been for his heroic efforts.
Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese empire’s vice-consul in Lithuania beginning with its Soviet occupation in 1938. His period of service there coincided with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, which plunged Europe into the Second World War. While the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland was as nightmarish for its Jewish population as it was in Germany and Austria, several managed to escape to the Soviet-occupied side of Poland, where the Soviet army tried to accommodate some of the refugees by inducting some of the stronger and more able-bodied ones into the army. Many of the Polish-Jewish refugees, who fled the eventual Holocaust, arrived in Lithuania upon hearing from others of Sugihara’s initiative to issue visas without condition. When ordered to stop, he and his wife intensified their work, spending 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas. In addition, he negotiated with Soviet officials, agreeing to pay five times the cost of a ticket, to allow Jews to travel via the Trans-Siberian Railway. In September 1940, he was ordered to close the consulate, but by then, he had already granted about 6,000 visas to Jews, which allowed entire families to escape the fate of the Holocaust. It was, in fact, reported that as his train pulled away, he was still signing blank visas and tossing them from the windows to desperate Jewish refugees.
These two saviors, through their connections to Shanghai, facilitated the rescue of countless Jews, who otherwise might have perished in the Holocaust. Ho moved to San Francisco following WWII, where he died in 1997 and was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” four years later. Sugihara lived the rest of his life in Japan as a recluse until 1985, when he was awarded Righteous Among the Nations a year before his passing. Though both men received very little recognition for the risks they took and lived relatively modest lives following WWII, they have continued to be remembered in both China and Israel as true heroes.
By Bill Ades