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Diplomat honoured for saving jews

world Updated: May 20, 2008 12:27 IST
US

The heroic actions of a Chinese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by issuing visas for them to flee Austria are being honoured in an exhibition at the US Congress.

Against the orders of his superiors, Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese consul-general in Vienna from 1937 to 1940, facilitated the safe departure of the Jews in the years immediately preceding the Second World War, including those sent to Nazi concentration camps.

Ho's extraordinary rescue efforts were not known until after his death in 1997 -- thanks to his reporter daughter's nose for news.

Ho had lived after retirement in 1973 for almost a quarter of a century in San Francisco, California, not far from some of the people he had saved but they never knew it.

"He did not seek publicity, he did not seek recognition, he did not seek compensation. It was enough for him to know that he had done the right thing," Martin Gold, a member of the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, told AFP.

The commission launched the exhibition "On the Wings of the Phoenix: Dr Feng Shan Ho and the Rescue of Austrian Jews" at the rotunda of a Senate office building on Capitol Hill Monday.

"I think the ability and the character of a person who would undertake the humanitarian deed in the first place is then really highlighted by the fact that all he cared about was that he had saved the lives and he was not seeking praise or credit from anybody," Gold said.

"So all this praise that came to him happened after his death."

Ho, born in Yiyang, Hunan Province and who became fatherless by age seven, had witnessed firsthand the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 and the subsequent imposition of Nazi racial laws and terror unleashed on Jews.

Many Jews sought to leave Austria but found almost no country willing to allow them entry.

Some of those who obtained Chinese visas were able to escape to Shanghai or made their way to North and South America, Palestine, the Philippines, Cuba and elsewhere.

The Chinese visas were used to obtain transit visas from countries like Italy, which required proof of an end destination.

The Washington exhibition was developed with the help of Ho's daughter Manli Ho, a former reporter with the Boston Globe newspaper who helped unravel her father heroic actions.

Recollecting a story Ho told her when she was a child, she had included one sentence in his obituary -- that her father confronted a gestapo to help a Jewish friend escape.

The one line sparked interests that led her to dig deeper into the story, researching and identifying survivors.

"It was a combination of luck and just persistence," the 57-year-old former journalist told AFP about stumbling upon her father's rescue efforts.

"Had it not been sheer chance, it would have gone to the grave with him," she said.

Ho was among the first of a small number of diplomatic rescuers who took "extraordinary steps at some personal risk to themselves" to safe the Jews, Gold said.

Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who served as vice consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania, was another of the rescuers, helping several thousand Jews leave the country by issuing transit visas so that they could travel to Japan.

Most of the Jews who escaped were refugees from Poland or residents of Lithuania.

Ho was posthumously bestowed the title of "Righteous Among the Nations," one of Israel's highest honors "for his humanitarian courage" while Sugihara was honored one year before he died in 1986.