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Honoring the ‘Chinese Schindler’

Hedy Durlester was just 3 years old in 1938 when she fled Nazi-occupied Vienna with her parents, but she vividly recalls the details leading up to their escape. With her parents’ bank accounts blocked and their options limited, she remembers the relief when a Chinese diplomat living in Vienna gave her family visas stamped for Shanghai.

“It was getting out of Austria that was the problem,” said Durlester, now 73. “My parents and I owe our lives to a complete stranger.”

That stranger was Feng Shan Ho. For two years, the diplomat signed off on thousands of visas that gave Jews like Durlester a passport to safety. Ho’s actions, which went against the political will of his home country and led some to call him “the Chinese Schindler,” are being commemorated this week on Capitol Hill.

“The other way to look at it is that Schindler was the German Dr. Ho,” said Martin Gold, comparing the diplomat to the German

industrialist who saved at least 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. “Schindler started for capitalist gain only and then became a humanitarian. Dr. Ho was a humanitarian only.”

Gold, a lobbyist at Covington & Burling, is heading the three-day commemoration, which is sponsored by the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. Events include a photo exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building and a lecture series. The commission will also travel to China in June for another commemoration –– this one at the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.

Gold, whose own grandfather fled Russia just before the outbreak of World War II, said the project to honor a Chinese diplomat is usual for the group.

“When people think about the Holocaust, they think of all the terrible stories, and it ends there,” Gold said. “What they don’t think about is the diplomatic involvement and the Jewish relationships with China, which almost seem counterintuitive.”

Ho was born in China’s Hunan Province in 1901. When Ho’s father passed away in 1908, Ho, his mother and his sister were taken in by a group of Christian monks, who gave them housing, health care and education. Provided with a scholarship from the monks, Ho graduated from Yale-in-China University and later from Munich University, before moving to Vienna in 1937 to work for the Chinese embassy.

Manli Ho, his daughter, said the monks’ charity made an impression on her father.

“I think my father was motivated by his unique background. It made him a humanitarian,” she said.

In 1938, less than a year after Ho’s arrival, German soldiers seized Vienna and declared Austria a Nazi territory. Adolf Hitler’s army immediately began working to purge the thousands of Jews living there. “The fate of Austrian Jews was tragic, persecution a daily occurrence,” wrote Ho, who watched in fear along with the 160,000 Jews living in Vienna.

Thousands of Austrian Jews began scrambling in search of safety. Many countries, however, had strict immigration policies and were not accepting Jewish refugees without a visa. Going against his government and working in secret, Ho began issuing prized visas to his Jewish neighbors. He stamped 400 to 500 visas every month for two years from his office in Beethoven Platz.

“Some went to Shanghai, some went elsewhere. The point is they all lived,” said Gold, who has been doing research on Ho for the last year.

Gold said the visas weren’t necessarily used to enter China. The passport, stamped with a destination, was the proof a Jewish traveler needed to legally leave Austria. While many fled to China, some traveled to other Asian and European countries, and to the United States.

Ho returned to China in 1940 and, after several stints in South America, moved to San Francisco in 1973, where he lived for the last 25 years of his life. Ho died in 1997 at age 96, as a U.S. citizen.

Several Holocaust survivors, including Durlester, will be part of this week’s celebration. Though Durlester settled down on the West Coast in 1955 and even lived in the same city as Ho, she never met him. But she connected with Manli Ho in 1999. The meeting was “very emotional,” Durlester said. “I felt like I was meeting a family member.”

Manli Ho said it is through stories like Durlester’s that she learned of her father’s actions in Austria. As Manli Ho grew up in San Francisco, her father’s diplomatic career did not come up in dinner conversations, and she heard only a handful of stories about her father’s Austrian friends. Indeed, in the diplomat’s 7,000 page memoir published in 1990, just one chapter is dedicated to his time in Vienna and only a paragraph touches on his work issuing visas.

When Ho’s obituary was published, survivors reached out to his daughter and shared their memories. The stories inspired Manli Ho, a former journalist, to write a book about her father’s life.

Manli Ho has toured the globe researching and speaking about her father, and last year, she returned his ashes to his native Hunan Province. She said the commemoration, which will be followed by ceremonies in Israel and Vienna in the coming months, will bring her ultimate closure.

“For me and my family, [it’s] a great honor for my father to be recognized by the U.S. government,” Manli Ho said. “He found shelter in this country.”

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