U.N. honors WWII diplomats who helped Jews escape Nazis

NEW YORK — At a United Nations ceremony last week, several Jews who escaped Nazi Europe met their rescuers or their rescuers' families for the first time.

At the April 3 event, the international community also honored the rescuers — government diplomats who risked their careers and lives to save thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis.

The ceremony opened a traveling exhibit that will be on display at the United Nations.

"Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats" honors the actions of more than 65 diplomats from more than 22 countries who issued thousands of visas for Jews escaping Nazi terror.

The exhibit includes never-before-seen Holocaust-era photographs and tells the stories of diplomatic rescues.

Attending the ceremony were Jews who escaped to Japan thanks to visas issued by wartime Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara. Stationed in Kovno, Lithuania, Sugihara issued thousands of visas during the summer of 1940.

"There's a story" that Sugihara's wife "rubbed his hands at night because they hurt from signing all of the visas," said Meryl Fischoff, daughter of Ben Fischoff, who received a Sugihara visa.

Fischoff's father was a student of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland and sailed to Japan on the "Boat of 72," named for the 72 passengers who were denied permission to disembark in Japan. They were sent back to Russia but eventually sailed back to Japan and successfully disembarked. Fischoff was the only one of six children in his family to survive the war.

Sugihara "is a real Righteous Gentile," Meryl Fischoff said. "He could have been killed as a traitor."

The visas were "the difference between life and death, no question," said Rabbi David Baron, project coordinator for the New York arm of the exhibit.

Collectively, he said, these diplomats issued more than 200,000 visas throughout World War II to help Jews escape to friendlier territory, despite clear government prohibitions.

Dr. Sylvia Smoller and her family were also able to escape to Japan and then to America because of Sugihara. "The Jews somehow knew Sugihara was issuing these visas," she said, explaining why her father traveled to the Japanese Consulate. She received visa No. 459 out of 2,000, she said. "Everything was sheer luck."

Other diplomats honored are less known than Sugihara, though their contributions are no less significant.

"People ask, 'Why would a man from China save Jews in Austria?' If you knew my father, you wouldn't have to ask," said Manli Ho, daughter of Feng Shan Ho, Chinese consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1939.

Ho issued innumerable visas to Jews escaping Austria after the 1938 Nazi takeover there. With his help, Jews were able to escape to Manchuria, Shanghai, China — and from there to Palestine and America.

After his diplomatic career ended, he moved to San Francisco. He died there in 1997 at the age of 96.

Harry Fiedler was born in China after his father and almost 20 members of his extended family received visas from Ho.

"You didn't need a document to get into China, but you needed one to get out of Austria," Fiedler said. His father and cousin were arrested during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom after obtaining the necessary documents, but were released on the strength of Ho's visas and sailed to China.

"My father was a man who believed it was natural to feel compassion and want to help," said Manli Ho, who added that her father hardly ever spoke of his actions.

"You know how many words there are mentioning the rescue activities" in his memoirs, his daughter asked. "Seventy. That's three lines out of 700 pages."

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who is president and founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, escaped the Nazis because of a safety pass issued by Carl Lutz, consul for Switzerland in Budapest from 1942 to 1945.

Such diplomats "were unsung heroes by their own government in a way that defied the silence of their government," Schneier said. "I was given the opportunity to survive because of their humanitarian efforts."

Lutz is credited with being the largest single issuer of visas during the Holocaust, according to Baron, saving more than 60,000 Jews by inventing the Schutzbrief, or protective letter, and by helping to establish 76 safe houses throughout Budapest.

The "Visas for Life" exhibition is sponsored by national and international Jewish and Holocaust groups.