S.F. Righteous Diplomats exhibit honors rescuers

Eric Saul has a magnificent, miraculous tale to tell. It's all about good conquering evil, about life and humanity.

The main characters are heroes who risked their lives to save people through selfless acts of bravery. It's uplifting, even tragic at times, and the end is magical, like a fairy tale.

It's a true story. It's based on the Holocaust.

In his exhibition "Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats," Saul presents the real, sometimes unimaginable stories of more than 90 diplomats from 27 countries who collectively rescued 250,000 Jews from a deadly fate at the hands of the Nazis.

Featuring intimate stories through photographs, biographies and narratives, Saul's collection will be on display Sunday, April 1 through May 25 as part of the multifaceted exposition "Silent Voices Speak," at Herbst International Exhibition Hall in San Francisco's Presidio.

Saul said his exhibition, the result of seven years of intricate research, is a glimpse into stories that few would imagine to be true "even in their wildest dreams."

Take Portuguese Consul General Aristides de Sousa Mendes, for example.

While serving in Bordeaux, France, the Catholic saved the lives of 30,000 refugees, 10,000 of them Jews, because God had come to him in a dream and told him to do so, he once said. In a matter of only three days, he worked around the clock, issuing a Portuguese visa to anyone who asked. Even when facing charges of insubordination for his actions, he issued several thousand additional visas.

Yet de Sousa Mendes, a father of 14, ended up dying in poverty in 1954. A month after issuing the visas, he was unceremoniously discharged from diplomatic service and stripped of his rank, salary and pension.

His youngest son, John Paul Abranches, who is now 70 and resides in Pleasanton, was 9 years old at the time.

"My parents avoided telling me much because they figured there was no point in scaring me," said Abranches. "But things started getting rough. There was no food and clothes became hand-me-downs. Eventually we lost our home."

Abranches was 12 when he finally learned what his father had done, from his older brothers. Despite living in poverty, he never regretted or resented his father's actions. Neither did his father, whom Abranches quoted as saying, "If so many Jews have to suffer because of one Catholic [Hitler], it's perfectly right for a Catholic to suffer for the Jews."

The story would have ended in tragedy if it weren't for de Sousa Mendes' correct belief that his actions would someday be vindicated.

In 1967 he was awarded the title "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem and in 1987 he was posthumously presented Portugal's Order of Liberty award. In 1988 he was reinstated in the foreign service as an ambassador.

The story of another heroic diplomat featured in Saul's exhibit would have been lost in history if it hadn't been for a chance phone call.

Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese consulate in Vienna, was one of the first to save innumerable lives by issuing end-destination visas to Shanghai, against all orders, starting in 1938.

But Ho never mentioned any of this to his daughter, Manli Ho, who was born in 1951 and now lives in San Francisco. Except for telling her as a child that he confronted the Gestapo on Kristallnacht to save his friends the Rosenbergs, he took his heroic efforts with him to his grave in 1997, at the age of 96.

"This is very common among rescuers," said Manli Ho. "Most of these guys didn't consider themselves heroes. They just thought they were doing what was natural, so why would it warrant praise. My father would have been astonished to know he's considered a hero."

Manli Ho credits Saul for the discovery of her father's historic achievements. When her father's obituary appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Saul read one sentence that referred to Ho's heroism on Kristallnacht. He picked up the phone and dialed 411 to reach Ho's daughter.

It took three years of research to put the whole story together, but earlier this year, Ho was finally recognized by Yad Vashem.

"If it had not been for this one chance phone call, my father and his humanitarian efforts would have been lost forever," said Manli Ho.

Saul, a historian and museum curator who lives in San Francisco, said it's almost shocking how many stories like Ho's and de Sousa Mendes' may slip through the sands of time unnoticed, or at least temporarily unknown.

"I think it's because we've only emphasized the murders all these years," he said. "There's probably 85,000 books about the Holocaust, about what in human nature allowed Hitler to do what he did and the world to allow him to get away with it."

But the Jews had many more friends in Europe than they knew or may ever know, he added. Even his own exhibition "Visas for Life," which began as a tribute to just one man, the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, has quickly grown to its current size, honoring more than 90 rescuers.

He hopes it will continue to grow.

"Almost nothing tells the stories of the people who risked everything, their jobs, their lives, their kids, to save hundreds of thousands of Jews — all because it was what was in their human nature," he said. "Maybe the Holocaust wasn't all about unredeemed evil after all. There was also goodness, life and humanity."

That's right. Even a story based on the Holocaust can have a happy ending.