It was my first assignment as an Israeli diplomat. I had been posted as the deputy consul general at the Israeli Consulate in Shanghai, China. I had known the city to have a vibrant and storied history of being the focus of competing empires, a center of international trade and entertainment.
But one story I never expected to hear — in a place thousands of miles away from Israel — was a tale of a man who saved thousands of Jews in the Holocaust.
Ho Feng-Shan was China’s consul general at its consulate in Vienna, Austria from 1937 to 1940. For the majority of his life, Ho’s good deeds remained unknown, and only came to light following his death in 1997.
Following the Nazi annexation of Austria to Germany, also known as the Anschluss, and the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, life became increasingly difficult for Austrian Jews, and the only way for them to escape the rising tide of Nazism was to flee Europe.
However, after the 1938 Evian Conference, this became ever more difficult as many countries decided to close their borders to Jewish refugees.
Acting in direct defiance of his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, Ho issued as many as 5,000 visas for humanitarian reasons, enabling Jews to leave Europe.
Even though entering Shanghai didn’t require a visa at the time, issuing the visas allowed Jews a ticket out of Europe. Many Jews did end up in Shanghai, but not all. Others went to Hong Kong, Australia, Palestine, the Philippines and Cuba.
In 2000, Ho was honored posthumously by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, with a Righteous Among the Nations award for his work in saving many Jewish lives.
Ho was not alone. He was among a virtuous group of diplomats that, like him, defied their government’s orders, issuing visas and passports to Jews trying to escape the Nazis.
Being a new diplomat myself, I was extremely taken by these stories. Defying one’s government was not an easy thing. They risked their own wellbeing and that of their families during these terrible times by issuing these visas.
The fact that these diplomats acted in direct contravention of their governments to do the right thing, to save lives, deeply affected me due to the nobleness and benevolence of their acts. Putting everything on the line for the sake of justice.
Some of the most famous of these diplomats are Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, Chiune Sugihara of Japan and Aristides Mendes de Sousa of Portugal.
The Israeli government — through its Permanent Mission to the United Nations — initiated a U.N. adaptation of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The U.N. General Assembly, with Resolution 60/7, adopted this resolution in 2005.
Many years later, in 2018, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with Yad Vashem, honored these 34 diplomats in a special exhibition called “Beyond Duty.”
The exhibit showcased the lifesaving efforts by these incredible human beings and the lengths they went to for their fellow man.
Indeed, it took years for these diplomats to get the recognition they deserved, but they were each honored with a Righteous Among the Nations Award by Yad Vashem.
Since I began my term in San Francisco in 2017, we have honored these diplomats on several occasions.
Three years ago on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, my good friend at the Italian consulate, Consul General Lorenzo Ortona, serving as local president of the EU, initiated a small gathering of the S.F.-based diplomatic community at the Holocaust Memorial (at the Legion of Honor).
We all joined to remember the dark days of the Holocaust and to say, “Never again.”
When we gather again this year, we will be paying homage to the diplomats who risked their careers, as well as their lives and the lives of their families, to save their fellow human beings. Their altruism and selflessness will not be forgotten.
Let’s remember their names:
Brazil: Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa, Luís Martins de Souza Dantas
Chile: Samuel del Campo
China: Ho Feng-Shan
Czechoslovakia: Vladimír Vochoč
Ecuador: Manuel Antonio Muñoz Borrero
El Salvador: José Arturo Castellanos
France: Albert Emile Routier
Germany: Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz
Holy See: Angelo Rotta
Italy: Giorgio Perlasca
Japan: Chiune Sugihara
Netherlands: Jan Zwartendijk
Perú: José María Barreto
Portugal: Carlos Sampaio Garrido
Romania: Constantin Karadja, Florian Manoliu
Slovakia: Ján Spišiak
Spain: Eduardo Propper de Callejón, Sebastián de Romero Radigales, José Ruiz Santaella, Ángel Sanz-Briz
Sweden: Per Anger, Lars Berg, Carl Ivar Danielsson, Elow Kihlgren, Valdemar Langlet, Raoul Wallenberg
Switzerland: Ernst Pradolliet, Carl Lutz, Herald Feller
Turkey: Selahattin Ülkümen
United Kingdom: Captain Francis (Frank) Foley.