Chinese diplomat Feng Shan Ho, seen here in China in 1947, is one of many foreign diplomats who helped Jews escape the Holocaust.
Chinese diplomat Feng Shan Ho, seen here in China in 1947, is one of many foreign diplomats who helped Jews escape the Holocaust.

Righteous diplomats of the Holocaust honored in San Jose exhibit

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Visitors to San Jose’s Martin Luther King Jr. library in April will be greeted by more than stacks of books. The library is hosting a traveling exhibit timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance, this year on April 28. “Beyond Duty” tells the heroic stories of non-Jewish diplomats who took courageous action during the Holocaust to save the lives of innocent people.

Individuals honored as “Righteous Among Nations” can serve as examples of courage that can inspire students, said Sarita Bronstein, executive director of Hillel of Silicon Valley, which is sponsoring the exhibit. It runs April 4-28.

“Education alone is not enough,” she said. “People need to have the courage to stand up and speak out.”

“Beyond Duty” was created by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel and brought to San Jose by the San Francisco-based Consulate General of Israel in a joint initiative. Deputy Consul General Matan Zamir said the exhibit “tells a story very few people know about a small group of courageous diplomats who chose, many times against the directive of their home offices, to put their and their family’s lives at risk in order to save Jews during the Holocaust. Each of those stories is amazing on its own, and together they present a rare and bright ray of light during those dark days.”

Since its inception in 2018, the exhibit has traveled the world under the auspices of local consulates to tell stories like that of Feng Shan Ho.

Ho, a Chinese diplomat posted to Vienna before and during World War II, issued visas to thousands of Austrian Jews when other embassies would not. Ho lived in San Francisco in retirement and died in 1997. Three years later, Yad Vashem honored him posthumously.

Another diplomat in the exhibit is Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940 who provided between 2,000 and 3,500 transit visas against the rules of his own foreign ministry. Sugihara himself was about to leave the country, but with his staff began to stamp passports by hand in order to help as many as possible.

Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish consul general on the Greek island of Rhodes, saved 50 Jews by claiming they were Turkish citizens, which was not always strictly true. The island was under Nazi occupation in 1944 when the deportation of the island’s Jews began.

These stories and more are detailed in “Beyond Duty,” which will be open during library hours in the exhibition space on the second floor and is free to visit. MLK is a public library that also serves the students of San Jose State University.

The exhibit was scheduled for 2020 but had to be postponed because of the Covid pandemic. Bronstein, for one, is very glad to have it finally come to San Jose. She said it delivers a powerful lesson for everyone.

“When we don’t stand for others, eventually no one will stand for us,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.