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Did Chinese diplomat save thousands of Jews?

LONDON, Feb. 10 (JTA) — The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial is looking into claims that a Chinese diplomat helped thousands of Austrian Jews escape from Nazi Europe.

The story surfaced this week when Ho Manli told the story of her father, Ho Fengshan, China’s consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940, who died three years ago in San Francisco at 96.

In an article published in the Beijing daily Global Times, 49-year-old Ho Manli described how her father secretly handed out exit visas that allowed up to 4,000 Viennese Jews escape Nazi persecution.

Among those who are believed to have obtained exit visas from Ho, then in his late 30s, were Kalman and Anna Singer, the parents of Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.

Israel Singer, who was not yet born, says he knows his parents received their exit visas from the Chinese Consulate, but does not know the identity of the man who issued the life-saving permits.

While many of those who received such visas traveled to Shanghai, Singer’s parents went to the French port of Marseilles and then on to the United States.

Ho’s reported rescue efforts are currently the subject of an investigation by the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem, which is belatedly considering awarding him the title of Righteous Gentile.

Ho was said to have had an excellent command of German and was posted to Austria in 1937, where he became consul general in 1938.

He left Austria in May 1940 when he was posted to Turkey, from where he later moved to Egypt, Mexico and Colombia. In 1973, he retired to California, living quietly and modestly until his death in 1997.

Ho witnessed Hitler’s rise to power as a student of politics and economics at Munich University and, according to his American daughter, he was stunned by the jubilant welcome that Hitler received in Austria after the 1938 Anschluss.

He was even more alarmed, she said, by the panic-stricken reaction of the 182,000-strong Jewish community in Austria, then the third largest in Europe.

According to his daughter, Ho’s decision to actively devote himself to saving Jews — in defiance of the Germans and opposition from the Chinese ambassador in Berlin — was triggered by the events of Kristallnacht, the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, when Nazi thugs ransacked Jewish-owned shops and set synagogues ablaze across Germany and Austria.

During the first three months of his posting in Vienna, Ho issued 1,200 visas, which has been verified by the serial numbers on the visas. His daughter has estimated that as many as 4,000 Jews were rescued in this way.

Ho’s efforts to save Jews appeared to have started almost by accident when a 17-year-old Jewish boy, who had tried unsuccessfully to obtain visas from 50 other consulates, visited the Chinese Consulate in 1938.

Ho issued 20 visas for the boy’s relatives. But he did not stop there. The boy’s relatives told their friends, and soon long lines were forming outside the consulate, from where Ho was soon issuing dozens of visas each day.

When the Chinese ambassador to Berlin, Chen Jie, learned of Ho’s activities, he feared they would damage Sino-German relations and he ordered Ho to stop.

Ho ignored the order.

He also defied the Nazi authorities, who sought unsuccessfully to establish that Ho was taking bribes for the visas.

As part of their efforts to stop him, according to Ho’s daughter, the Nazis confiscated his consular apartment on the pretext that it had been leased from a Jew. Undaunted, Ho found a new apartment, which he paid for out of his own pocket, and continued issuing exit visas.

Most of the thousands of Jews saved by Ho’s exit visas are believed to have been among the estimated 18,000 Jews who sought refuge in Shanghai. Shanghai had been occupied since 1937 by the Japanese, who operated a relatively open-door policy to Jewish immigrants — as long as they possessed at least $400 or had a local guarantor.

Today, Ho Manli, who lives in Maine, says her father rarely spoke of the period.

“He was a Christian and basically thought that it was a natural thing to do,” she told the London Times this week. “So there was no reason to brag about it. Nobody had any idea of the extent of his rescue activities.”

Ho’s efforts surfaced only after his daughter wrote his obituary for the Boston Globe and she was contacted by Eric Saul, who has put together an exhibition — “Visas for Life” — about the diplomats who saved Jews during the war.

Together they have researched her father’s wartime history, tracking down survivors and the children of survivors, some of whom still have the visas.

Some, like Singer, have been unable to identify the man who issued the life-saving visas.

But Ho Manli does not find this surprising.

“My father was simply the man at the consulate who stamped the visa,” she said. “You never pay any attention to the person who stamps your visa, do you?”

She added that she found the ordeal of meeting some of the survivors and their children an emotional experience.

“I miss my father terribly,” she said, “and these are the people he was able to help. It’s as if he lives on through them.”

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