NEW YORK, April 4 (JTA) When the atrocities of the Holocaust came to public light, many unsung heroes remained in the shadows.
In a ceremony at the United Nations on Monday, some rescued Holocaust survivors met their unknown heroes, or their close family members, for the first time since the war.
The international community honored government diplomats who risked their careers and lives to save thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi terror.
The meeting took place in a ceremony before the opening of a traveling exhibit to be on display at the United Nations.
“Visa for Life: The Righteous Diplomats” was created to honor the actions of more than 65 diplomats, representing 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 survivors 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 visa was 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’s family was also able to escape to Japan and then to America because of Sugihara.
“The Jews somehow knew Sugihara was issuing these visas,” she said of why her father traveled to the Japanese Consulate. She received visa number 459 out of 2,000, she said.
“Everything was sheer luck,” Smoller said.
Smoller created an essay contest in honor of her rescuer called, “Sugihara Do the Right Thing,” where high school students submit essays on moral decisions they have had to make.
“I didn’t want to be a professional survivor,” Smoller said. “It’s important to do something to honor Sugihara and make this refugee and rescue experience a living thing.”
Other diplomats honored are less well-known than Sugihara, though their contributions are none 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 Dr. Feng Shan Ho, Chinese consul general in Vienna from 1938- 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.
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 subsequently sailed to China.
“My father was a man who believed it was natural to feel compassion and want to help,” said Ho, who said her father hardly ever spoke of his actions during his lifetime. Ho died in 1997 at the age of 96.
“You know how many words there are mentioning the rescue activities” in his memoirs, his daughter asked. “70. That’s three lines out of 700 pages.”
“There’s a Chinese saying,” said Ho, “that if you do something good and talk about it that much, it’s not so good.”
“It’s within the Jewish character to remember our friends,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president and founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. Schneier escaped because of a safety pass issued by Carl Lutz, consul for Switzerland in Budapest from 1942-1945.
“They 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 a collaborative effort sponsored by international and national Jewish and Holocaust organizations.
As an outcropping of the exhibition, Baron said the History Channel has announced plans to create a program about these diplomats.
Besides showing gratitude, Baron hopes the exhibit serves another purpose. “It allows Christians to come and see that there were men and women who acted on their beliefs and value systems to rescue.
“We need to recognize goodness. We need to acknowledge acts of heroism,” Baron said. “We need these models in our society.”