Bernie Farber, Special to The CJN
I never expected to meet a Holocaust rescuer while travelling in China last summer. Yet on a sweltering summer day in Shanghai, I was introduced to just such an unsung hero.
I learned many life’s lessons from my own father, himself a Holocaust survivor. These lessons informed my life. In the 1970s and 80s as a social worker for the Children’s Aid Society in Ottawa, I spent a number of years trying to protect at-risk children from the imminent dangers in their lives. Despite all my efforts, it always hurt to know that there were people around these incredibly vulnerable children who saw what was happening, but chose to do nothing.
Eventually, I moved on to a new phase in my career, becoming an advocate for Canada’s Jewish community. I’ve spent nearly 30 years doing this work, and for most of it, I have been heartened by the will of so many Canadians to fight hate in all its forms. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many Holocaust survivors who inspire me through their willingness to keep fighting for a better world despite the horrors they endured.
And yet, there have also been times when I have been disappointed by the lack of action against humanrights abuses or acts of hate. It made me wonder what makes one person do nothing in the face of horror, while another will take whatever heroic, dangerous steps neces-sary to stop it.
I still don’t have the answer. Instead, I celebrate those who do take action to make this world a better place.
I found someone new and eminently worthy to fete on my trip to China. My wife and I were there as part of a visit with our daughter, who was teaching English in the region. We knew we couldn’t miss Shanghai and made our way to this crowded, fascinating city in the height of summer.
It was our good fortune that the World Expo was taking place while we were there. So we stood in long lines, sweating in 40C heat, trying to get into the country pavilions. We began in the astounding China pavilion, and slowly made our way to the small but truly Canadian Canada pavilion. But it was at the Israeli pavilion that I had my epiphany.
As I walked through the space, I no-ticed a small display honouring a Chinese diplomat from the late 1930s. I was intrigued by the notion that Israel would give such a place of honour to a Chinese citizen.
It turned out to be a man who should be famous the world over for his heroism. Feng Shan Ho was one of the first diplomats to save Jews by issuing them visas to escape the Nazis and the Holocaust. Appointed the Chinese consul general in Vienna months after Germany’s annexation of Austria, he was repelled by the Austrians’ fanatic welcome of Hitler and the country’s treatment of its Jews.
When Japan occupied China in 1937, the Chinese Nationalist government re-treated to Chongqing, leaving Shanghai harbour with no passport control or any authority to check documents such as visas.
That’s when Ho put his ingenious plan in place. It was the perfect ploy – he provided Jews who were not allowed to leave Austria without proof of emigration a visa to Shanghai, where no one would check their papers. From there, they could find safe haven elsewhere in the world.
Despite intense pressure from his su-periors to stop, he spent two years signing thousands of visas for Jews. He averaged 500 to 900 visas a month.
I was stunned. How could I have never heard of Feng Shan Ho? Israel had recog-nized him with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, yet Ho remained unknown even to most of those whose lives he saved with visas. That felt so wrong.
This led to months of further research. It included discussions with people such as Feng Shan Ho’s daughter, Manli, whom I met in Toronto a number of months back, and Eric Goldlaub a recipient of a Ho visa that saved his life and that of his family. They all helped put tex-ture on Ho’s courage.
It also led me to understand that there were a number of other such diplomats who saved Jewish lives, very often against their countries expressed orders to refrain from doing so. Portuguese Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes offered travel permits to desperate Jews as consul in Bordeaux France, as did Senpo Sugihara in his role as consul in Kovno, Lithuania. My cousins Israel and Sam Fishbain received visas from Sugihara allowing them to travel to Shanghai, where they survived the war.
Hiram Bingham IV was the American vice-consul in Vichy-held Marseilles and, like Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux, he handed out more than 2,500 travel visas, among them to artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, as well as to the family of writer Thomas Mann.
This past November, I was honoured to be part of the UJA Federation of Great-er Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week, where I gave a lecture on the Shoah’s unsung heroes such as Ho and others. I was slated to present it again on April 17 as part of Beth Tikvah Synagogue’s adult education program.
In the Jewish tradition, it is said, “When you have no choice, mobilize the spirit of courage.” Feng Shan Ho, Sugihara, de souse Mendes, Bingham and other Righteous Among the Nations under-stood that living in a time of evil, they had no choice but to act. By honouring such heroism, I hope it will also inspire other Canadians to take their own steps, big or small, to make the world a better place.
Bernie Farber is the former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress.