From 1973 until 1997, a man who helped thousands of Jews escape the Holocaust lived quietly in northwest San Francisco, within a mile of the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
There were no official honors for the late Feng Shan Ho, though.
Local Jews had no idea a hero was living in their midst.
An exhibit that opens tonight at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco will finally shed light on Ho’s extraordinary story.
According to his daughter and to an expert on “righteous gentiles,” Ho saved the lives of thousands of Jews in his post as the Chinese consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940.
Contrary to orders, Ho handed out exit visas that allowed Viennese Jews to escape persecution and avoid being sent to concentration camps. The Nazis rolled into Austria in 1938 and were sending Jews off to Dachau and Buchenwald a month later.
The native of Hunan province is credited as being one of the first diplomats to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Ho’s story has never really come to light because he remained humble and quiet about what he had done. Never did he seek or receive any recognition. Even members of his own family knew little.
“He never talked about any details,” said Manli Ho, his daughter. “And it would have all gone to his grave if I hadn’t tried to make his obituary more than just a chronology.”
A former reporter for the Boston Globe, Manli Ho wrote an obituary after her father died at age 96 in September 1997. The Globe sent the article to other newspapers through a wire service.
“I wrote a single sentence in the obituary about how he helped a Jewish family,” said Ho, a Maine resident currently living in San Francisco to take care of her aging mother. “I didn’t really know much more than that.”
The obituary was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle, which is where Eric Saul read it.
Saul was deep into researching “righteous gentiles” for the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles — and organizing an exhibit on 71 emissaries called “Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats,” which will open at the United Nations in New York on April 3.
“Thank God she wrote that, or otherwise he would have been lost to history,” Saul said. “It shows you how fragile history is. This is the Chinese [Oskar] Schindler. And he was almost lost to us except for this beshert.”
Since then, both daughter and historian have worked diligently on uncovering as much of Ho’s story as possible. Manli Ho has fashioned a 17-page history with footnotes, quotes from her father and stories from survivors.
“Of all the survivors, though, none ever met him. It was just line up and apply for your visa, and then somebody stamps it and you’re done,” Ho said.
“All they knew was that if you needed a visa to leave [Austria], the Chinese Consulate was the place to go and get one, no questions asked. All the other consulates had all sorts of roadblocks.”
Despite the anonymity, Ho said she has had some very emotional exchanges with people who probably wouldn’t have survived if not for her father.
“My father is gone now, and I feel his loss. But when I meet survivors, the people that he helped, I feel like he lives through them. They’re my mishpoche [family] now. I really feel that way.”
Ho and Saul will be speaking at 5:30 p.m. today at the opening reception for Emanu-El’s exhibit. Mounted by the “Visas for Life” project, the exhibit will feature photographs, documents and text. Many of the photos will be from Feng Shan Ho’s time in Vienna.
Ho was born in rural China and educated at the College of Yale-in-China. In 1932, he earned a Ph.D. in political economics at the University of Munich, where he witnessed Hitler’s rise to power.
His excellent command of German helped him land a post in Vienna in 1937, where he became consul general in 1938. According to his daughter, Ho was stunned by the jubilant welcome Hitler received in Austria after the 1938 Anschluss.
“As soon as Hitler invaded and took over, they had a reception for all the diplomatic missions,” Manli Ho said. “My dad…shook Hitler’s hand.”
Ho said her father’s decision to devote himself to saving Jews came in defiance of the Germans and opposition from the Chinese ambassador in Berlin. According to serial numbers on the visas, Ho said her father issued 1,200 visas during the first three months of his posting in Austria.
Many of the Jews were released from detention centers on the strength of the visas. The Nazis, for a while, allowed Jews with proof of emigration to depart for overseas.
Ho left Austria in May 1940 when he was posted to Turkey. He later worked in Egypt, Mexico and Colombia. In 1973, after a 40-year diplomatic career, he retired to a quiet existence in San Francisco’s Richmond District, rarely mentioning anything about the Holocaust.
“He never bragged about it, he never said much of anything,” Saul said. “And now we’re finding Jews all over the world who got these visas and don’t even know his name. It’s like a Spielberg movie.”