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Discovering China's 'Schindler'

AS a Boston Globe reporter, Chinese-American Manli Ho often wrote obituaries for other people. But when her father died in 1997 and she was charged with writing his obituary, it sent her on a detective hunt that would last the next 10 years.

The quest uncovered acts of courage and thousands of lives saved in World War II. It became the greatest story Ho had ever covered.

It was also a daughter's quest to posthumously know her father in a way that she never did while he was alive.

"I've pursued this story for 10 years because it's my father's history," said Ho. "He redeemed humanity with his actions and brought comfort in the midst of chaos."

Manli Ho's father, Fengshan Ho, was a Chinese diplomat in Vienna during World War II. His two-year term in Vienna spanned the Krystallnacht of November 9, 1938, which marked the beginning of the anti-Semitic purge in Austria. By granting Jews visas to Shanghai, Fengshan Ho saved thousands from the concentration camps. He is known as "China's Schindler."

Over 70 years later his daughter is still uncovering the lasting legacies of his deeds. She visits Shanghai regularly to retell the story and is planning a book to summarize her findings. In April she was in Shanghai's old Jewish ghetto in Hongkou District to unveil an exhibition of her father's life, followed by a trip to his grave during the tomb-sweeping Qingming Festival.

Manli grew up in suburban San Francisco, her parents having emigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1973. But even though her father insisted on Mandarin being spoken at home, and that his children remember their Chinese roots, he seldom discussed his past in the faraway homeland.

"He was a very strict father, though warm and engaging. Being from Hunan, he liked spicy food and had a feisty temper," Manli recalled.

Even in his memoir, written seven years before he died, very little was said of the Jews he had saved in Austria.

"I don't think he thought it was a special act at the time," Manli said. "He was a very confident person and never felt the need to brag."

After his death Manli found tapes of dictations he made for the memoir. "On seeing the Jews so doomed, I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be," he had dictated.

Fengshan Ho was born in Yiyang, Hunan Province, at the turn of the 20th century. From extremely poor beginnings (his father died when he was seven), Fengshan Ho's fate was forever changed by a scholarship to a school run by American missionaries with affiliations to Yale University. Ho later went on to study in Munich. He joined the diplomatic service for the Republic of China in 1935, serving in Turkey before being sent to Vienna in 1937.

In Austria, one story that Manli did know from childhood was the night her father faced down the Gestapo. It was just after Krystallnacht. He had granted visas to his Jewish friends, the Rosenbergs, and was to see them off that night. But at their home he learned that Mr Rosenberg had been taken to a concentration camp. Two Gestapo came that night, pulled a gun on him and ordered to know who he was.

"He said to them, 'I'm a friend of the master of this house, waiting for his return'," remembered Manli Ho. When the Gestapo found out Ho was the Chinese consul-general, they returned Mr Rosenberg.

Manli included this story in her obituary for The Boston Globe, and the article caught the attention of a Jewish curator who was organizing an exhibition on diplomats during World War II. The two met and he asked Manli Ho, "you're a reporter, don't you want to know more?" It was the spark that started Ho's decade of investigations into her father.

From slow beginnings, Manli started finding more and more clues. The first was the visa of Harry Fiedler. He was part of a family who had been rejected by 50 consulates before being granted a visa to Shanghai. That visa was dated just two months after Krystallnacht, but the serial number was already 1200.

"That's when I realized thousands of Jews may have been saved, and that more survivors would come," Ho said.

A 1940 report by a successor at the Chinese consulate wrote that 400 to 500 visas were granted per month during Fengshan Ho's term. From these records Manli Ho estimates that thousands, possibly up to 10,000 Jews, were saved.

One of the most moving stories that emerged was that of Lotte Lustig. She was 11 when Krystallnacht happened. As waves of refugees tried to flee Austria, Europe and America imposed rules that specified visas could only be issued to those who had relatives abroad to act as economic guarantors. Lotte's father made her call all the Lustigs in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York from the American phone directory to ask for sponsorship, but no one agreed. They eventually received a visa to Shanghai from Fengshan Ho.

Lustig went on to become a successful psychologist and lives in California. After meeting Manli Ho a few years ago, Lustig wrote an open letter to other survivors published through the US Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

In the letter she said of Fengshan Ho, "Dr Ho changed from consul to rescuer. He had the wit, the courage, the audacity to intervene. From that moment on, Dr Ho must have begun to realize how excruciating a power fate had arbitrarily placed in his hands. I am convinced that?Dr Ho not only enabled?wives to get their husbands out of jail, in many cases?he prevented? families?from being torn murderously apart; above all,?he succeeded in opening the (figurative) prison gates for hundreds of Viennese?men, women and children."

In 2000 Ho was designated by Israel as a "Righteous?Gentile" a title conferred to non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. He was one of what Lustig described as a "heartbreakingly small" number of diplomatic rescuers who received the honor.

For his humanitarian actions, Ho was demoted and suspected of receiving bribes for visas. When he retired in Taiwan his pension was suspended on the basis of bribe accusations.

Over the years Manli Ho has left journalism for a more lucrative job at a headhunting firm as well as to take care of parents and her own family. She also balances the ongoing task of her investigations into Fengshan Ho, which she said is the only journalism she does these days. "My husband jokes that I have five jobs but only get paid for one," Ho said.

She has planned to write a book about her discoveries for several years, but new clues are continuously being uncovered. For example, recently at the Vienna Jewish archives, 500 crates of indexes were found when a building was torn down, unlocking the secret to the whole archive.

But facts aside, Manli Ho is uncovering the character of her father. "He felt he had been blessed in his life, but that blessing was for a reason," she said. "He felt he was put on earth for a purpose."

That purpose is best summed up by a poem he wrote to her mother,

"The gifts Heaven bestows are not by chance, the convictions of heroes not lightly formed. Today I summon all spirit strength, urging my steed forward 10,000 miles."


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