An unsung hero – He Fengshan – China’s Schindler

If it were not for the book ‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally, which was subsequently made into an award-winning film by Steven Spielberg, I doubt whether many of us would have ever heard of Oskar Schindler, the German who managed to save a thousand Jews from the Holocaust. Recently I discovered that there was a Chinese man, He Fengshan, whose story is as remarkable as that of Schindler if not more so.

He Fengshan (also known as Feng-Shan Ho) was born in a town called Yiyang in Hunan province on 10th September 1901.  His father died when he was a child of seven, and the family were left extremely poor.  He was obviously an able lad academically,

He Fengshan

and with help from Northern Lutheran missionaries he managed to attend school and then get into the Yale -in-China University in Changshan. He then went on to the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich from where he graduated with a PhD in Politics and Economics in 1932.  In 1935 he started a diplomatic career.

In those days the Republic of China  (ROC) was governed by the Kuomintang led by  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, and was at war with Japan who had invaded northern China/Manchuria.

By 1937 He Fengshan was a First Secretary at the ROC legation in Vienna, however following the Anschluss in March 1938 the Viennese legation was down-graded to a Consulate, with legation business being conducted at the Chinese Embassy in Berlin.  In May 1938 He Fengshan became the consul-general in Vienna and  immediately started issuing visas for Shanghai to any Jews who applied for them.  At the time Shanghai was an open port and no visa was required to go there, but Jews  who wished to leave the Reich had to have a visa to enter another country before the Nazi government would grant them an exit permit.   Few other countries were issuing visas to Jews, and those that were had extremely strict entry requirements as well as specific quotas, so once word got round that the ROC Consulate in Vienna would issue these visas without question the consulate was besieged by hundreds of applicants.  In his first three months as consul-general He Fengshan signed no less than 1200 visas, and by the end of 1938 he had issued a total of 1906.

Needless to say, his actions were not popular with the German govenment and they must have made their views known as he was ordered to stop issuing visas by the Chinese Ambassador to Germany, Chen Jie.  The ROC government wanted to retain friendly relations with Germany because they were using German military advisors, and obtaining arms from Germany for their fight against the advancing Japanese army.

He Fengshan ignored his Ambassador, who promptly accused him of profiteering by selling visas to make money for himself. After investigation this was found to be completely untrue, and he carried on issuing visas as before.  Frustrated by his intransigence, the Nazis attempted to shut him down by confiscating the consulate buildings, claiming that the buildings were owned by a Jew.  He Fengshan immediately applied to the ROC govenment for funds to re-locate the consulate, and when these were not forthcoming he rented premises at his own expense and carried on.  Finally, in May 1940 he was ordered back to China.

No-one can be sure of exactly how many visas he issued during those two years, but it is estimated to have been over 20,000.  He Fengshan was probably responsible for saving more people from the Nazis than any other individual.

And what happened to him after that I hear you ask. Well,  in 1949 the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong had taken over the country and the People’s Republic of China was born, Chiang Kai-Shek and the nationalists had fled to Taiwan where they kept the ROC alive. Although He Fengshan had a serious black mark on his career for having disobeyed his Ambassador, he had continued to work in the ROC diplomatic service, and eventually served as ambassador in Egypt, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico. He retired after 40 years of loyal service and the ROC govenment rewarded him by refusing to pay him a pension. He and his wife lived in San Francisco near their daughter, and he died there in 1997, aged 96. To the end he was modest, and never talked about what he had done in Vienna during those two years.

Eventually his remains were returned to his beloved homeland and buried in Yiyang together with those of his wife.   In 2001, four years after he died, what He Fengshan did to save Jews was recognised, and he was made one of the  ‘Righteous among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel.

His name should be better known, and never forgotten.

About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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2 Responses to An unsung hero – He Fengshan – China’s Schindler

  1. Sheila Taylor says:

    Brilliant Jo – this is fascinating.

  2. Edwin Wang says:

    This is just what I am looking for – my daughter is visiting the Musuem of Tolerance in Los Angeles with her school. I want to let her know Chinese people lent a helping hand in the 1930’s as well. Thank you for writing this story.

    – Edwin Wang

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