By Han Li
Special thanks to the Jewish Museum of London.
When the Japanese Imperial Army reached the Yellow River in the spring of 1938, leaving a trail of devastation from northern China to Nanjing, He Fengshan witnessed another set of atrocities half way across the world that would eventually evolve into the European theatre of World War ll.
It was an experience no overseas Chinese expected to witness. A career in the diplomatic service and a posting in an ancient European capital were the rarest of luxuries for any citizen of the Republic of China. Vienna, with its neoclassical architecture was the polar opposite of China’s war-torn landscape plagued by infighting, foreign invasion and poverty. However, when Nazi soldiers stormed its streets and dragged Jewish families and political dissidents out of their homes, it marked the start of one of the deadliest genocides in human history.
He Fengshan was a Hunan country boy who had risen with distinction from a rural life in the newly refined foreign service of the Chinese Republic. He answered to Chen Jia who headed the Chinese embassy in Berlin since Germany annexed Austria and Vienna lost its capital status. He Fengshan was described by the social circles of Vienna as impressively bicultural and a talented German speaker. His kind character and charm allowed Mr. He to befriend many prominent and working local families, many of whom were Jewish. He Fengshan’s Jewish friend, Lilith Sylvia Doron, recalls watching Hitler’s entrance into Vienna with Mr. He: “He knew my family and accompanied me home. He claimed that, thanks to his diplomatic status, the Nazis would not dare harm us as long as he remained in our home. He continued to visit our home on a permanent basis to protect us from the Nazis.” He Fengshan not only kept his promise to protect Lilith, but also vowed to help thousands of other Jewish families that needed protection.
The relationship between the Republic of China under the governance of the famous generalissimo and Hitler’s Germany was by 1938 as complicated as Sino-German relations will ever be. Germany had over the past decade helped China develop and modernize its armed forces. The Chinese soldiers who fought the Japanese on the narrow streets of Shanghai and on the ancient walls of Nanjing did so with German firearms while wearing German helmets. Yet an alliance with Japan, as Germany’s East Asian replacement for China, had already taken place and was consolidating with every Chinese defeat. To make matters worse, Japan’s genocidal war in China put the Chinese government in an extremely financially and politically vulnerable position on the international theatre. Shanghai, which was China’s economic gateway to the outside world had been conquered by the Japanese; only its foreign concession zones remained unoccupied by the Japanese Imperial Forces. Few remaining Chinese veterans recall this darkest of times when a fractured China stood alone against the might of this powerful foe, absent from the aid of American Carrier battlegroups, British Commonwealth’s Lancaster bombers and Soviet armoured divisions from Siberia (all of which would enter the fray as China’s ally in the 1940s). Plans were in preparation to move the Chinese capital from Western China to Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia. The surrendering of all ancient capitals and scorching their own countryside were a contingency for a government struggling for survival. For He Fengshan to request the aid of the Chinese government in this matter was, simply put, an impossibility.
Like many Chinese diaspora living abroad, He Fengshan felt deeply connected with those in his community. But how can the simple diplomat of a faltering country stand up to the might of a revived German military that was poised to strike in all directions in Europe? The answer was clear and ingenious: travel visas. By 1938, Hitler’s government had descended violently upon a population of 185,000 Jewish citizens in Vienna. With the establishment of the first concentration camps, the Jewish population within the city was forcibly relocated. As a prelude to the final solution that will be remembered as the Holocaust, the German policy prevented the Jewish population from travelling abroad. The only method of escape was if a foreign country granted a visa to a Jewish citizen. This was a rare occurrence in a world of rising fascism and anti-Semitism. Stories of Jewish families being denied entry into developed Western countries was all too common. Britain for example, only gave limited work visas in selected labour jobs, such as housekeeping. It was in this atmosphere of hopelessness that rumours began to spread about the Chinese consulate office in Vienna issuing travel visas to Shanghai. By the summer of 1938, He Fengshan began issuing visas to thousands of Jewish families in Austria, often under intense scrutiny from his director, Chen Jia of the Berlin office. Visas to Shanghai gave an unique opportunity for the Jewish population to leave Nazi-occupied territory as the traveller did not need to land in Shanghai in order to utilize its practicality. Many families gave the German authorities the illusion of travelling to Shanghai while making landfall in safe havens across the world. Yet those who did arrive in Shanghai joined an already-existing Jewish population in the city’s international settlements.
The German authorities eventually caught on to He Fengshan’s activities at the consulate office and the building was confiscated as part of their anti-Semitic policies. With the operation officially shut down and access to funds denied by his superiors, He Fengshan set up a temporary office and the operation continued under his own financial expense. Because of his extraordinary bravery in which he stood up against the governments of two countries, including that of his own, thousands of lives were saved from the extermination camps that had awaited them. Following the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II, He Fengshan continued to serve as a diplomat for the Republic of China. He rarely spoke of his Vienna years to anyone but for his closest friends and loved ones. In fact, He Fengshan’s story had only recently surfaced due to the first accounts of survivors from Vienna and his eulogies by his family members. What strikes awe in the heart of modern readers of his story is not only his talent of gaining beloved acceptance in a European city as a member of the Chinese diaspora living abroad, but also his appreciation of humanity and stern adherence to principles of righteousness. He would remain committed to his values even if they were at odds with a force so powerful and terrifying that it would be no surprise if instead he had he stood idle and watched the events unfold. His humility hid his story for decades, but his courage and shrewdness is an example of a special demonstration of morality by a Chinese diaspora on a foreign battleground plagued by racism and fascism.