How envoy rescued thousands
When the Nazis marched into Vienna in March 1938 surrounded by throngs of cheering Austrians, a Chinese family worried things were about to go from bad to horrific for the city’s 160,000 Jews.
Monto Ho, 9, was living there with his father, Chinese Consul General Feng Shan Ho, who had been assigned there the previous year.
During the two years that followed, Feng Shan Ho defied his superior’s orders and issued thousands of visas to the international city of Shanghai for Jews seeking to escape Nazi oppression. Monto Ho will relate stories about his father tonight as the keynote speaker at the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation’s Yom Hashoa program in remembrance of the Holocaust.
“He had a very strong sense of right and wrong,” said Ho, now 79 and living in Upper St. Clair.
It is unknown how many Jews Ho’s father saved, because Feng Shan Ho didn’t keep track of the visas, but research by his daughter, Manli Ho, and Holocaust researcher Eric Saul indicate he might have approved as many as 500 visas a month for two years.
“The Jews wanted to leave, but they couldn’t get visas from nations in Western Europe,” said Monto Ho, a University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus who has lived in Allegheny County for 47 years.
His father, who died in 1997 at age 96, devoted less than three pages in his 400-page autobiography to his work helping Austrian Jews escape a nightmare, Monto Ho said. Three years after his death, Feng Shan Ho became the second Chinese person recognized by Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, as Righteous Among the Nations. The distinction is given to gentiles, such as Oskar Schindler, who aided Jews during the Holocaust.
“He was doing this at a time when other gates were closed,” said Edie Naveh, director of the Holocaust Center in Squirrel Hill. Despite being disciplined by the Chinese government and losing his pension because of his defiance, “he didn’t think it was a big deal.”
Feng Shan Ho and his family left Austria in 1940 when his father was reassigned to the United States, and they lived in Brooklyn for a year, Monto Ho said. Most of the family moved back to Chungking, near their native province of Hunan in south-central China, a year later. Monto Ho headed to Hong Kong for an education that turned into another collision with history.
Japanese troops took over Hong Kong in December 1941, cutting off Monto Ho from his family.
“They didn’t hear from me for three months,” he said.
In February 1942, Monto Ho and a small group of high school classmates embarked on a five-hour boat ride for Canton, in mainland China. Since the Japanese controlled both Canton and Hong Kong, travel between the cities was allowed. The students decided that once they got to the mainland, they’d walk along the wintery coast and look for a break in the Japanese line.
“The Japanese could not have soldiers everywhere,” Monto Ho said. “We decided we would walk our way into free China.”
Japanese soldiers stopped and inspected them several times — “At the drop of a hat, they would slap you around,” he said — but each time they were let go. The most dire threat came from their own countrymen.
“There were a lot of bandits. It was a lawless area” between the Japanese outposts, Ho said. As darkness fell, they camped out in an abandoned, roofless temple. Bandits, who at first claimed to be guerillas, took Ho’s money and coat, then refused to return the eyeglasses he had put in his coat pocket.
“I was half-blind, cold and shivering,” Ho said. A few days later, however, they made it to a city in Guangdong Province, in southern China. Ho sent a telegraph to his father, who wired him money but told him he had to leave immediately for an assignment in the United States. It would be another year and a half before father and son were reunited in their native province.
Two years after the war ended, in 1947, Feng Shan Ho again was sent abroad, this time to Egypt. Monto Ho, who had completed two years of college, applied and was accepted to Harvard, where he met his wife, Carol. They married in 1952 and have two children.
Monto Ho graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1949 with a degree in philosophy and government, intending to return to China to serve his country as his father had done. But history, again, interfered.
Mao Tse-Tung declared in October of that year that China was a communist nation, and Monto Ho, suspicious of the new government, decided to study medicine instead. If he couldn’t serve his country, he decided, he would serve his fellow man.
“That is the main reason I chose medicine — to serve,” he said.
Monto Ho graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1954 and eventually got a job at the University of Pittsburgh, where he became a pioneer in infectious disease research. He rose through the school’s ranks to lead the department of infectious diseases and microbiology, until he retired in 1996.
Ho finally got his chance to serve the Republic of China in 1997, when he went to Taiwan to help the country cut down on the overuse of antibiotics that was making the medicines all but useless. Since he left in 2002, Taiwan’s antibiotic use has fallen 50 percent and evidence is beginning to show that the drugs are working as well as they should, Ho said.
“I was able, late in my life, to accomplish something that was always my ideal,” he said.