We call them the Righteous Among the Nations – the courageous non-Jews who, despite threat of death, did everything possible to save Jews from the Nazis. Some are well-known, others less so, and some are simply unsung heroes.
Many know of the heroic acts of Oscar Schindler, whose list of Jews he protected became the stuff of movies; or Miep Geis, who helped hide Anne Frank’s family. Perhaps most famous of all was Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg, whose ingenuity saved more than 100,000 Jews.
Wallenberg was not the only diplomat to have acted on behalf of Jewish victims. A few others also risked their careers, even their lives, to save thousands.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes was Portugal’s consul-general in Bordeaux, France, in May of 1940. He was torn by the plight of Jewish families gathered outside his consulate hoping for safe transit visas that would take them to neutral Portugal. He handed out hundreds until his government expressly demanded he stop. “I choose to stand with God against man than with man against God,” he declared, defiantly handing out thousands more visas. For his efforts, he was stripped of his diplomatic career and died in 1954, a penniless recluse unheralded for his heroism. Thirty years later, thanks to the work of his family and those he saved, his rights were posthumously restored and he was recognized at Israel’s Yad Vashem for his extraordinary courage.
Hiram Bingham IV was the American vice-consul in Vichy-held Marseilles in 1939. Shamefully, like many other countries, including Canada, the U.S. had a “no Jewish” refugees policy strictly followed by its officials in Europe. Bingham would have none of it. Like Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux, he handed out more than 2,500 travel visas, among them to artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, as well as to the family of writer Thomas Mann. Indeed, one story tells of Bingham’s entering a concentration camp with visas in hand, demanding the release of prisoners. Sadly, he, too, was forced out of the diplomatic service. Little was known of his extraordinary efforts at the time of his death in 1988, until his son found letters among his belongings. Consequently, Bingham has been honoured by the United Nations and Israel. In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp.
There’s also the extraordinary story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania. Defying orders from Tokyo, he issued more than 6,000 transit visas. Among those he saved were my father’s nephews, Sam and Issy Fishbain. After the war, when asked about his visa initiative, Sugihara simply said: “There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives. … The spirit of humanity, philanthropy … neighbourly friendship … with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did.”
Perhaps one of the strangest stories is that of Feng-Shan Ho, the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, who was stationed there shortly after the Nazi annexation of Austria. He despised the Austrians’ fanatical adulation of Hitler and the country’s treatment of its Jews. When Japan occupied China in 1937, the Chinese Nationalist government retreated to Chongqing, leaving Shanghai harbour with no passport control to check documents such as visas.
That’s when Ho put his ingenious plan in place. He provided Jews who weren’t allowed to leave Austria without proof of emigration a visa to Shanghai, where no one would check their papers. Not surprisingly, he found himself under intense pressure from his superiors to stop his life-saving work. But he, too, refused, signing thousands of visas. Among those he saved was Eric Goldslaub, then 17, and his family. Thanks to Ho’s courage, Eric’s family eventually immigrated to Toronto, where they live to this day.
Before his death in 1997, Ho told his daughter Manli why he took such a risk. “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.”
Bernie Farber, the former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress, is the son of a Holocaust survivor. He speaks Wednesday night at the Richmond Hill (Ont.) Public Library.