I never expected to meet a Holocaust rescuer while travelling in China this summer. Yet on a sweltering summer day in Shanghai, I was introduced to just such an unsung hero.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, I spent my childhood listening to my father's stories about the family he lost, his daring escape from the train that was supposed to carry him to his death and his will to live life to the fullest on behalf of those who would never have that chance.
I learned many lessons from these stories, the most important being that we all have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable around us.
These lessons informed my life. I studied sociology at university, then became a social worker for the Children's Aid Society in Ottawa. I spent a number of years trying to protect at-risk children from the imminent dangers in their lives. Despite all my efforts, it always hurt to know that there were people around these incredibly vulnerable children who saw what was happening, but chose to do nothing.
Eventually, I moved on to a new phase in my career, becoming an advocate for Canada's Jewish community. I've spent nearly 30 years doing this work, and for most of it I have been heartened by the will of so many Canadians to fight hate in all its forms. I've had the opportunity to work with many Holocaust survivors who inspire me through their willingness to keep fighting for a better world despite the horrors they endured.
And yet, there have also been times when I have been disappointed by the lack of action against human-rights abuses or acts of hate. It made me wonder what makes one person do nothing in the face of horror, while another will take whatever heroic, dangerous steps necessary to stop it.
I still don't have the answer. Instead, I celebrate those who do take action to make this world a better place.
I found someone new and eminently worthy to fete on my recent trip to China. My wife and I were there as part of a visit with our daughter, who was teaching English in the region. We knew we couldn't miss Shanghai, and made our way to this crowded, fascinating city in the height of summer.
It was our good fortune that the World Expo was taking place while we were there. So we stood in long lines, sweating in 40C heat, trying to get into the country pavilions. We began in the astounding China pavilion, and slowly made our way to the small but truly Canadian pavilion. But it was at the Israeli pavilion that I had my epiphany.
As I walked through the space, I noticed a small display honouring a Chinese diplomat from the late 1930s. I was intrigued by the notion that Israel would give such a place of honour to a Chinese citizen.
It turned out to be a man who should be famous the world over for his heroism. Dr. Feng Shan Ho was one of the first diplomats to save Jews by issuing them visas to escape the Nazis and the Holocaust. Appointed the Chinese consul general in Vienna months after Germany's annexation of Austria, he was repelled by the Austrians' fanatic welcome 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 or any authority to check documents such as visas.
That's when Dr. Ho put his ingenious plan in place. It was the perfect ploy - he provided Jews who were not allowed to leave Austria without proof of emigration a visa to Shanghai, where no one would check their papers. From there they could find safe haven elsewhere in the world.
Despite intense pressure from his superiors to stop, he spent two years signing thousands of visas for Jews. He averaged 500 to 900 visas a month.
I was stunned. How could I have never heard of Dr. Feng Shan Ho? How could it be that people the world over hadn't shouted his name and his story of courage from the rooftops? Israel had recognized him with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, but his should be a household name, like that of Raoul Wallenberg and Oscar Schindler. Even at the time, Dr. Ho remained unknown to most of those whose lives he saved with visas. That felt so wrong.
I decided Canadians needed to know more about this man and his great deeds. I arranged to be connected with his daughter, Manli, who happened to be in Toronto recently filming interviews for a Chinese documentary on her father. We had a lovely dinner in October, and I told her of my plan to make her father a household name. A commemoration and exhibit to honour him in Toronto is already in the works - a partnership between the Jewish and Chinese communities of Canada.
In the Jewish tradition it is said, "When you have no choice, mobilize the spirit of courage." Dr. Feng Shan Ho understood that living in a time of evil, he had no choice but to act. By honouring this man, I hope that his courage, which inspired me, will also inspire other Canadians to take their own steps, big or small, to make the world a better place.
Bernie M. Farber is CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress and lives in Thornhill, Ont.