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Ho Feng Shan: the Chinese Schindler

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Ho Feng Shan, the consul general in Vienna for the Nationalist Chinese government from 1938 to 1940, rescued tens of thousands of Jews by issuing visas to Shanghai during World War II (Credit: Manli Ho)

Friday marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. While there is no shortage of amazing tales of heroism that have emerged from accounts of the war, the story of Ho Feng Shan did not begin receiving the attention it deserves until recently. The man responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Jews during the war died in relative anonymity back in 1997. It wasn’t until the curator at an exhibition about diplomat rescuers noticed something about a brief anecdote in his obituary that his bravery began to be revealed.

As Wayne Chang describes in his account of Ho for CNN, after noticing the brief account of Ho being confronted by a gestapo officer during the war, the curator got in touch with Ho’s daughter  who then spent the next 10 years attempting to discover the truth about her father’s past. It turns out that, while serving as the Consul-General at the Chinese embassy in Vienna, he provided thousands of visas to the Jews there, often against the orders of his superiors. These visas enabled them to escape Nazi-occupied Austria before they could be sent to the concentration camps. While the exact number of visas given out is not known, Xu Xin, a professor of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, estimates that Ho saved more than 5,000 lives through his efforts. As a result, he is commonly referred to as the Chinese Schindler in reference to the Polish industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who saved roughly 1,200 Jews by giving them jobs at his factory.

The visas Ho gave to the Jews were unique in that they were only for Shanghai. At that point, Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese army and didn’t have immigration controls. Consequently, you didn’t actually need a visa to get there. However, the visas Ho gave enabled the refugees to attain transit visas to the U.S., Palestine, and the Philippines along with several other destinations. Moreover, as word began to spread among the Jews in Nazi-occupied territories, many others departed for the safety of Shanghai even without one of Ho’s visas. It is estimated that roughly 25,000 Jewish refugees sought shelter in the city, many because of what they learned from Ho or those whom he had helped.

In the years since his story came to light, Ho has received numerous awards for his bravery and service to the Jewish people. In 2000, Israel gave him the title “Righteous Among the Nations,” one of its highest honors. The U.S. Senate honored him in 2008 and earlier this year, a commemorative plaque was placed on the former Chinese Consulate building from which he issued safe passage for thousands.

Ho Feng Shan’s story is remarkable for a number of reasons. The sheer volume of lives he saved, both directly and indirectly, through his visas, is staggering. That he did not seek recognition or praise for his actions after the war but rather was content with simply knowing that he had helped is both honorable and amazing. But the fact that he viewed the dire situation of the Jews in his city and decided to use what means he had to do something about their plight is inspiring.

It’s inspiring because Ho didn’t lead a grand army that could liberate the captured Jews or fight back against the Nazis. He didn’t have the political clout to wage a public war against their tyranny. Rather, he had a pen and some paper to go along with the authority vested in his position. Yet he used what resources he had to accomplish something truly extraordinary.

Ho’s story reminds us that the only thing that is necessary to make a difference in this world is a willingness to act and to use whatever means are at your disposal to accomplish your goal. The testimony of scripture offers further evidence of that truth. Whether it is a murderous exile returning to lead his people out of slavery or 11 previously inept and frightened men carrying on the cause of their Lord and changing the world through his power, the Bible demonstrates that the will to follow God and the faith to trust his plan positions us to act in his strength and accomplish truly amazing things for his kingdom.

Moreover, he calls every Christian to do just that. God has a plan to accomplish something truly kingdom-altering through you and that plan doesn’t require you to be promoted at work, gain more popularity at school, or alter anything about your situation in life other than your commitment to being used by him. And while we may never fully understand the impact of our present obedience this side of heaven, Jesus wasn’t exaggerating when he said that nothing is impossible for those who have faith and act on it according to God’s will (Matthew 17:20).  

So pray and ask God to show you how he wants to use your influence for his kingdom today. But don’t ask if you aren’t willing to obey when he responds. The kind of faith we’re talking about is neither measured nor circumstantial. But if you are ready for that kind of commitment, whatever it might entail, then you are ready to be used by our heavenly Father to make an impact on this world for him.

When Ho Feng Shan wrote that first visa, he didn’t fully understand what it would lead to or how many lives would be touched by his commitment to helping those around him. In the same way, we have no way of knowing what God will do through even our smallest acts of obedience. But whether it makes a difference in the life of one person or in the lives of thousands, God measures our success not in the outcome but in our faithfulness to him. So how do you measure up today?

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