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Chinese diplomat saved thousands from Holocaust

Two Winnipeggers among those helped by Fengshan Ho

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When no other country was willing to help during the Holocaust, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna rescued thousands of Jews, including two Winnipeg women.

Their story about finding refuge in Shanghai and pieces of their past are on display this month at the Millennium Library.

"The only country in the world that would accept us without a passport was China," survivor Judith Schaffer Lavitt said at Wednesday's opening of the exhibit, Winnipeg Shanghai Connection II.

The exhibit, curated by Brandon University Prof. Alison Marshall, shows how the Chinese consul in Vienna obtained visas for European Jews so they could travel to Shanghai and take refuge when no other country would have them. The exhibit shows the impact a single person like Fengshan Ho can have when they act with courage on their convictions, said Marshall.

"Humanity, not race, motivated Dr. Fengshan Ho," Marshall said at the exhibit's opening, which was attended by Lt-Gov. Philip Lee, Multiculturalism and Immigration Minister Christine Melnick and Mayor Sam Katz.

The exhibit offers a snapshot of the lives of two Winnipeg families -- the Gellers and the Schaffers -- who found refuge in Shanghai.

When they got to Shanghai, it was no Shangri-La, Lavitt said.

"People were poor. They sold household possessions to get something to eat."

Her dad made raincoats in their crowded Shanghai apartment to survive, she remembers.

Miriam Geller Feierstein said after they escaped the Nazis, they found themselves living under Japanese occupation in Shanghai.

"When we went to China, we went to a concentration camp run by the Japanese," said Feierstein, having a look at the exhibit. On display are a couple of games she saved from her childhood in Shanghai -- Chinese and regular checkers.

Fun memories are few, though. The 75-year-old said she just recently stopped having bad dreams about that time.

"I was hit on the head with the butt of a rifle," she said, recalling the time when she was seven and delivered a meal to her dad in a work camp. Japanese soldiers yelled at her, hit her with the gun butt and chased her away, she said.

They lived in a large room with 50 people and just a small space to themselves. Sometimes there was no food or water. Kids were put to work, too.

"They made the children clean up the metal filings" from the workshop floor using their bare hands, she recalled. It was painful but it was familiar, said Feierstein.

At the end of the occupation, when they found out they were free, the little girl wasn't cheering with the crowds.

"I was crying, 'Now what will become of us?' "

Her family settled in Winnipeg and she was married for more than 50 years before her husband died. They had children and grandchildren and she is grateful to be alive.

"I am lucky to survive this war," said Feierstein. "It's made me a stronger person."

Her saviour, Ho, died in 1997.

In 2000, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, gave Ho the title of Righteous Among the Nations, citing his "humanitarian courage."

"I'm very proud," said Dr. Joseph Du, president of the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre. Du said the late diplomat issued 18,000 exit visas so Jews could go to Shanghai, "an open city."

"It was a very good gesture," said Du.

In 2001, Winnipeg's Chinese and Japanese communities with the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada created a unique exhibit, Shanghai Connection. It told the story of the 18,000 Jewish Holocaust refugees who escaped to Shanghai in 1939 and 1940, during the onset of the Second World War.

The exhibit on display at the Millennium Library, Winnipeg Shanghai Connection II, focuses on the two Winnipeg survivors. It's in the Blankstein Gallery on the second floor of the library until May 31.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2012 A2

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