By WYNN KOEBEL FOSTER wfoster@pioneerlocal.com

Improbable, to say the least, that an eighth-grader from Winnetka, Illinois would champion the cause of a Chinese diplomat who died at 96 halfway across the country — when she was an infant — and who accomplished his defining work halfway around the world — more than a half century before she was born. But she did. This is their story.

Career diplomat Ho Feng Shan was born in China’s Hunan province in 1901. Posted to the Chinese legation in Vienna from 1937 to 1940, he served as first secretary, then as consul-general after Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany. He died at 96 in San Francisco in 1997.

During Ho’s service in Vienna, conditions for the country’s 200,000 Jews deteriorated rapidly, becoming intolerable after the carnage of Kristallnacht in 1938. At great personal risk and against the orders of his superiors, Ho began signing visas that allowed Jews to leave Austria and emigrate to Shanghai. Historians have shown he signed more than 1,900 by October 1938. The actual number may be far greater, because Ho served in Vienna until May 1940.

Ho’s heroism went unrecognized during his lifetime. He was first honored posthumously in 2001, when he was accorded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem commission.
Wide horizons

Gertie Harris, 13, of Winnetka first learned about Dr. Ho during a family trip to Asia in 2008.

“We spent a week in Shanghai and visited the Holocaust museum there,” said Gertie’s father, Jason. “It was curated by Dr. Ho’s daughter and housed in a synagogue used by the 30,000 Jews that populated the Shanghai ghettos during World War II.”

“The museum’s architecture is very beautiful, very old,” Gertie added. “Each floor contains a different exhibit. Jewish visitors can trace their families’ time in Shanghai using the museum’s computers. There’s a flag board there, too, where visitors can place their countries’ flags.”

Gertie was so impressed by Ho, that she decided to write a paper about his achievements for her May 2009 bat mitzvah at Kol Hadash, in Deerfield. She researched his work and tried to contact his descendants. Eventually, she located his daughter, now living in San Francisco, and talked with her several times by telephone.

Ho’s recognition as Righteous Among the Nations entitled him to commemorative Israeli citizenship. His family was presented with a specially minted medal and a certificate of honor, both bearing his name. And his name was added to the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem.

But, until Gertie got involved, Ho’s name was not among those chiseled on the Fountain of the Righteous at the new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

“I toured the museum with my Sunday school class, and I noticed his name wasn’t there,” Gertie said.

Determined to right what she perceived as a wrong, Gertie embarked on a relentless campaign to see that Ho received the recognition he deserved. She wrote the museum a number of e-mails, and she placed roughly 30 telephone calls to the museum on behalf of his cause.

“I also met with museum officials,” Gertie explained, “and I mailed them a copy of the paper on Dr. Ho I wrote for my bat mitzvah, too.”
Honor conferred

Finally, thanks to Gertie Harris, on Nov. 9, 2009, the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, Ho’s name, along with the names of three others, were unveiled on the museum’s Fountain of the Righteous. Some of the fountain’s honorees — like Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, the people of Denmark and Ho — saved thousands; others, just one or two.

“The Talmud teaches us that to save a single life is to save the entire world,” said Rick Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. “These people were extraordinary for their altruism. But we needed so many more.”

Gertie; her parents, Jason Harris and Loren Deutsch; and her siblings, Ella, 11, Leo, 9, and Golda, 7, represented Ho’s family at the museum’s formal ceremonies on Nov. 9.

“We’re all so very proud of Gertie,” her father said.

And Hirschhaut is proud, too — if mildly astonished.

“Her determined effort to honor Dr. Ho is ultimately what we hope every young person would want to do after visiting this institution,” Hirschhaut said. “We’ve only been open a matter of months. Already, she’s fulfilled our mission.”