What comes to mind when you hear the word “hero?”
Fictional characters like Superman and Spiderman?
Successful entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates?
Soldiers and leaders who fight to protect others, like George Washington and Desmond Doss?
How about a couple foreign white-collar workers?
Decent Men in an Indecent World
During the Holocaust, untold numbers of neighbors and politicians looked the other way or actively participated in the Nazis’ systematic slaughter of Jews.
Yet there were also a rare few individuals who followed their conscience and saved lives at great personal risk.
One of the most well-known of these rescuers (thanks to the Spielberg movie) was Oskar Schindler, the war-profiteer-turned-savior who sheltered over a thousand German Jews by putting them on a famous list.
But Schindler was not the only Holocaust hero who used his position, connections, and paperwork to save Jewish lives.
In the late 1930s, as Jews were escaping Europe for their lives, two men from two countries in Asia saved the lives of thousands of refugees using that exact ability as foreign diplomats.
Ironically, these two unknown heroes came from China and Japan, countries that were at war with each other at the time. But they had something far more powerful in common:
Their courage and commitment to saving lives.
The Japanese Vice-Consul: Chiune Sugihara
“I may have to disobey the government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.” — Chiune Sugihara
Japanese career diplomat Chiune Sugihara worked for Japan in Manchuria (the northern Chinese territory that the Japanese took over during WWII), but resigned in protest over Japanese mistreatment of the locals. Later, he was sent to Lithuania.
When the Germans took Poland, many Jews fled to Lithuania. But with Nazi death camps on one side and Russian pogroms on the other, the Jews had to leave Europe entirely if they were to survive.
A Jewish delegation begged Sugihara for Japanese transit visas, which would allow them to cross the Soviet Union to safety.
Sugihara, who was supposed to leave Lithuania, asked for an extension and started issuing visas against orders. Japan was an ally of Germany, and by disobeying his bosses, Sugihara was risking the wrath of both the Nazi and Japanese governments.
For four weeks, Sugihara worked 16–18 hours a day, issuing around 300 handwritten visas every day.
Sugihara was forced to leave in the fall. He continued to write visas as he left on the train, finally throwing blank stamped-and-signed papers out the window as the train was pulling out of the station so that refugees could forge the documents themselves.
In total, Sugihara issued 2,140 visas to refugees. But because visa holders were able to bring their families with them, estimates of lives saved are in the 6,000s.
Sugihara was later dismissed from the foreign ministry — some say for his insubordination during WWII — and worked several part time jobs as a translator/interpreter.
The Chinese Diplomat: Feng-Shan Ho
“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.” — Feng-Shan Ho
Years earlier, as Nazi persecution of Jews was ramping up, a Chinese diplomat named Feng-Shan Ho was sent to Vienna.
Educated in a Chinese Christian school after his parents died, Ho had a deep respect for God and human life, as well as a great interest and knack for foreign languages such as German.
Which was why he was in Vienna at the time the Nazis came to power.
As the Nazis intensified their murder plot, they refused to let Jews leave Vienna unless they had proof of emigration, such as a foreign visa.
Jews in Austria went from embassy to embassy, hoping to get a visa. But most foreign countries had closed their borders to these refugees, and their embassies refused to help.
Feng-Shan Ho’s superiors also forbade him from getting involved. But against orders, Ho began to issue visas, thousands of them, to everyone who asked.
People were so desperate, they threw their passports into his car window, and Ho would issue visas and send them back.
Ho also wrote letters to bring back Jews who had been taken to nearby concentration camps, and also personally visited and escorted Jewish people to prevent Nazis from messing with them.
When the Nazis closed his office, Ho used his own money to set up another one. When Ho’s boss from China called to scream at him, Ho replied:
“I just have one life. If that can be exchanged for thousands, it’s worth it.”
Nobody knows exactly how many lives Ho ended up saving. Given that he issued 1,200 visas in his first 3 months of service alone (and stayed in Vienna for years), and the fact that one visa could save more than one life, he certainly saved at least many thousands.
Ho was later given a black mark on his record and denied a government pension in spite of forty years of service to his country.
Feng-Shan Ho eventually moved to America, where he stayed involved in his church and community in San Francisco until he passed away in his nineties.
The Secret They Kept
Both Ho and Sugihara kept their stories quiet.
The Sugiharas did not tell anyone what they did, and Ho only told his children a couple stories of his time in Vienna, without mentioning the fact that he’d written thousands of visas to save lives.
Sugihara’s story was eventually brought to light by an Israeli diplomat in Tokyo, who wanted to find the man who had saved his family.
In 1985, Sugihara was honored with Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations” award for his actions during the war. He was also honored in Japan and Lithuania with a memorial park and the Sugihara House, respectively.
As for Feng-Shan Ho: His daughter started to look into her father’s history only after he died in 1997, and that is when the whole story came out.
Ho was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem with the “Righteous Among the Nations” award in 2000.
Are Heroes Rare?
Ho and Sugihara were did not serve on the front lines, throw grenades, or drive tanks. They don’t fit our typical “war hero” imagery.
They were, in fact, ordinary, decent men. And they themselves saw things the same way, which is likely the reason why they did not go around bragging about their acts after the fact.
Yet being a decent man in an indecent world is truly a rare thing.
And that, in the end, is what made them heroes — the willingness to be decent when everyone else around them was not. The refusal to sacrifice principle for public approbation.
From another perspective, it is sad that Sugihara and Ho became heroes — not because they don’t deserve our respect and admiration, but that they lived during a time and in a situation where their actions were so abnormal that they fell into the category of heroics.
If everyone around them had acted as they did, they would not have needed to do what they did.
If everyone loved their neighbors a little more, ordinary acts of kindness and decency would not need to look so unusual.
Ho and Sugihara were true heroes, in every sense of the word. But their heroism was illuminated only because others refused to help and/or actively chose to make things worse.
A World With No More (Need For) Heroes?
…This kind of world will never exist. At least, not in this life. As long as we live in an imperfect world, evil will continue to rise and fall like a wave, in ways big and small, across countries and generations.
And those who try to create a utopia, a heaven-on-earth, are usually the worst offenders.
(The Nazis, after all, believed they were “making the world a better place” by wiping out Jews, disabled people, gypsies, and everyone else they didn’t like)
Instead, we all need to soberly consider that we always have to be on guard against evil: evil out there in the world, and evil inside ourselves.
Killing people, stealing other people’s belongings, and burning down other people’s houses is evil.
But so is looking the other way when such things happen, failing to lift a finger to help when you can, and refusing to speak truthfully and bravely in the face of dark lies.
May we ordinary people strive to stop creating/allowing evil situations that require other, ordinary people to step out and become heroes — just to clean up the messes that the masses have made.
The presence of heroes among us is a sign that there are still many things wrong with this life, and we will never completely eradicate the need for courageous people in this world.
But if we all pitched in a little more than we have been, imagine what our corner of the world would start to look like…?
So may we ALL learn to be ordinary, “unknown” heroes:
People who step up and care for one another.
People who practice, as Jesus said, “loving others as ourselves.”
People who put a little bit of our broken world back together again.
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