University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Commentary on Visa Question

Lotte Marcus, PhD
95 Corona Way 
Carmel  CA  93923     


Dear ex-Viennese Shanghailanders,

I am one of the 4,500 to 6,000 Viennese who arrived in Shanghai between 1938 and 1941. My name then was Lotte Lustig: now it is Lotte Marcus.

I am astonished that  more than sixty years after our  departure from Vienna – more than fifty years post-Hiroshiima and the end of World War II,– the subject of my family's and my  departure from Vienna  has once again become a subject of interest to me. I hope my interest may ignite yours – who were also Shanghai,Viennese-born emigrants :

To repeat: at age 75, with several careers behind me, with grown children and grandchildren – in other words with a fully lived  life, something has so recently aroused my interest in the circumstances, the difficulties and the risks we encountered,in those times as we sought to leave Vienna for an uncertain future,--  that I am impelled to write to you..

I was 11 years old when Hitler, on March 11, 1938, rode down the Ring and the Kaertnerstrasse and Austria was suddenly  "conquered." Like many of you survivors, my father was fired from his job in August of that year, and his brother, Alfred,  was taken to  Dachau, the first of the labor-concentration camps. On October 18, 1938, my father found himself standing in a long line in front of a building because "someone" had told him that the Chinese Consul  was giving out visas to Shanghai. My father happened to have our passports on him : he stood in line and retrieved three visas – "just in case" he told us.

Shanghai, to my mother, was the end of the earth if not farther. Our expectations had been to migrate to a Western country -America, England, Australia, France, etc."Schanghai? Ja wo ist das doch?" she said. ("Shanghai? Where is that?" China?" said the mother of a friend of mine). "Ja da toeten sie doch alle weisse Menschen?"(China? That's where they kill all white folks".) We were not only  politically incorrect by today's standards, but  we were also truly ignorant about the world outside of our central European-learned stereotypical attitudes.: in other words we who were prejudiced against were also prejudiced- with the only difference being that we lacked any power to act on our prejudices..

In November came Kristallnacht. In December Alfred's body was sent to us – he died, we were told, of "pneumonia"  which he allegedly caught, working  in the freezing cold  on  road construction wearing the famed striped pajamas (much like in the 1950's during the Chinese revolution, the Chinese Communists made Chinese professionals and intellectuals work in rice paddies.).Human evil, I have learned since our emigration, was and is not limited to the Nazis: only the specific details, the forms & the extent of the torture, vary.

It was then that Shanghai no longer loomed as a distant possibility but became an immediate neccessity. We made preparations to leave promptly. In a family of about 45 persons,- only about twenty-seven  managed to get out;about 18 perished in the camps or on the road to leaving.

Fast forward: years have passed since the times I have just described, when in May of this year, a friend, visiting at our house, asked if I still had my German passport. He knew someone who was looking for such passports though he wasn't sure why. The person who was on this mission turned out to be a journalist by the name of  Manli Ho, the  daughter of  the Chinese Consul,in Vienna in the late 1930's,  Dr. Feng Shan Ho, who issued us our visas! With serendipitous luck, I found the passports in old files & I  showed  her her father's signature on Visa No. 1681,  issued to my  mother (with my name in the passport) and Visa No. 1787 issued to my  father, on October 18, 1938. In other words, on that same day it looks like the Chinese Consul in Vienna issued at least 106 visas to would-be Jewish immigrants .

Like many of you, I have always known, of course, that you really didn't "need" to get a visa  to go to Shanghai. Shanghai, we were told, had no quotas – unlike USA, Australia, etc. -anyone who had the money actually could go there & would be allowed in..

But there is a much deeper subtext to this story and that is why I am writing.

It is difficult today to recreate the terrible climate of rejection and humiliation that existed for us. For example, my father had made me write English letters to all the Lustigs that lived in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, hoping that one would identify himself as a relative and help us. We got almost 48 replies – all equally polite, equally firm that THEY  couldn't help. And another refugee  in Vienna in 1938, I was told, had run around  to all the consulates in Vienna and had been refused entrance  by all of them!.               .

Dr. Ho,too, had not been wholly aware of how desperate & perilous  our situation was becoming until on Nov. 10, 1938  --( the terrible day of KristallnachtI on which Jews were attacked & pillaged all over Europe ) ---he happened to be visiting two Jewish friends for dinner when he witnessed the brutal arrival of two Gestapo agents who had come to  take the husband away to one of the labor camps. It was at this moment that Dr. Ho changed from Consul to rescuer. He had the wit, the courage, the audacity to intervene. He confronted the Gestapo and curtly said "You cannot take this man because he is going to Shanghai and we are just now discussing the papers  he'll need which I am going to approve for a Visa!"   Didn't  the Gestapo know that Shanghai didn't require visas?  Was it their ignorance that prompted them to accept this  impromptu answer?       

In any case, Dr. Ho's Jewish friends were saved from the camps because of Dr. Ho's radical & spontaneously humane action.

From that moment on, Dr. Ho must have begun to realize how excruciating a power fate had arbitrarily placed in his hands.; it was not the visa to GET TO Shanghai that was important ; the visa was crucial in order for persons to be able to LEAVE the country.!(Or, he may have understood the terrible double-bind the Jews had to submit to – namely, their internal psychological choices were between the fear of labor camps or the fear of leaving  their Heimat, the home they knew.And while the first was an untenable fear, the latter not only included the fear of the departure, but the many obstacles the Nazis put in the way to make leaving difficult.)

So, looked at it that way, from October 18, 1938 on, the visa, for my parents, whose European upbringing made them literally stand at attention before the legitimacy of "official" documents, the German Reisepass with its  indelibly stamped visa became  a  talisman,  against its often arbitrary &  unequally enforced use . In fact, until the day of our departure for Shanghai, January 11, 1938,  my parents, family & friends, used to huddle together night after night, recounting  the latest daily rumors & horror stories involving relatives or friends (many of whom seemed suddenly to've dropped out of sight,), meanwhile obsessively turning the pages of a world atlas & fingering the paper outlines of imagined countries as far apart as  Australia and Africa,--trying to calm,perhaps,  the rising anguish & uncertainty they felt about  both our precarious  present & our ephemeral future . And in this truly nightmarish climate of fear & worry the fact that we had in our possession an authentic document, -- an actual validated entry visa signed by the current Chinese consul in Vienna allowing us the right of entry into his country whenever we could get there, -- was a fact of tremendous comforting daily reassurance; it was, I think,  a kind of secret "passport to safety" with which we were able to console ourselves during those terrible weeks of waiting and worrying, living in limbo and hoping against hope that today, tomorrow  or least -the day after, would turn out to be for us the day of salvation  the day when we'd finally be able, at long last, to make our familial escape from the hell of Nazidom.

In other words, it was the assumed "legitimacy" ---whether real or imagined, - this visa seemed to confer on us in our own minds, testifying to our viability as actual candidates for imminent emigration, that kept sustaining us during this awful time. My mother & I would fret at home fearful for his safe return while my father would go around on his daily errands, clutching his bulging briefcase as he marched dutifully from office to office, registering his address,  reporting his income, requesting an exit permit, purchasing our railroad and boat tickets, etc.  --always vigilant as to whether he might be stripped, picked up, or arbitrarily forced, say, to wash a nearby street pavement, ( but always fiercely holding on to the one security blanket he had been serendipitously given : our Open Sesame, our Shanghai visa!. )

On January 11, 1939, with over twenty of our relatives,  at the Viennese Bahnhof,including our 78 yer old Grosspapa  who would die  in Teresienstadt  in 1942, we said good-bye. A Christian friend  at the train pressed on my mother her coat  into which she had sewn two small diamonds, knowing that she would not be searched as she stepped  into the Wartungszimmer  but it was around this coat, that there was yet one more moment to come during which our Visa played a vital role.

The moment happened  on the train when we stopped at a small Austria/Italian border town and the last Gestapo man I will ever have seen in person climbed aboard, and asked to see our passports. He looked at the Visa. "Aha, Schanghai? Das wird ja wirklich schoen sein!" he uttered, ( "Ah, Shanghai ! That will really be  lovely " ) as if we were a party of pre War tourists, say, bound for the Orient on a simple pleasure trip, & without the slightest hint of irony in his voice. And then  he asked my mother to step out holding  her passport in hand. So preoccupied was he with the document, he didn't notice that my mother's coat was folded away on the top of a suitcase. She had been selected to be body searched. Nevertheless we stopped breathing? Would the Visa help us to get out? Would one more authority's stamp be found missing? Would my mother become separated from us?

Fear without power is paralyzing: once such fears become chronic they can turn into a sustaining trauma for its victims.

That is why I have never forgotten the way my mother and father kissed as the train rolled on, past the small Tyrolian station, after my mother had returned after an excruciating 15 minutes, forever escaping the coming infernal conflagration that was to devour European Jewry, the German Reisepass between them.

So, after Manli Ho's visit, I turned the pages of this document with a Visa now  67 years old, with a birthday next  October 18th. I noticed for the first time other official stamps which I had never carefully scrutinized before. The first,  stamp is on the last page on the passport, issued by a Genoa  railroad  official, and dated January 10, 1939 "entrata"; the other is dated January 26, 1939, from the maritime officials  ""uscita". It is on page 32, the last page of the passport.  Was there an agreement that the intermediate authorities (railroad and maritime) would stamp passports on the last page? Because when I turn to the page right after Dr. Feng Han Sho's Visa -- and crammed between it and the Viennese police official's declaration that  on January 2, 1939 we were not allowed to deal in any foreign currency, --  I glimpse a note from an Italian Bank in Genoa on January 10, 1939 declaring that my father received 50 English Pounds from a London bank on the same date,  and, again  100 Pounds from a bank in Brussels on Jan,. 23, 1939.. So now for the first time I begin to understand, I think, how we managed to leave Vienna without money and yet were able to buy perfumes (for later sale in Shanghai) from the ship's luxury items stores which on the third day after departure were completely depleted. because of the onslaught of 600 refugees on board.

The ship steamed from Genoa to Port Said, through the Suez Canal to Aden. to  Bombay, to Colombo, to Singapore, to Manila, to Hong Kong and to Shanghai. Was our Visa needed anywhere? No but  were we allowed to leave and go off ship anywhere?  Could we have escaped to other parts unknown having used the Chinese Visa as an excuse?

Here my passport has only a partial answer. On page 11 there are two stamps from, the Port of Colombo dated February 10, 1939 ; the other from the Shore Police Department from the Port  of Hong Kong dated February 20, 1939. And yet my recollection is we were able to go on shore – and did -  in all the cities except Port Said.  Was there a consistent policy to keep the Jews out or were we treated as first class passengers –that is, as tourists who certainly would not be interested in "escaping: anywhere  but would go on to their intended destination like everybody else ?  Or could the British, hearing of the plight of the eastward bound refugees, have opened their ports to us and thus spread the infusion of refugees around? Yes they could. They did not have a diplomat rescuer on that end.

"The Answer" as Bob Dylan said "is blowing in the wind".

What  appears to me true, at any rate,  is that  1939 was still the (waning) heyday of the British colonial Empire. The British were still in Palestine, in India, in Sir L:anka, in Hong Kong, and, partially, in Shanghai. It was the British as much as the Americans who did not open their doors to us & who therefore make Dr. Ho's gesture even more meaningful.

Could we have escaped  from the boat to seek our fortunes elsewhere?  Clearly, we could have- if we had had the guts and daring to try.  In fact,, in Colombo, there were rumors of an 18 year old single young adult who never made it back on board. There was no one searching for him, either. .After all,  who, under the circumstances, would volunteer to be responsible for such a fugitive ----stateless, undocumented, solitary, pathologically desperate -----harbinger of  that  spreading "sludge" of human flotsam,  politically "indigestible,"  - continually being driven or dropped into various kinds of geo-political "no-man's"  land by brutal decades of tribal warfare, political vendettas, ethnic cleansings,  religious jejads etc. & similar notorious "blessings" of our bloodthirsty era, -- blessing which, alas,  each days headline only seems to keep confirming (appallingly) , anew.

He was emblematic, too,   perhaps, of that continuing pariah-like throng who, more often than not these days, seems to vanish without a trace, ---people whose whole previous existence had left them ill equipped to cope with the guerilla warfare agenda ----the street level "smarts"  --- history so preposterously sometimes  demands of them. 

So when the boat arrived in Shanghai, there was no music, no flowers, There was no Chinese official to greet us. No Visa was looked at.  We disembarked  unceremoniously, amidst the bruhaha  of Chinese loaders, coolies, vendors.  Left behind now were the  flambees, the champagnes, the chocolate éclairs, the 4 o"clock tea dance musicales, ---all those makeshift charades of  tinsel and pomp of our shipboard  Dolce Vita .  Soon we entered rickety trucks that carted us to improvised  camps erected by Shanghai Jewry. . 

Dr. Ho to us --- until  Manli, pointed this out to me,---  had been just another official – before whom my father would have prostrated himself to get help. The fact that Shanghai didn't "need" a Visa made his work until now seem even more mechanical – just a piece of luck in a time when luck was not with us.

But seen from the perspective I've been trying to re-imagine, I am convinced that   Dr. Ho not only enabled  wives to get their husbands out of jail, in many cases,  he prevented  families  from being torn murderously apart; above all,   he succeeded in opening the (figurative) prison gates for hundreds of Viennese  men, women and children, enabling them  to make an effective  get-a-way from the homicidally crazed  Nazis.,not only to China but eventually to many other places elsewhere  in the world.

Dr. Ho' was chastised by his superiors & was eventually demoted  for issuing so many visas to emigrating Jews. In time he was forced to leave  his post in Vienna and even spent some time in a kind of limbo in the  United States . Not until the attack on  Pearl Harbor months later, in 1941  ----when political alignments underwent a radical change globally & Germany (as an ally of Japan ) automatically became an enemy of China –was Dr Ho recalled to the Chinese diplomatic service. Subsequently he spent many years heading Chinese embassies all over the world, ( at first for the Nationalists, then later, for Taiwan, ) serving in,  among other places, Cairo, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Chile and elsewhere.

Dr. Ho died 4 years ago at the age of 96 in San Francisco. For his humanitarian work in the thirties,  he was designated by Israel as a "righteous  gentile" --- one of that (heartbreakingly) small band of  Diplomat Rescuers – the Righteous Ones –--  former Consular officials who risked their reputations & careers to save whatever  Jewish lives they could during the worst years of the murderous Nazi rampage. (See "Diplomat Rescuers and the Story of Feng Shan Ho" produced by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in partnership with Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats and Manli Ho.) .

I believe that we as refugees have a special obligation to remember those who helped us – besides Dr. Ho, the names of  Horace  Kadoorie, Victor Sassoon, Laura  Margolies, Major Fine of the US Army who  in their own way were rescuers. I never had a chance to thank them and neither, I think, did you.

So after my first meeting with ManLi Ho, I made up the following dialogue. It was between me and my dead father who died in Shanghai of kidney cancer in 1945. But it was addressed to Dr. Ho.

Me (to my dead father): "I just heard the most amazing thing about our visas to Shanghai " (and I tell him our story)

Oskar (my father): "No, that cant be….I remember it clearly, it was a cold day and I was freezing and the man in front of me said "just hold your passports and you'll get a visa…. After all, standing in line is what we did in those days…."

Me:" But I just learned that it was more than that. Our visas were the result of a deliberate(and often risky ) act of human resourcefulness and kindness."

Oskar:  "Why didn't anybody tell us that….?"

Me:  "Nobody knew….."

Oskar:  "But then if nobody knew, I feel badly. Shanghai saved our lives (except my own) "_            

Me:"  What would you have liked to say to the Herr Konsul?"

Oskar:  "I would like to tell him now: Ja, das war eine grosse Sache die Sie getan haben. Ich will Ihnen wirklich danken, sehr geehrter Herr Konsul. Das haben wir gar nicht veerstanden. Bitte entschuldigen Sie uns. Es war eine wirkliche schwere Zeit. Vielen, vielen Dank. Wir haben nicht einmal Ihren Namen gewusst. Oder ist es jetzt schon zu spaet? (Yes, that was a bigt deal what you did for us. I want to truly thank you, your Honor, Mr. Consul. We truly did not understand this. Please forgive us. It was a terribly difficult time. Many, many thanks, We did not even know your name. Or is it too late now?)

End of Dialogue

If this story moves you, as it has moved me, if you still have your German passport with your Chinese visa; or if you wish to express your thanks to the work of Dr. Ho, Please send me a note to the address below.

Finally, I  don't think we have ever come to some understanding about the Chinese culture into which we were thrust for a few years. I regret this. Many of us did not know that the Chinese, too, had been colonized and oppressed and exploited and were not yet a self-determining people. It was a curious stand-off -------Western immigrant refugees confronting colonized and oppressed natives whose language and culture remained largely unintelligible to us.

It is never too late to rewrite our own stories in order to better understand  what it was we missed about other peoples' stories.

Sincerely, Lotte