3 reluctant Holocaust heroes and their stories

Jan. 27 marks both International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

More than seven decades after the unspeakable tragedies occurred, the world continues to grieve for the victims and entire generations that perished. As world leaders urge for increased education of the genocide, we're also remembering those that worked valiantly in defiance -- and ended up saving hundreds and thousands in return.

Keep reading to learn more about three reluctant Holocaust heroes and their life-saving actions. 

SIR NICHOLAS WINTON

Nicholas Winton holds a child he rescued (AP)

Nicholas Winton remained guarded about his work during the Holocaust, and it was only after his wife discovered a notebook of his work in 1988 did the world learn of his brave wartime efforts.

In 1938, the British-born Jew, who changed his last name from Wertheim to Winton when his family converted to Christianity, was working as a stockbroker in London when he received a phone call from a friend outside Prague.

That friend, Martin Blake, was working with refugees in Czechoslovakia after the anti-Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht, and successfully convinced Winton to cancel his Swiss ski vacation to join him.

After witnessing the deteriorating conditions of the refugees, Winton began his own rescue mission modeled after Britain's Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 Jewish children to Britain before the war's official start. 

Calling his little organization "The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia," Winton received limited financial aid and supported the rest of the organization himself. The children, taken from their parents before they perished in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, were transported to London to live with foster families. Because of Winton's work, 669 Jewish children survived.

His New York Times obituary in 2015 explained:

"It involved dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork and a lot of money. Nazi agents started following him. In his Prague hotel room, he met terrified parents desperate to get their children to safety, although it meant surrendering them to strangers in a foreign land."

While the world was notified of his work after Winton's wife discovered a list of names and addresses in the attic, Winton never really gave an explanation for his heroism. 

"One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that," he told the New York Times in 2001. 

"Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”

Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003. He died in 2015 at the age of 106. 

 

HO FENG SHAN, THE CHINESE SCHINDLER

Monto Ho (L) and his sister Manli Ho stand in front of the Righteous Among the Nations wall at the Yad Vashem Holocaust and point to the name of their father, Ho Feng Shan (Getty) 

Ho Feng Shan passed away in 1997 at the age of 96, but the Chinese diplomat never once mentioned his work with Jewish refugees to his wife, children or friends.

From 1938 to 1940, Ho was working in Vienna as the consul general of the Nationalist Chinese government when he took the fate of thousands of refugees into his own hands. Historians estimate that he was the first diplomat to take action in the days preceding the war. Despite orders from his superior in Berlin, Chen Jie, he issued thousands of Shanghai visas, thus saving over 5,000 lives and effectively earning himself the title of "China's Schindler." 

While anyone could enter Japenese-controlled Shanghai without a visa, Ho was determined to issue Shanghai visas for the refugees as the documents were required for emigrants to leave Nazi Germany. Some recipients did travel to the open port city, but others were able to escape to places like Palestine, the United States, Italy and the Soviet Union because of Ho's efforts. 

Lilith-Sylvia Doron, who lived in Vienna with her family during the outbreak of the war, spoke to Yad Vashem about Ho's kindness and bravery as Hitler invaded Austria on March 11, 1938. 

“Ho, who knew my family, accompanied me home,” said Doron. “He claimed that, thanks to his diplomatic status, the [Nazis] would not dare harm us as long as he remained in our home. Ho continued to visit our home on a permanent basis to protect us from the Nazis.”

He also saved her brother Karl after he was arrested and taken to Dachau.

Ho's family only learned about his wartime efforts after he died. According to CNN, a brief mention of his work with the Jewish people surfaced after his daughter, Manli Ho, penned his obituary in 1997. Manli, a reporter, mentioned that her father once confronted the Gestapo at gunpoint in order to rescue his Jewish friends. 

Curators from an exhibition about diplomat rescuers contacted Manli, influencing her to learn more about her father's heroic work.

In 2000, Ho was only one of two Chinese nationals to be included as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Israel for his work. 

JOHAN VAN HULST

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu honors Johan van Hulst (R) for his resistance work (Reuters)

Johan van Hulst, who died in 2018 at the age of 107, is remembered for his valiant work with Dutch Resistance groups, an effort that he only "modestly" discussed in the years following the war. 

In January 1943, van Hulst was working as the principal of the Reformed Teachers Training College in Amsterdam when he devised a plan with Dutch Resistance groups to smuggle Jewish children who were taken from their parents at a deportation center to safety into the countryside. Most of their parents were taken to the transit camp in Westerbork before being transported to extermination camps.

The efforts soon evolved into a large-scale rescue operation, with van Hulst doing the actual smuggling. Walter Suskind, a German refugee who ran the deportation center, effectively erased the children's names from records and lists. Henriette Pimentel ran the daycare and convinced the children's parents to let them be smuggled out.

The nursery, housing children up to 12, shared a hedge and a fence with the college. Workers discreetly passed the children over the fence and into the school, where they were housed temporarily until they were transported out of the city. 

While the teacher was credited with saving the lives of 600 children, van Hulst often mourned the children he was unable to save; there were still 100 left in the nursery after it was shut down in 1943.

“Now try to imagine 80, 90, perhaps 70 or 100 children standing there, and you have to decide which children to take with you," he told Yad Vashem. "That was the most difficult day of my life."

"You realize that you cannot possibly take all the children with you. You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took twelve with me. Later on I asked myself: ‘Why not thirteen?’” 

Van Holst, who later became a Dutch senator, reluctantly opened up about his heroic work over the years. 

“I was at the center of a particular activity,” he said in an interview a few years before his death.

“It’s not about me. I don’t want to put myself in the foreground or play Resistance hero. All I really think about is the things I couldn’t do — the few thousand children I wasn’t able to save.”  

In 1972, he was also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.