Alumni Spotlight

Kirk H. Betts ’79: Power and Justice

by, Dianne Buckley

Martin Gold ’75 is a partner in Covington & Burling’s Washington office and is co-chair of the firm’s Legislative Practice Group. He has over thirty-five years of legislative experience in the public and private sectors. But his involvement doesn’t end in an office. For years Gold has been a member of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

Most recently he shared a personally moving experience as a member of the commission. It involved someone who Gold considers a hero, Feng Shan Ho, who, in 1938 was a young Chinese diplomat. “Feng Shan Ho was a humanitarian with intellect and passions and strong feelings about helping the oppressed,” Gold asserts. “Recognizing his service is one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done.”

Stationed in Vienna in 1938 as the consul general, Feng Shan Ho watched in horror as the Nazis pushed into Austria.
With the world moving closer to war each day, Ho understood the realities facing the Austrian Jewish community. His heart led him down a difficult and dangerous path, yet he never hesitated, never wavered.

For two years, Ho defied direct orders from his superiors in the Chinese government. He watched Adolf Hitler receive a hero’s welcome then impeded the Nazi leader’s vision of decimating the Jewish population.

When Feng Shan Ho died in 1997 at the age of 96, his story of courageous opposition to the Nazis would have gone with him to the grave if not for the combined efforts of Ho’s daughter and alumnus Martin Gold.

“Feng Shan Ho, against the orders of his government, granted exit visas to Jews so they could escape Austria,” says Gold. As a member of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, Gold used his position to investigate the history of Ho’s tenure in Vienna. The Commission is an independent agency of the U.S. government directed by law to identify cemeteries, monuments and buildings abroad that are associated with U.S. citizens and to work with the governments of those regions to ensure that the properties are protected and preserved. Gold was appointed to the Commission by former President George W. Bush.

The 21-person commission works under the direction of a chairman with each member selecting an independent project. Gold notes that most projects focus on a place, not a person.

“My project was unique in the history of the Commission not only because it focused on an individual but also because it had roots in Europe that carried over to Asia,” he explains. Feng Shan Ho wrote exit visas for Shanghai though many used the documents to move to other countries including the United States, Australia, the Philippines and Sweden. Most began their escape moving through Italy, which had yet to join the war.

“This young diplomat caused quite a bit of tension,” Gold says, “When Nazis took over the Chinese consulate’s building, Ho asked the Chinese government for money to open another office. When that request was denied, he used his own money.” Ho issued the visas until 1940 when Italy entered the war effectively closing off the exit routes in Genoa and Venice. Ho issued 1,200 visas during the first three months of his tenure and though the exact number remains a mystery, it is thought he helped thousands of Austrians escape.

Last year, Gold coordinated three commemoration ceremonies to recognize Ho’s contributions to the Jewish community. The ceremonies were held in Washington, D.C., in Shanghai at the Jewish Refugees Museum, which was the center of religious life for European Jews living there, and in Vienna at the site of the building where Ho worked.

“His was a story of immense heroism,” Gold affirms. “Very few people knew of him because Ho never needed acclaim or sought to be known. It was enough for him to know he’d done the right thing.” When he retired from diplomatic service, Ho’s two children urged him to retire to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen and lived a modest life in San Francisco. Although he lived among the very people he had saved, they never knew it.

“He valued his relationship with America, but he never stopped being Chinese,” Gold notes. “He was truly a person of multiple cultures, but he never forgot his Chinese roots.” Ho’s daughter returned his ashes to his native land in 2007, which was Ho’s final wish.