Chairman Mao, Holocaust Rescuer? Not Quite

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Ready for the newest form of Holocaust-distortion? A web site sympathetic to China is trying to improve the Communist regime’s image by falsely claiming that China rescued Jews from the Holocaust.

The previously-obscure web site,, received a significant boost earlier this month when it was the focus of a major Washington Post feature story. The Post was interested in the site’s display of posters supporting Arab attacks on Israel. The site also includes extensive commentary asserting that the posters are not antisemitic and not necessarily even anti-Israel.

And woven into that claim is the web site’s outrageous take on China and the Holocaust. The site displays a poster published by the (Communist) Chinese government in 1970, which, according to the web site, “portrays five Palestinian militants launching into an attack.” The language is typical of the site. Terrorists are described as “militants” engaged in a justified fight against Israeli oppression. Israel is portrayed as a racist, imperialist oppressor of innocent Arabs.

The explanatory text that the web site editors have posted alongside the China poster states: “Though allied with Palestine, China is not an enemy of Israel; the relationship is more complex. China practiced an ‘open door’ policy during World War II that provided desperately needed safe haven for many Jewish refugees from Shanghai, and elsewhere in Asia.”

From that description, one might deduce that Chairman Mao was some kind of Asian Raoul Wallenberg, rescuing Jews from Hitler’ clutches. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, the port city of Shanghai was a haven for some Jewish refugees during the Hitler years– but large areas of China were under Japanese military occupation from 1931 until 1945, and immigration to Shanghai was controlled by the Japanese government, not the Chinese. The Japanese, hoping to improve their relations with the United States and the American Jewish community, permitted thousands of German and Austrian Jews to settle in Shanghai during the 1930s.

During 1940-41, some two thousand Polish Jewish refugees who had been stranded in Lithuania were able to escape thanks to false visas to Curacao provided by the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, and transit visas to Japan provided, without official sanction, by Japan’s acting consul-general in Lithuania, Sugihara Chiune. Although the transit visas were technically good for only eight to twelve days, the refugees were permitted by the Japanese authorities to remain in Japan for up to eight months until they were able to secure other destinations. Many were permitted to settle in Shanghai, including five hundred rabbis and students (and their families) from the famous Mir Yeshiva.

Beginning in 1943, most of the Jews in Shanghai were confined to a two-square-mile section of the city known as the Restricted Area. Conditions were harsh but certainly not comparable to what Jews suffered in Europe. Historians estimate that altogether, about 18,000 Jews were saved from the Holocaust because of Japan’s – not China’s – Shanghai policy.

One Chinese government official has been honored by Yad Vashem (Israel’s central Holocaust memorial and documentation center) for assisting Jews during the Nazi era–Ho Fengshan, the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, who helped a number of Austrian Jews emigrate during 1938-1940. At an October 2000 ceremony, Fengshan was posthumously declared one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

But Ho Fengshan was a representative of the Nationalist Chinese (those who now rule Taiwan), not the Communist Chinese. Chairman Mao and his followers did not control China until 1949, four years after the Holocaust ended. Communist China cannot be given credit for the policies of Japanese-occupied, non-Communist China during the Holocaust. Whatever Ho Fengshan or the Japanese did cannot be cited as evidence that today’s China “is not an enemy of Israel.”

It is not hard to understand why American friends of China would like to demonstrate that China is not an enemy of Israel. Propaganda such as the poster glorifying “Palestinian militants” is more credible if it is seen as coming from a source that is not intrinsically hostile to Israel. But rewriting the Holocaust in order to improve China’s image is simply wrong.

December 2003