Chinese at Yad Vashem Olivier Fitoussi 5.10.2010
Teachers and researchers from China, Hong Kong and Macau visiting Yad Vashem Oct. 5, 2010. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Yad Vashem is hosting its first-ever seminar for Chinese Holocaust scholars, who toured the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem yesterday and said China should be prouder of its role in saving Jewish lives.

At Yad Vashem's museum, members of the group of two dozen stared intently at a display case containing an entry permit to Shanghai issued by the Chinese government in April 1939 to a German-Jewish couple, Lorenz and Toni Dresler.

The delegation, composed of China's leading Holocaust scholars, includes teachers and lecturers.

Several of them voiced admiration for Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese consul in Austria in the late 1930s, who was the only foreign diplomat of the period who granted entry permits to virtually anyone able to make contact with him.

At times Ho even violated instructions issued by his own country.

Thousands of desperate Jews took up the offer, and his efforts saved the lives of between 20,000 and 30,000 people.

"This is part of history, not only of the Jews, but ours as Chinese," said Wanda Huang, a schoolteacher in Hong Kong. "Many Chinese people don't know about this. We need to be more proud about it. Dr. Ho took a stand, he was proactive."

Yesterday's visit was part of Yad Vashem's first seminar for Chinese scholars.

The two-week program includes meetings with survivors, tours of Israel and more.

The Holocaust was long a neglected subject in China's state education system, but as the country relaxed its curriculum in recent years, schoolchildren and post-secondary students have become more informed on the subject than ever before.

"Schindler's List" is now a popular film in China, and the country's libraries offer an array of Chinese-language books on the systematic destruction of European Jewry.

This year saw the release in China of the animated film "A Jewish Girl in Shanghai" (also screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival ), which tells the story of a friendship between two girls, a Chinese girl and a Jewish refugee.

"We try to reach them about the individual's relationship to the society in which he lives, about racism and prejudice, and the Holocaust plays a part in that," said Huang. "Students read Anne Frank's 'Diary of a Young Girl.' Our position is that if some injustice or act of violence is going on around them, they should take action."

Lacking knowledge

The initiative to hold the seminar in Israel came from Prof. Glenn Timmermans, an associate professor of literature at the University of Macau. "In my years in China, I understood that Chinese students know nothing about the Holocaust," he said. "How can one understand the 20th century without knowing about the Holocaust?"

On one of his visits to Israel, Timmermans convinced Yad Vashem authorities to include a seminar for Chinese teachers among the dozens of workshops it holds annually for international guests. Funding ultimately came from Sheldon Adelson, the American casino tycoon who also has considerable investments in China.

Timmermans says Chinese people exposed to the Holocaust are more likely to identify with the victims, but they tend to do so by comparing it with other historical events, such as Japan's 1931 invasion of Manchuria or its 1937 massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanking.

"We have to be very careful with comparisons," he said. "On the one hand we talk about the universality of the Holocaust, and on the other we present it as unique."

One of the organizers of the visit is Jong Je Ching, a Beijing-based researcher who wrote her 2005 doctorate, a comparison of Hebrew and Chinese postwar literature, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Recent years have brought changes to China. The Chinese are starting to confront their own traumas from the Japanese conquest. That didn't happen in the past. Now, on the margins, one can see people dealing with issues that aren't linked directly to us, like the Holocaust," she said. "The Chinese can and want to know more about historical truth. The atmosphere is freer."