Weina Dai Randel’s Night Angels, which fictionalizes the story of Dr. Ho Fengshan — the consul-general in Vienna during World War II — and his wife Grace, immerses readers in the couple’s heroic efforts to issue visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis. In his lifetime, Ho’s work went unacknowledged, although Yad Vashem posthumously recognized him as a Righteous Among Nations. This novel does both Ho and Grace justice by introducing a new generation to their work.
At the beginning of the novel, fictional character Lola Schnitzler is offering to work as Grace’s German tutor when they are both arrested: Lola, a Jewish woman, is not supposed to sit on a public park bench. This event propels both Fengshan and Grace to become more involved in saving Jews, helping them emigrate to Shanghai as the Third Reich takes over Austria.
In addition to depicting the couple’s time in Vienna, the novel also explores Grace’s past. Given that Fengshan often gets recognition for his efforts, it is an excellent choice to make Grace a character of equal importance. The daughter of an abusive white mother and a Chinese father, Grace grows up never feeling at home anywhere she goes. She withdraws into herself and into her love of Emily Dickinson. She also suffers a personal tragedy that would have destroyed her if not for her friendship with Lola. Ultimately, Grace’s traumatic past leads her to develop an empathy that propels her to put her life on the line for others in need.
Randel does well to illustrate both the Vienna of the 1930s and Fengshan’s and Grace’s feelings of foreignness in a time of increasing xenophobia. A beacon of civility and decorum that fell to the atrocity of the Nazis, Vienna serves as an example of what can happen when citizens are complacent. Fengshan, who initially believed that Vienna was stronger than this hate, decides he can no longer stand by and watch Jews be sent to their deaths.
In a time when so many Holocaust stories have yet to be told, Night Angels is a wonderful way to expose readers to an unexplored tale of danger and bravery. They will want to learn more about the Jews who emigrated to Shanghai — and the people who helped them get there.
Ariella Carmell is a Brooklyn-based writer of plays and prose. She graduated from the University of Chicago, where she studied literature and philosophy. Her work has appeared in Alma, the Sierra Nevada Review, the Brooklyn review, and elsewhere.