The Jewish Refugee in World War II -The Philippines as a Case Study
On November 24th 2015 a symposium focusing on “The Jewish Refugee in World War II – the Philippines as a Case Study” was held in the Constantiner Lecture Hall of the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem (Jerusalem). The meeting was a collaborative event of the Philippines Embassy of Tel Aviv and of Yad Vashem, with people from the Philippines Embassy graciously welcoming all guests as they arrived. The meeting opened with words from His Excellency Nathaniel Imperial, Ambassador of the Philippines in Israel. He spoke of the Philippines in the 1930s and 1940s and of how a small number of good men had made the Philippines the sanctuary for 1200 Jews from the late 1930s to 1941. Of this group of fortunate Jews, who called themselves “Maniliners”, there was one lady was in attendance at the meeting. Ambassador Imperial also made reference to Berlin-born Frank Ephraim (1931-2006), who arrived in Manila at age eight and who has written his story in “Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror”. It was decided to hold the Jerusalem meeting in November to connect with commemoration of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) which occurred on November 9th 1938. Referring to the film “Rescue in the Philippines” to be viewed at the symposium, the Ambassador mentioned with pride that it had been shown at the Presidential Palace of the Philippines with the President in attendance.
Next to speak was Mr. Yossi Gevir, senior assistant to the chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate Mr. Avner Shalev. Mr. Gevir spoke of the importance of Yad Vashem’s educational and cultural activities – each event adding insight and sensitivity to our knowledge of the Holocaust - claiming that this event had its own special uniqueness. The aim of Yad Vashem, founded in 1953, he explained, was not for Jewish people to wallow in self-pity resulting from the Holocaust tragedy, but to build a bright, new future for Jews as based on their past. Referring to the Philippines, he reminded the audience that Manuel Quezon, first president of the Philippine Commonwealth, and his associates could have turned a blind eye to the fate of Jews during the Holocaust, but that they gave expression to their own moral principles and values; in his words: “Yad Vashem salutes these people”.
We then heard “Hoping to Be a Refugee: Jewish Migration Efforts during the Holocaust”, a talk given by Dr. David Silberklang, senior historian of the International Institute for Holocaust Research and editor of “Yad Vashem Studies”. He opened by quoting Chaim Weizmann as having said at the time that the world consisted of countries where “Jews cannot live or cannot enter”. Silberklang spoke of the situation of the Jews as not even having been discussed at the 1936 British Royal Commission and that Europe’s Jews had become trapped and were becoming increasingly desperate. There had been thoughts of sending them to such countries as British Guiana and Madagascar. In 1930, President Hoover tightened immigration to the USA, limiting the issuing of visas till 1938. Other countries, such as Mexico, South Africa and Argentina tightened regulations. Australia opened its doors but Canada did not, its doors remaining closed till 1948. In some countries, Jews being classified as “enemy aliens” were singled out and then deported. In 1938 and 1939, Swiss border guards were returning Jews to Germany. In 1941, Turkey turned away the “Struma”, a vessel carrying more than 700 Jewish refugees; the passengers met a tragic end when the boat was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Black Sea. Denmark restricted immigration as had Latin American countries and the USA expressed the desire to send Jews elsewhere during World War II. So Jews all over Europe found themselves in the bizarre situation of wishing to become refugees! There was the Hotel Polski affair in 1943, a plan to bring Warsaw’s Jews out of hiding, with the promise that they would be transported to freedom, mostly to South America; this vile trap ended up with some 3000 of them being deported to the camps. Some Jews saved themselves by jumping from trains, then walking for thousands of kilometers. Some made it to Israel, this being referred to as the “tiyul” (hike). But so many Jews had none of this luck. Some came close to getting out, others had no hope. Those who managed to get to the Philippines were the lucky ones.
Guest-of honor Dr. Barbara Sasser, one of the producers of the film “Rescue in the Philippines” and granddaughter of one of the Frieder brothers instrumental in the operation, opened her talk by expressing how honored she was to be a part of the Yad Vashem symposium. She spoke of the eclectic group of men involved in bringing Jews to the Philippines – General Eisenhower, American high commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt, Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon and the five Jewish Frieder brothers from Cincinnati who were involved in the cigar industry, growing tobacco in the Philippines. These eight men, who met over poker games and cigar-smoking, saw the need to help Jews in Europe. Dr. Sasser spoke of the film we were about to watch as honoring these men, that this little-known story, whose message remains relevant till today, should be told widely, especially in schools. And she asserts that the film also honors the Philippines for accepting the Jews, reminding the people attending the Yad Vashem meeting that the Philippines was among the 33 countries and the only Asian country to support the creation of the State of Israel in 1947. Dr. Sasser has derived much pleasure from meeting people who have lived the story, some of whom had immigrated to Israel.
The vital importance of “Rescue in the Philippines” (USA, 2014, 3 Roads Communications and Frieder Films, English with Hebrew subtitles) directed by Cynthia Scott Johnson and Russell Hodge and produced by Barbara Sasser and Peggy Ellis, is in bringing the details of this important chapter of Holocaust history to public awareness. Some of the film’s several speakers vibrantly piecing the story together with first-hand information and personal recollections (some of the speakers quite elderly) are members of the Frieder family, others are Jews who were among the immigrants to the Philippines and there are also speakers from Manuel Quezon’s family. We learn of the closely-knit Frieder family – the five brothers with their cigar empire, their lavish lifestyle and their dedication to Manila’s Jewish refugee community and synagogue. We learn of their open house on Friday nights and of the fact that they did not view themselves as heroes. We hear about the relaxed lifestyle Jews were leading there, both adults and children: we see a photo of a Passover Seder with 10-year-old George Lowenstein asking the three questions traditionally asked by a young child. President Quezon had requested that those Jews immigrating to the Philippines should not be a burden on the community, hence the heartbreaking process of selection. Indeed, the film clearly brings home of the fact that thousands more Jews could have been brought to the Philippines had the Japanese not brought the process to a screeching halt with their attack on Pearl Harbor and invasion of the Philippines in December 1941, followed by their indiscriminate murdering and brutal prison camps. Paul McNutt tricked Phillip Frieder into leaving the Philippines and the Quezon family had to leave. The Japanese allowed Germans and Austrians to “return home”. General Douglas MacArthur liberated the Philippines in 1945, but the worst was yet to come, with the Japanese burning down everything they could get their hands on in their wake as they retreated from Manila. The Frieder cigar factory was leveled and rebuilt in the USA.
President Quezon, referred to by one speaker as a hard-core politician, a person who loved partying, a man of self-assurance, a person not colonial in his approach, and, above all, as a “kind of Schindler”, died in exile in the USA.
The symposium at Yad Vashem was an informative, enriching and humbling experience.
Photos : courtesy of the Embassy of Phillipines