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How the Filipino president rescued German Jews

  • JordanPhillipines1
Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg are well known for having saved Jews during the Holocaust, but few know of the valiant efforts by President Manuel Quezon of the Philippines, who rescued 1 300 German Jews from the Nazi war machine.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Apr 12, 2018

“Former US leader Franklin D. Roosevelt and former UK leader Winston Churchill saved Western civilisation, but Quezon saved over 1 000 Jewish souls,” says Lotte Hershfield, who was one of those souls. “This is the epitome of Judaism. He who saves one soul is considered as though he saved mankind.”

The story of how German Jews found a haven in the Philippines, when they faced almost certain death in Germany, is brought to light in a new documentary.. Called An Open Door, it features the testimonies of survivors and of Quezon’s relatives, and explores how the empathetic spirit of one man enabled hundreds to remain alive.

“My father couldn’t bear to see injustice,” explains Quezon’s daughter, Zeneida Avancena. “He was happy to make room in our country for Jews. He didn’t see them as Jewish or German – he saw people who needed help.”

Himself a dark-skinned man who was no stranger to prejudice, Quezon knew what it felt like to be treated as a second-class citizen when he visited the US, which had ruled the Philippines since 1898.

The first to be elected president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935, Quezon sympathised with the plight of the Jews. He offered them shelter when no other country – except for Shanghai.

Although Jews had been living in Manila since the 1860s, Quezon and Paul McNutt – the American high commissioner to the Philippines and Quezon’s close friend – met to devise a plan. They did so with a group of Americans who included future US president Dwight D. Eisenhower (then an army colonel) and the five Freider brothers (Jewish-Americans who manufactured cigars in the Philippines).

The group co-ordinated with the Jewish Refugee Agency after the passing of the Nuremberg Law, which provided the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews in Germany. Their aim was to get Jews out of Germany.

Travelling across treacherous seas and through multiple countries, Jews who fled to the Philippines had no idea what to expect of their new home. “My father didn’t know what the Philippines was,” recalls survivor Ralph Preiss, laughing. “He had some idea about it being an island somewhere in the Pacific, but only after looking it up in an encyclopaedia did he actually understand where it was.”

Juergen Goldhagen says the same. “Nobody told me that people in the Philippines were brown. I’d never seen a brown person in Germany. We were white, and it never occurred to me that they weren’t.”

Despite their initial surprise, those who arrived in Manila found people ready to accept them into their society and make them feel at home. Survivors describe the locals as being some of the kindest people they had ever met, who were eager to socialise and share with the newcomers.

Local schools received Jewish children without hesitation. Despite the religious differences that existed between them, the schools made every effort to share their culture and heritage and make it something to which anyone was welcome.

“We learned their folklore and popular stories in class,” explains Herschfield. “They shared their folk stories with us, and we shared the Grimm brothers with them.”

Jewish children became fast friends with local neighbours and lifein Manila involved running around in sandals and summer clothes. The experience, however, came to an abrupt end as the war came ashore to the Philippines.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Japanese repeatedly bombed and eventually occupied the Philippines. In some ways, the Jewish refugees of Germany were treated better than others. While those who hailed from one of the Allied countries (Jews included) were deemed enemies and were often incarcerated in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp. Jews from Germany were treated as friends by the Japanese forces.

Ironically, what protected the Jews was their German passports featuring swastikas in their covers – they were viewed as allies.

Although some chose to present themselves at the camp to be incarcerated voluntarily, most German Jews were able to carry on with their normal lives, albeit under a brutal occupation.

US-born Martin Meadows spoke of how the final year of occupation saw daily deaths in the camp from starvation. “I weighed 110 pounds (50kg) when I went in, and 69 pounds (31kg) when I came out. There was never enough food.”

In February 1945, Manila was liberated when US and Filipino troops endeavoured to press back against the Japanese forces. In the ensuing carnage, 100 000 civilians lost their lives, among them 48 Jews. When 30 soldiers and a single tank successfully penetrated the walls of Santo Tomas, the Japanese fled, and Manila was free once more.

While the liberation of Manila and the end of World War II saw many Jews leave the Philippines for Israel, America or Europe, all of them maintained a special connection with the country that had saved their lives. “The Philippines may not be my homeland,” says Preiss, “but it is my adoptive motherland. If not for it, I wouldn’t be here.”

Goldhagen feels the same way: “We could have been sent on a train to the East. I could have been a bar of soap. But because of these people, I’m alive.”

Many of these Jews still maintain their Filipino passports to this day and insist that their children and grandchildren do the same out of respect for where they came from.

Quezon’s triumph of hope and compassion over hatred and prejudice at a time of global madness deserves to be remembered alongside other stories of heroism and courage. “He had a heart as big as a house,” says his daughter, Zeneida. “He did what he did because it was the right thing to do.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Bonnie Harris 17 Apr
    An excellent article with one exception - Eisenhower was NOT involved in the rescue of refugee Jews in the Philippines. I am the Holocaust Scholar and Associate Producer for An Open Door who has been documenting this story for 15 years. It is a fake historical claim made by the Frieder Family in their film that Eisenhower was involved in the rescue. 

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