As we pause to remember the Holocaust and mourn the six million Jewish lives it took, we should also commemorate those who attempted to save some of Hitler’s victims. While most of the world looked away and ignored the plight of Europe’s Jews, a small emerging country thousands of miles away resolved to rescue as many as possible.
The Philippines, a nation of some 7,000 islands in the South China Sea, was one of the few countries to open its doors to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
The Philippine government was willing to grant more than 10,000 visas to Jews, and more than 1,300 Jews arrived in Manila before the Japanese invaded and occupied the country in 1942.
These were not, however, the first Jews to find a home there. The Philippine islands were a colony of Spain from 1521 to 1898, and a handful of Marranos and crypto-Jews are said to have escaped the Inquisition by fleeing to Manila during the early centuries of the Spanish colonial period. But it was during the late 19th century when people who were undisputedly Jewish are known to have arrived in Manila to establish homes and businesses.
Leopold Kahn and two friends known as “the Levy brothers” arrived in 1870 from Alsace, fleeing the Franco-Prussian War. Jewelers by profession, they established what was to become a Manila jewelry store known throughout the Philippines, called La Estrella del Norte.
They were soon joined by A.N. Hashim, a Syrian Jew who arrived a bit later with a stock of watches for sale, and also established a jewelry business in the Escolta, Manila’s premier business district during the colonial period.
The Spanish-American War in 1898 brought American Jews to the Philippines in significant numbers. Jews are said to have been well represented among the American armed forces, and they, like many Americans who were to later come, simply did not want to leave the Philippines when the time came to go home.
As the years passed and the Philippines became a securely held colony of the United States – under the benevolent if somewhat paternalistic rule of a series of American governors – these Jews were joined by Isaac Beck, who established Manila’s first department store, Emil Bachrach, said to have imported the first car into the Philippines while establishing the country’s first automobile dealership, and George Simmie and Nelson Thomas, who later established Manila’s first radio broadcasting station. Few Filipinos are aware that much of what they take for granted in their lives today had its origins in the freewheeling activities of these early American Jewish adventurers and entrepreneurs.
Over the next decade, the steadily growing number of Jews from the US was augmented by Russian Jews fleeing World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as the Russian Civil War in the 1920s.
In 1924, a small but ornate Moorish- style synagogue was built on Manila’s William Howard Taft Avenue, named Temple Emil after Bachrach, by then immensely rich and a major philanthropist and chief benefactor of the growing Jewish community. The Jewish cemetery was consecrated the following year.
Soon after the inauguration of president Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, the US began to gradually prepare the Philippines for independence. In 1935, the status of the Philippines officially changed from colony to commonwealth, with an elected president and representatives.
Among the many aspects of administration that the US turned over to the new commonwealth government was the power to set its own immigration policies.
Thus, amidst the escalating persecution of European Jews, Philippine Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon announced that any Jew fleeing to the Philippines would be permitted to stay.
This was after more than 1,000 people had rallied in Manila, protesting the Nazi government’s treatment of the Jews. Ironically, while an antisemitic State Department was barring Jews from entering the US, its erstwhile Philippine colony resolved to admit them in the thousands – one of the few in the world to do so.
Speaking to interviewers a few years ago, Zenaida Quezon Avanceña, daughter of Manuel Quezon, commented on the world’s indifference to the plight of the Jews: “Other countries, perhaps, did not think it was important. I don’t presume to say. But I know that dad had the moral courage to do it because he believed in the sanctity of human life, and the right of people to live as they believed they should.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she recalled her father saying.
The dramatic rescue plan for the Jews was devised by three men who mapped out a strategy over weekend nights playing poker and smoking cigars: Quezon, who would sanction the Jews’ official entry and even donate his own land in the Manila suburb of Marikina for a Jewish community center; American high commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt, who risked his political career convincing US government officials to issue thousands of working visas for Jews to the Philippines; and Herbert Frieder, co-owner of the Philippine-based Helena Cigar and Cigarette Factory.
Also instrumental in making the rescue plan a reality was an ambitious young US army colonel, Dwight Eisenhower, then chief assistant to General Douglas MacArthur, who was serving Quezon as head of the Philippine Constabulary.
McNutt, who had been considering a run for the US presidency in 1940 and, some said, was banished to the Philippines by Roosevelt to keep him away from politics, called Jewish refugees “helpless and persecuted wanderers with no place to lay their heads.” Eisenhower wrote in his diary, “Hitler’s record with the Jews is as black as any barbarian of the Dark Ages.”
As a plan to admit and resettle Jews in the Philippines was formulated, there was also talk of another plan, proposed by Quezon himself, to turn the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao into a haven for millions of Europe’s endangered Jews.
Thus more than 1,300 Jews fleeing the Holocaust were welcomed and resettled – until events took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse. The Japanese bombed the US fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Japanese bombers appeared in Philippine skies on December 8. The Japanese destroyed the US air fleet at Clark Field on that day and began bombing raids on Manila.
As the Japanese naval fleet drew closer, MacArthur declared Manila an “open city,” began to withdraw American forces on December 26, and promised, “I shall return.”
Quezon and the rest of the commonwealth government were evacuated to Washington, where they became a government in exile, and where Quezon eventually died. On January 2, 1942, the Japanese entered Manila, commencing a three-year occupation of the city, and administration of the country under a puppet native government.
Largely unaffected by German antisemitism, the Japanese made no distinction between Jews and other foreigners.
Foreigners, including Jews, from “enemy” countries like the US, UK and Australia were taken to the University of Santo Tomas and housed in makeshift prison barracks for the duration of the war. Foreigners, including Jews, holding German and Austrian passports, however, remained in their homes undisturbed.
Thus, for German and Austrian Jews, and those from countries allied with the Nazis, life continued more or less as before. The synagogue continued to function, with a rabbi and a cantor – both refugees from Germany – performing their duties on a full-time basis.
Max Weissler, who fled Germany with his parents as a child and celebrated his bar mitzva in the Manila synagogue in 1943, told Metro in 2006, “The Japanese did not molest us. They actually treated us pretty well. For example, a lot of things were scarce. But the Japanese saw to it that the community had wheat flour on Passover to bake matzot. They even used to bring the American and English Jews by bus from their barracks at Santo Tomas to the synagogue to celebrate holidays with the rest of the Jewish community.”
The ferocious battle to liberate Manila from the Japanese in February 1945 left the city almost completely destroyed, with more than 100,000 Filipino civilians dead. The US returned only briefly at the war’s end, granting the Philippines full independence on July 4, 1946.
A year later, still emerging from the utter devastation of four years of occupation and war, the fledgling country was nonetheless able to participate in the United Nations debate on the partition of Palestine. In the epochal vote on November 29, 1947, the Philippines was one of 33 countries – and the only nation in Asia – to vote in favor of partition and the creation of a Jewish state.
With limited resources for the creation of a foreign service, overseas embassies and a diplomatic corps, the Philippines still managed to establish a diplomatic presence in Israel in 1950 with the appointment of an honorary consul. Full diplomatic relations were established on May 13, 1957. Among the first high-ranking Israeli officials to visit the Philippines was then-foreign minister Golda Meir, who received an honorary degree from Ateneo de Manila University in 1962.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community of the Philippines began to rebuild itself in the years following the war. While most of the refugees left for other countries – including the new State of Israel – other Jews arrived, mostly involved with business.
Today, the Philippines is home to a small but thriving Jewish community.
In 2009, “Open Doors,” a monument commemorating the Philippines’ rescue of Jews fleeing the Holocaust was constructed and dedicated at the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion.
Designed in the Philippines and brought to Israel, the monument was unveiled in a formal dedication ceremony on June 21.
Philippine Tourism Secretary Joseph Durano remarked that the monument represented the friendship between both countries and symbolized Jewish perseverance and Filipino dedication in times of crisis. He dedicated the monument to every Israeli and Filipino, saying, “It’s a good day to be a Filipino.”
Knesset member Michael Eitan said that each of the monument’s three doors symbolizes the Philippines’ act of generosity and friendship to Israel.
The first door represents the Open Door Policy of the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines, the second door represents the Philippines’ vote in favor of the creation of the State of Israel, and the third door represents the work of more than 30,000 Filipino caregivers who assist many of Israel’s elderly and disabled.
Further information about this dramatic but little-known chapter in the history of the Holocaust can be found in Escape to Manila, a book by former refugee Frank Ephraim, as well as two film documentaries: Rescue in the Philippines and An Open Door: Holocaust Haven in the Philippines.