Stories seldom told

In Israel to commemorate children who perished in the Holocaust, Racelle Weiman also remembers the 1,200 Jewish refugees rescued by the Philippines.

racelle weiman 88 (photo credit: )
racelle weiman 88
(photo credit: )
Racelle Weiman, the director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at the Hebrew Union College Institute for Religion in Cincinnati does not pretend to have the same degree of influence as Steven Spielberg. His prize-winning film, Schindler's List - released in 1993 - took the world by storm. However, her own contribution to Holocaust awareness involves the piecing together of little-known data and fashioning them into stories that may stir the imaginations of people of Spielberg's caliber, thereby getting the kind of attention they deserve. This makes sense. When Australian author Thomas Keneally wrote Schindler's List - that was initially published under the title Schindler's Ark - it did not create nearly as much of an international sensation as Spielberg's film. This, in spite of it winning the prestigious Booker Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1982. Unlike most people who hold similar positions in other Holocaust studies institutes, Weiman, an educator and historian, has no personal connection to the devastation."I didn't lose anyone," she says. The daughter of American Jews, she was an Air Force "brat" who happened to be born in Laredo, Texas, because that was where her father was stationed at the time. The family moved around a lot and Weiman and her siblings grew up in mostly "Jew-less" communities. Nonetheless, she says, they always had a sense of pride in being Jewish. Her parents, Millie and Paul Rosenblatt, who now live in Haifa, are committed Zionists. Her brother came on aliya in 1976 immediately after Operation Entebbe, and Weiman followed soon after. On a visit to her children, their mother suggested that Weiman return to the US to study, which she did. She received a degree in Jewish Studies at UCLA, and subsequently taught at the Miletz Institute for Zionist education. Wanting to study under noted Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, she enrolled at a Hebrew University graduate program. But when she told Bauer that she wanted to focus on faith in relation to the Holocaust, he sent her back to America to Temple University in Philadelphia to study with celebrated Christian scholar and Holocaust expert Franklin Littel, whose method was to highlight times and places of crisis and decision. As far as Weiman is aware, she and Mordechai Paldiel, who heads the Righteous Gentiles program at Yad Vashem, were the only two Jews to study under Littel. Four years later, Weiman returned to Israel, where she taught at Haifa University and Kibbutz Lochamei HaGetaot, and worked in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry. Five years ago, she received a telephone call from HUC in Cincinnati. The state of Ohio had not only authorized Holocaust studies in schools, but had mandated them. The problem was that there wasn't anyone in Cincinnati who was properly trained in the field. Weiman found the offer to be a pioneer irresistible. She and her husband, Shimon, a former Soviet refusenik, who is now a power engineer working in energy development, went to the US with their younger son, David. Their older son, Gilad, completed his service in the Israel Air Force before joining them. WEIMAN SAYS she embarked on her new enterprise with "one computer and half a secretary." Today she has hundreds of volunteers - most of them non-Jews working with her to collect the hitherto untold stories and publish them on the CHHE Web site. Her approach, she explains, is to talk about life rather than death. When she or any of her volunteers interview survivors, she says, they go beyond the usual questions relating to the experiences of the Holocaust, and take the interviewee back in time, in terms of feelings, dreams and aspirations. They ask people to describe what they remember of their homes, their schools, the friends they had as children, who their heroes were, what they want people to remember about them, but most important about the lives of siblings or other children who did not survive. "Usually children who died in the Holocaust are referred to only in passing," she says. "When survivors are asked about siblings, they often say they all died, but they don't say anything about them. Now is the time to say who they were. We want them to come alive and not be just names, countries and dates. We try to go beyond statistics," says Weiman, who is presently in Israel to make arrangements for the establishment of a JNF Forest to commemorate the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust. She was horrified to learn, she says, that although there is an impressive memorial at Yad Vashem for these children, no one had ever planted a forest in their memories. It is important to her, she adds, that they be remembered through something that is living and that will continue to live long after any Holocaust survivors, and that those whose eulogies can be written, will have them recorded. WHILE IN the country, Weiman is also attending to another matter that has been overlooked by historians: the rescue in the Philippines of Jews who fled Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. At a luncheon in Haifa hosted by her parents- attended by Philippines Ambassador Antonio Modena, Haifa University President Aaron Ben-Ze'ev and German-born Max Weissler from Hod Hasharon who more than six decades ago found refuge in the Philippines - Weiman tells the story of how she became aware in this particular facet of the Holocaust. A couple of years ago, she recounts, she was contacted by well-known Cincinnati artist Alice Weston. Weston urged her to read Escape to Manila by Frank Ephraim, a book about the rescue of Jews by the Philippines during the Holocaust - a rarely publicized endeavor in which her own father had been involved. Weston's father was one of the five brothers from Cincinnati who developed the cigar manufacturing company that their father, Samuel Frieder, had started when he came to New York from Hungary some time in the 1880s. As the company grew, it established a distribution office in downtown Cincinnati. The Frieder brothers discovered that it was cheaper to manufacture cigars in the Philippines than in the US, and took turns for two-year periods overseeing their business operations. They had a beautiful home in Manila, where they entertained the likes of president Manuel Quezon - with whom they frequently played poker - American high commissioner Paul V. McNutt, and a young colonel by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the 1930s, as the Frieder brothers became aware of the situation in Europe, they sought to find a place of refuge for European Jews. The Philippines seemed to be an ideal solution. Assuring Quezon that any refugees allowed into the country would be an asset rather than a burden, the Frieder brothers, with the the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, arranged for visas, money, jobs and shelter for refugees arriving from Germany, Austria and Poland. It was an extraordinarily complex undertaking. The Philippines had not yet attained independence and the US State Department was opposed to the idea. McNutt, a former governor of Indiana, who had hoped to contest the American presidential elections, risked his whole career by cooperating with the Frieder brothers and turning a blind eye to immigration quotas. Realizing that people in the throes of escape had to forfeit the bulk of their possessions, the Frieder brothers sought to at least allow them to keep their dignity intact, and advertised in the Jewish press listing professions in which jobs were available. Doing so, explained Weiman, helped the people who applied feel welcome and needed, rather than patronized as refugees. Apparently it worked. So at home did they feel in Manila that they called themselves Manilaners. Quezon, a devout Catholic, was so keen to assist that he made land available for what some of the people who found a haven in the Philippines dubbed a Filipino kibbutz. He was willing to take in 30,000 Jews. The State Department balked at the idea, and the ambitious plan was reduced to only 10,000 Jews. That number was never realized. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, put an end to rescue operations. Nevertheless, 1,200 Jews were saved and one family even managed to bring a Torah scroll from Germany so that their son, Ralph Preis, could celebrate his bar mitzva at Temple Emil. Later, the Japanese deliberately fire-bombed the synagogue - and the Torah scroll which had been saved from the Kristallnacht devastation in Germany was destroyed in Manila. American Jewish servicemen stationed in the Philippines subsequently contributed to the reconstruction of Temple Emil. In the February 1945 Battle of Manila, in which 100,000 Filipinos lost their lives to the Japanese, 67 of these were Jews who had been rescued through the joint efforts of the Frieder brothers, president Quezon and McNutt. EXCITED BY the book, Weiman contacted the author. She learned that the Berlin-born Ephraim had come to Manila with his parents when he was eight. After the war, most of the refugees, the Ephraims included, went to the US. There Ephraim eventually pursued a career in naval architecture and later served as director of program evaluation for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US Department of Transportation. When he retired, his wife, who has a kindertransport history, told him to stop hanging around the house and find something useful to do with his time. He decided to become a volunteer at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. It was then he was surprised to discover that there wasn't any information about the rescue of Jews by the Philippines. When he approached the relevant authorities and mentioned the subject, they told him that he didn't know what he was talking about. They were adamant that no such operation had ever existed, because no one had ever written about it. So Ephraim set about writing a book which includes the testimonies of 36 refugees. The people at the Holocaust Museum were ignorant of the historic archival records that Ephraim found or the reports that he discovered in Manilan newspapers of the period. Weiman took up the cause of propagating the story. She also organized a survivors' reunion that was held in Cincinnati in February - with the participation of the Frieder brothers' descendants and Manuel Quezon III, the former president's grandson, a well-known journalist in the Philippines. In a video-taped interview with Quezon that Weiman screens for her Haifa audience, Quezon observes that the Philippines continued to side with the Jewish people after it achieved independence from the transitional US government. Its first vote at the United Nations General Assembly in November, 1947, he notes, was in favor of the partition of Palestine. Referring to the rescue of Jews, Quezon says: "What we did 60 years ago, we stand behind today. We have an affinity with Israel. We have a connection." As a writer, he says, he is obligated to speak out against anti-Semitism. He is obligated to speak out against oppression. Ambassador Modena, since his arrival in Israel 18 months ago, has made strenuous efforts to persuade Yad Vashem to grant Righteous Gentile status to the Philippines, but so far without success. The Philippines is seeking formal recognition for its role in helping Jews whom most other countries turned away. Modena, who has been to Yad Vashem at least a dozen times and has taken all the members of his embassy there to learn from its well-documented exhibits, is upset that Yad Vashem has not only failed to give official recognition to the Philippines for upholding a high sense of morality and humanity, but also for the absence of any mention of the Philippines in Yad Vashem's new, multi-faceted Holocaust History Museum. According to a Yad Vashem spokesperson: "The issues of the world's attitude to the refugees and the visa and immigration policies of various countries at various stages of the Holocaust are very complex, and while they are dealt with extensively in our research and educational activities, they are presented generally in the museum, as the backdrop to the fate of the Jews in Europe. The Holocaust is comprised of myriads of details and the museum cannot present all the particulars of every facet of the Holocaust." Modena, who has voiced his frustration with the situation in various forums, commends Weiman for disseminating the information about the role played by the Philippines. "I wish we could have saved more Jews," he says. Explaining that he took his staff to Yad Vashem "because there is no other way to understand the nature of being Israeli," Modena says: "You had your Diaspora for reasons of history. We have ours for reasons of economy. "We don't compare ourselves to the Danes and the Bulgarians," he continues, "but when our nation was called to justice, we did what we had to do." Familiar with Yad Vashem's criteria, Weiman said that while she fully agrees that some form of recognition should be accorded to the Philippines, the country does not qualify for Righteous Gentile status because its humanitarian actions were not at the risk of its own safety. However, she points out, McNutt risked both his diplomatic and political careers, so in her estimation does qualify as a Righteous Gentile. While Israel has not yet recognized the Philippines, the government of the Philippines has recognized the work of Ephraim and Weiman and has awarded them the Order of Lakandula. Though appreciative, Weiman says she is not telling the story for the sake of reward. "My goal is to educate the public," she says. "People who get neglected in history don't have the strongest voices. Spielberg told Oskar Schindler's story on the big screen. I tell the story of the Philippines in synagogues."