An overdue thank you

In 1940, Philippine President Quezon offered shelter to 10,000 Jewish refugees. Last month, hundreds gathered in Rishon Lezion to commemorate Filipino kindness.

filipino monument 88 248 (photo credit: Lilach Gavish)
filipino monument 88 248
(photo credit: Lilach Gavish)
In 1940, Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon decided that his country would give shelter to Jewish refugees. On the day a ship arrived carrying 300 Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression, Quezon gave a speech in which he condemned the Nazi persecution - an act that many heads of state avoided. The speech led the German consul to the Philippines to protest the president's offending the honor of the German Reich, but Quezon nevertheless offered shelter to 10,000 Jews. Eventually, 1,500 took refuge on the islands. Last month, hundreds of Filipinos and Jews from all over the world gathered at the World's Nations Cherished park in Rishon Lezion. The event celebrated the culmination of three years' effort towards commemorating the Philippines' gesture and inaugurated the Open Doors monument, by renowned Filipino artist June Lee. Government Services Minister Michael Eitan took the podium and after describing the bonds between the Jewish and Filipino peoples, he said it was Israel's "obligation to be especially polite to the [Filipinos] living among us." The Philippine tourism minister Joseph H. Durano also spoke. "We are a tolerant people. Never have we taken part in anti-Jewish activities and Jews never lived in a ghetto in Manila. There was an exchange of cultures. This inauguration is a symbol of the human spirit, which is second to that of God." The impetus for putting up the monument was Frank Ephraim's 2003 book Escape to Manila, in which he wrote: "The Philippines held out a promise of a safe haven from Nazi oppression, offering survival from mass murder of the Jewish people in Europe." Ephraim has since passed away, but his narrative prompted the municipality of Rishon Lezion to give the monument a place in the city's World's Nations Cherished park, even though other organizations, such as Yad Vashem, refused to acknowledge the Philippine government as righteous gentiles (see sidebar). Max Weissler, 76, is one of the last survivors living in Israel who took refuge in the Philippines. For the past few years, he has been working to see the monument erected. "I grew up in a region that belonged to Germany. We were the only Jews there. One day the village cop came to my father and said 'run away quickly. In a day or two, I'll have to arrest you.' When I was eight years old, we arrived in Denmark as refugees. They didn't let us stay, but did let us try and find a place to go to. My father went to the Philippines. I went there with my mother later, in 1941. The Philippines treated the Jews well. My mother baked cookies, and I sold them after school. The church told them that we killed Jesus, but there was no anti-Semitism." While 1,500 Jews found refuge on the islands, 8,500 more could have fled to the Philippines and thus been saved. "The president offered refuge for 10,000," Weissler tells The Jerusalem Post, "but the Jews who already lived in the Philippines claimed that [the refugees] would be a burden, and that only the ones who had a profession should be let in. One lady I knew, a nurse, wanted to bring her brothers in, but since she didn't have enough money, they were killed in the Holocaust. The Jews [preferred] to go to America. My cousin was on the ship St. Louis and in 1939 was sent back to Germany, to the death camps." Along with Weissler, the Salpeters - Simha (Simi) and his wife, Monty, one of the first Filipino workers to arrive in Israel in the early 80s - were active in setting up the monument. Monty - now deceased - founded one of the first foreign workers' associations - the Asian Ladies Club, where businesswomen, ambassadors and foreign workers from the Philippines, India, Japan, Korea, Singapore and China met. After Monty passed away, other women took the lead. Agnes Hoffman, a Filipina who converted to Judaism, took part in the organization's campaign for a monument. "We thought this would revive the group. We wanted to do more than meet and talk." When news of the project reached former Philippine ambassador Antonio Modena, he brought it to the attention of the Philippine government, and it published a tender for the monument's design. Meanwhile, locally, "Max [Weissler] and I [dealt with] the Rishon Lezion Municipality. Max was in touch with the remaining survivors," Salpeter says. The monument cost about NIS 500,000, including shipping costs from the Philippines, much of which was raised by the Filipino community here. "We are proud to have common history with the Israelis," says Chester Omega Diaz, from the Philippine Council in Israel. An estimated 35,000 Filipinos reside in Israel, employed mainly as caregivers. The community is active in charity work both here and back home. Former president of the FFCI (Federation of the Filipino Community in Israel) Anne Gonzaga says: "We wanted to be a part of this. We held a huge cultural event at the 50th anniversary for the diplomatic relationships between the two countries, and a raffle where the first prize was a flight to the Philippines. We dedicated all the profits to the establishment of the monument." The few living survivors abroad who sought safety in the Philippines took part at the ceremony, too, arriving from the US, Switzerland and around Israel, along with their families. Susan Bilar traveled here with her husband, Pedro. She and her brother, who lives in San Francisco, are among the major donors to the monument. Bilar was born in the Philippines to a physician mother who arrived as a refugee from Germany. From 1949 to 1977, her father served as the head of the Jewish community in the Philippines and as Israel's honorary consul in the Philippines. "There is justice in the establishment of the monument," Bilar says. "The Philippines were wonderful. I grew up in the Philippines until I was 18, when I came to Israel to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There's a natural affection between the Philippines and Israel." Ralph Preiss was born in Germany in 1930 and arrived in the Philippines with his parents in 1939. "We had never heard of the place, which had this remarkable 'open door' policy allowing German Jews to immigrate. My father, Dr. Harry Preiss, would have been arrested by the Nazis if he hadn't happened to be out of town. He went into hiding until we left [Germany.] "We traveled to Paris on the way to Genoa, Italy, to catch a ship for the Far East. In Paris, we stayed with my two cousins, uncle and aunt, who had left Berlin in 1933. They were caught when the Nazis overran Paris and were sent to Auschwitz to be murdered. But we managed to escape to Manila. "Our Filipino neighbors were all warm, helpful, hospitable, and completely without prejudice," Preiss recalls. "I have always been grateful to the Philippines for saving my immediate family, and to the Filipino people who have taught me hospitality and compassion to help others." Preiss's wife, Marta, adds "I'm an American. I have four kids with Ralph, and if you count the next generations, it adds a lot to the 1,500 survivors." On April 23, 1940, Quezon spoke at the dedication of Marikina Hall, a housing facility for Jewish refugees: "It is my hope and, indeed, my expectation that the people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad that when the time of need came, their country was willing to extend a hand of welcome." "We are excited about the monument," says Gonzaga, who has been working in Israel for five years. "It will serve as a memorial to the Filipino people's humanitarian deed. We opened not only our doors, but also our hearts to the Jewish people when we gave them refuge during World War II. I feel proud as a Filipino, especially because I took part in the project." In Gonzaga's opinion, the erection of the monument will help strengthen ties between Israel and the Philippines. "The Filipino community here in Israel is excited and proud, as well. We all contributed to making this project possible," she says. The municipality of Marikina, where the survivors settled, also donated money for the monument. The special slab in the form of a Magen David was donated by the owners of a marble factory on Rom Lon Island. The marble bears three footprints - those of Max Weissler; George Levinstein, a survivor who lives in Miami; and of the daughter of Asher Goffer - a former staff member at the Israeli embassy and son of Holocaust survivors, who married a Filipina. "I grew up as a Filipino," Weissler concludes. "I lived in the Philippines less than 10 percent of my life, but I still feel that I'm one of them." Who is Righteous? A spokesperson for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial responds: Yad Vashem is, of course, aware that Jewish refugees were allowed to enter the Philippines in the early years of the war, and a Yad Vashem representative attended the event honoring the Philippines in Rishon Lezion. The welcome these Jews received in the Philippines was unfortunately rare during these years. As the war unfolded it became increasingly difficult for Jews to leave Europe and find a safe haven. The subject of the world's attitude towards the refugees and the visa and immigration policies, in general, is very broad and is addressed extensively in our research and educational activities. The subject of the Philippines specifically demands more thorough research, and Yad Vashem would be happy to receive any information that would shed additional light on the issue. Regarding recognition as Righteous Among the Nations, this title is awarded to individuals who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. While there are certainly other accounts of noble deeds, and efforts to help Jews, the Righteous designation is awarded to a specific group of people who meet the criteria of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, the most basic one being that there was an element of risk involved in the attempt to rescue Jews during the Shoah.