How President Quezon and five cigarmakers in Manila rescued 1,200 Holocaust Jews

WILL SOON FLOURISH - Wilson Lee Flores (The Philippine Star) - January 6, 2013 - 12:00am

Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is. — Anne Frank

While the German industrialist Oskar Schindler became famous due to the Booker Prize-winning 1992 novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally and the Oscar-winning 1993 Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List about his saving 1,200 European Jews from Adolf Hitler’s racist Holocaust, halfway around the globe a group of poker-playing friends in the Philippines saved the same number of Jews in the late 1930s and this inspiring tale is only being told in recent years.

This April, US television will start showing a new film entitled Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust. The one-hour documentary is the saga of four Jewish entrepreneurs — Alex, Philip, Herbert and Morris Frieder of pre-war Manila’s Helena Cigar Factory — and their supporters, and how they risked a lot to help save 1,200 Holocaust victims.

The supporters of the gutsy Frieder brothers’ project were Philippine Commonwealth President Manel L. Quezon, army Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt and others.

The Philippine rescue of the Jews was a shining moment in history, achieved despite the objections or apathy of various US and Philippine officials. In the late 1930s during Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews, many nations refused to welcome refugees including the US, which in 1939 turned away from its Miami port the liner St. Louis with a boatload of 937 German Jews — one quarter of whom later died in concentration camps. Canada also turned down these St. Louis refugees. 

Philadelphia-based Temple University’s Dialogue Institute senior director Dr. Racelle Rosenblatt Weiman has been doing extensive research and promoting the Philippine rescue story for all the world to know. The Philippine government has since conferred on her the Order of Lakandula. She was the research director on the new TV documentary.

On a recent visit, Israel Ambassador Menashe Bar-On and Israel Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Yaniv Revach arranged for an exclusive Philippine STAR interview with Dr. Weiman in Rockwell, Makati. Here are excerpts:

PHILIPPINE STAR: How did you discover this inspiring story of the Philippines helping 1,200 European Jews escape the Holocaust?

DR. RACELLE R. WEIMAN: It all started with one of the boys saved from Nazi Germany. Frank Ephraim was an engineer who eventually migrated to the US. After he retired, he wrote the book Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, which was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2003. He died four years ago.

This almost-forgotten story came to light in recent years due to the late Frank Ephraim. He interviewed the other survivors saved in the Philippines. It is not exactly beautiful literature. It is a book of 1,000 pages, which could have been done in only 300 pages, but it’s an important work to let others know what happened here in your country.

How did the TV documentary come about?

I had spent a lot of time with the late book author, Frank Ephraim. We believe this story needs to be told to the world, and this TV documentary will help tell others. I talked to this woman who owns a Fernando Amorsolo painting from her days in pre-war Manila, she’s an American Jew named Alice Frieder Weston, daughter of Alex Frieder. There’s also a Frieder granddaughter, Dr. Barbara Sasser, she’s helping produce this TV documentary.

When did the Holocaust and the Philippine rescue start?

The actual start of the Holocaust was Nov. 9, 1938 in Germany and Austria with what historians call the  “Kristallnacht” — German for “Crystal Night” or the “Night of Broken Glass.” 

It was a racist pogrom or a series of coordinated attacks against Jews all over Nazi Germany and parts of Austria for two days. The attacks left streets covered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned shops, buildings and synagogues. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

It was around this time when the Frieder brothers, American Jewish cigar businessmen originally from Cincinnati who owned pre-war Manila’s Helena Cigar Factory, started to organize a rescue effort. They were poker buddies of President Quezon, US High Commissioner Paul McNutt and US Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, who gave their support. 

Philip Frieder once saw European Jews arriving in Manila’s port from Shanghai after the Japanese military siege there; Shanghai was an open port and harbored 17,000 German Jews.

After the Frieder brothers got Quezon’s support to help Jewish refugees, there was a letter by Alex Frieder to his brother Morris Frieder saying that skeptics in Quezon’s government spoke of Jews as “Communists and schemers” intent on “controlling the world.” He said Quezon “assured us that, big or little, he raised hell with every one of those persons. He made them ashamed of themselves for being the victim of propaganda intended to further victimize an already persecuted people.”

You mentioned that aside from the Frieder brothers, Quezon, McNutt and Eisenhower, there were others in the Philippines who publicly opposed Nazi racism?

Yes, I’m doing further research on that. There were other good people in the Philippines who had expressed moral outrage at the racism against the Jewish minorities after the Kristallnacht, people like then University of the Philippines president Jorge Bocobo who made a public speech denouncing such atrocities.

Bocobo was a Protestant. After Kristallnacht, he and other good Filipinos created a Committee for Racial and Religious Tolerance. They took a public stand. They showed that, here in Manila, the Nazi policies were intolerable. They went to a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. They organized an indignation rally at the Ateneo in Intramuros.

How many were at that rally, and when was this held?

That indignation rally at Ateneo in Intramuros was chaired by Quintin Paredes. It was held on Nov. 19, 1938. Over 1,000 people attended, and this was before the texting era. The rally was to protest what was happening to the Jews halfway around the world. The main speaker was UP president Bocobo, and I was able to research the text of his courageous and inspiring speech. 

This year, Nov. 19 is the 75th anniversary of that indignation rally, and I hope we all remember.

Indeed, a lot of things in Philippine history need to be updated and even rewritten.

You know, I went to the Quezon Memorial in Quezon City. There’s a museum there in memory of President Manuel Quezon, but there’s no data or reference to his allowing the Philippines to rescue 1,200 Jews. I hope that you shall not forget this golden moment in Philippine history. My dream is to help the Philippines to treasure this beautiful and positive part of your national history.

The Jewish minorities survived centuries of persecution without losing their culture and identity, an inspiring saga. What was the impact of the Holocaust?

Due to the Holocaust by the Nazis, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe — equivalent to one-third of all Jews worldwide — died. Of the six million who perished, 1.5 million were children under the age of 15 including the German Jewish diarist Anne Frank.

There were 18 million Jews in the world at the start of the 20th century. To illustrate the negative impact of the Holocaust, the 21st century started with 14 million Jews worldwide.

You’re a scholar and advocate of minority rights?

I advocate minority rights, also intercultural understanding and inter-religious dialogue. There’s an American concept known as “canary in the coalmine.” Miners used to send a canary bird down the tunnel to see if the air down there was good enough for human beings, to see how healthy it was there, or if there were dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide leaking into the coalmine shaft.

Like the canary in the coalmine, the way people treat Jews or other minorities are indications of how a society is. Tolerance of ethnic minorities is the first thing that’s sucked out of the room when a society goes from bad to worse.

We should respect minority rights everywhere.

I heard you recently discovered various letters from European Jews addressed to President Quezon in our government archives?

Yes, I have discovered various touching letters from Jews in different parts of Europe who had read or heard news then that the Philippines welcomed refugees.

Here are some copies of the letters, some no longer in good condition in your archives. There’s a letter from John Lichtenstein and his two friends Alex Buchsbaum and Aladar Erdos from Budapest in Hungary, a handwritten two-page letter from Isaac Grossman and his wife of Berlin, Germany, and other letters.

More research should be done on these documents and they should be preserved well. What has happened to the letter writers? Did they survive the Holocaust? The noble Philippine rescue efforts ended when the Japanese invaded your country.

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(Writer’s Note: In my research via the website of Israel’s Yad Vashem central database of Shoah victims’ names, I discovered that the Aladar Erdos of Budapest, Hungary “was murdered/perished in 1942 in Novo Uszpenka, Ukraine.” He was only 28 years old. In the same website, I researched Isaac Grossman of Berlin, Germany and found that he was “deported with Transport 32 from Berlin, Germany to Auschwitz Birkenau Camp on 02/03/1943. Isaac was murdered/perished in Auschwitz, Poland.”)

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Thanks for your feedback! E-mail willsoonflourish@gmail.com or follow WilsonLeeFlores at Twitter.com, at Facebook and willsoonflourish.blogspot.com/.


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