A visiting friend from the University of Haifa was surprised to learn that there actually is a small Jewish community in the Philippines and that the country was in fact a haven for a considerable number of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. He’s been in the Philippines before but he has never heard of these, which I think represents the general lack of knowledge among both Jews, Israelis and Filipinos on the role played by the then Commonwealth of the Philippines and its President, Manuel L. Quezon, in saving the lives of around 1,200 souls during that dark period of history.
Thankfully, the Israeli government is aware. In fact, in 2009, it erected an impressive monument, called The Open Doors, honoring the Philippines and President Quezon at the 65-hectare Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Le Zion. I’m not really sure if the offsprings of the late Commonwealth leader has also been invited to plant a tree in Israel’s Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, an honor generally reserved for “righteous men” who had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust; if not, an invitation should be forthcoming as well.
There had been a sizable Jewish community in Manila in the 1930s, composed mostly of businessmen and socialites. Among the most prominent of the Jewish families are the Freiders, who count President Quezon and American High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt among their friends.
The Freiders followed with concern the meteoric rise of Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitic National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi) to power in Germany. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. When German President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934 resulted in a power vacuum that allowed Hitler to combine the chancellery and the presidency and become the Fuhrer of Germany, the Freiders knew that their fellow German Jews were in grave danger.
This fear was confirmed when Hitler mandated a systematic persecution of Jews and other “subhuman” races as his first order of business. His rubberstamp Reichstag passed the notorious Enabling Act, institutionalizing anti-Semitism and racism and leading to that infamous orgy of violence called the Kristalnacht. Jewish businesses were either sequestered or destroyed, synagogues were burned or vandalized, and Jews were forced to wear badges bearing the Star of David; and, as everyone knows, those were just the beginning.
Escape to the Philippines
At that point, thousands of Jews were already fleeing Germany for their lives. In Asia, Shanghai became a favorite refuge. The influx of Jewish refugees in Shanghai prompted the Manila Jewish community to raise money to support the escapees, but it turned out that money was not needed yet so they reserved it for emergency. Meanwhile, Japan began adopting confrontational stance against China, culminating in an outright invasion in 1937. Afraid that the Japanese, as a German ally, might adopt anti-Semitic policies as well, the Shanghai Jews began packing their things again. But most countries, including the United States, would not let them in. So they looked for alternatives: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Philippines.
This is where the Freiders began using their connections and friendship with High Commissioner McNutt and President Quezon in order to help their fellow Jews. Taking advantage of the fact that the Philippines still had no immigration law at that time (indeed, there were thousands of Japanese spies posing as immigrants, but that’s another story), President Quezon ordered that the country’s gates be opened to Jewish refugees. Around 1,200 came to Manila from Shanghai, Austria and Germany. The President himself donated parts of his personal estate in Marikina to be temporary residence halls for Jewish refugees.
President Quezon also urged the Philippine Assembly to pass a law allowing the entry of at least 1,000 Jews to the Philippines, and plans were drawn up for a Jewish settlement that could cater to at least 100,000. With the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, President Quezon even went as far as to announce his willingness to open Mindanao, then an under-populated new frontier, up for Jewish colonization, provided the Jews be naturalized as Philippine citizens. The Quezon plan proposed a sprawling settlement in the southern Philippine island that could cater to around 30,000 to over a million Jewish residents. It was hospitality beyond the usual.
But it appears that altruism might not be the only motive behind President Quezon’s Mindanao plan for the Jews. Local geopolitics played an equal, if not greater, part. Former American High Commissioner Francis Sayre, a son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson, allegedly even called the President’s Mindanao proposal a “scheme.”
Allegedly, President Quezon’s invitation to Jews was part of his plan to ease Muslim dominance of Mindanao and to prevent the possibility of Moro secession. At that time, the government had been systematically and strategically re-settling people from Luzon and the Visayas to Mindanao, which explains why Visayan Christians, not Moros, comprise the majority in the south today. A surge of Jewish migration to Mindanao could have stimulated economic growth in the area, thereby attracting more non-Muslim Filipinos from Luzon and the Visayas to move there.
In a way, it appeared that President Quezon intended to use the Jews as a buffer against Muslim animosity towards Filipino Chrsitians, and even against Japanese infiltration brought about by the alarming increase in Japanese migration. Some feared that this could lead to anti-Semitism in the Philippines as well, prompting Washington to disagree with Quezon’s “grandiose plans.”
The State Department reportedly said that the project was too ambitious and that Mindanao’s climate and infastructure is not suitable for white men and their European lifestyle. The American mandarins also doubted the Jewish people’s ability to adapt to the Philippine culture. Further, they feared that if the Philippines would take in such a huge number of Jewish immigrants, other countries might excuse themselves from doing their own part in saving the Jews.
‘Failed to rescue’
Finally, anti-Jewish sentiment grew in the Philippine Assembly and opposition leaders kept on delaying the progress of the Mindanao project, saying that President Quezon was too hasty in offering Mindanao for Jewish colonization. These delays plagued the Mindanao plan and became the source of frustration for the Jewsih community. In the end, the Japanese invasion of 1941 totally doomed the project.
On this failure, American historian Bonnie Harris, an authority on the Holocaust whose doctoral dissertation was about President Quezon’s efforts to save the Jews, wrote:
“Mindanao was the last hope for a mass resettlement strategy aimed at aiding the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees victimized by Nazi Germany.
“At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Hitler’s plan for massive Jewish deportation mutated into one of extermination, which was executed over the next three years. With the failure of the West to provide a successful mass rescue operation for Europe’s Jewish population, ‘thousands of Jews entered the cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, under the impression that they were being resettled in the East.’
“The irony of the ‘Final Solution‘ lies in its mimic of the Western World’s failed attempt to rescue through resettlement. ‘The decision to murder followed directly from the failure to resettle.’ Mindanao ended a long list of resettlement schemes considered at one time by the international community that failed to rescue.”
Still, this failure did not come until after President Quezon had already saved about 1,200 Jews.
The Japanese, who occupied the Philippines from 1941 to 1944, did not pursue Nazi-style anti-Semitism. But their brutality was equally notorious. This ironic story of escaping persecution only to be exposed to terror and infamy was the theme of a 2008 book by Frank Ephraim, a Philippine Jew, entitled Escape to Manila: from Nazi Tyrrany to Japanese Brutality.
After the war, the State of Israel was established and most of the Philippine Jews left the Philippines for their new homeland. Manila, for its part, became one of the first Asian governments to recognize Israel.