Little known Quezon's World War II rescue of Jews, though capped by the US

Monday February 24, 2020 ()

In the late 1930s, President Manuel Quezon welcomed over 1,200 Jews from Germany and Austria into an unlikely haven in the Pacific archipelago. With his Open Doors policy, even as most nations closed their doors to Jewish refugees, these Jews - who came to be known as "Manilaners" - escaped Hitler's growing menace and reached the Philippine capital.

Quezon welcomes Jewish refugees
(President Manuel L. Quezon (center at mic) welcoming Jewish refugees April 23, 1940 at the dedication of Marikina Hall, which he constructed on his own property to house the newly arrived immigrants. To his left is Alex Frieder (white suit/seated), chairman of the Philippines Jewish Refugee Committee, and to the right (white suit/standing) is Herbert Frieder. (Courtesy "Rescue in the Philippines"))

Were it not for interference by the United States government, however, there could have been thousands more rescued Jews.

Philippine ambassador to Israel Neal Imperial told The Times of Israel via telephone that while Quezon had wanted to bring tens of thousands of Jews to the Philippines and permanently settle them on the island of Mindanao, his efforts were stymied by the US government, who limited him to accept 1,000 Jews a year, over a 10 year period.

The little-known rescue was commemorated on January 27, 2020, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the United Nations in New York, as well as at the Philippine embassy's recently inaugurated cultural center in Tel Aviv, the Balai Quezon. The organizers of both events included Philippine diplomatic missions and B'nai B'rith.

Jews rescued by Quezon contributed their perspectives - among them, Max Weissler in Israel and Ralph Preiss in New York. Weissler recently celebrated his 90th birthday; Preiss will turn 90 later this year.

In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Weissler called the Open Doors narrative "something that must be remembered."

A new feature film, "Quezon's Game," may help cement the initiative's place in history. Tel Aviv attendees got a sneak-peek at clips from the film, which is directed by Philippine-based Jewish filmmaker Matthew Rosen, who was on hand for the showing. They also saw the 2020 documentary, "The Last Manilaners," directed by Nico Hernandez. Guests at the UN watched clips from a 2012 documentary by Filipino filmmaker Noel Izon, "An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines."

The films build upon past remembrance efforts, such as Manilaner Frank Ephraim's book, "Escape to Manila."

Based on true stories

The genesis of "Quezon's Game" came when filmmaker Rosen, a UK native who relocated to the Philippines in the 1980s, noticed that his Filipina wife, Lorena Rosen, knew the words to "Hava Nagila" and that local children could sing it, but none knew its origins. This prompted him to make some inquiries at a local Manila synagogue and its museum beginning in 2009.

"I thought the story was amazing," Rosen said, but "what was more amazing than that story" was how "nobody knew [about it], not even my wife or most Filipinos."

Asked why there was hardly any recollection, he replied, "It's an excellent question. I have no answer. It's why I felt I had to make [the film]."

"Quezon's Game" was recently screened in the US after having garnered 25 international film festival awards. Matthew and Lorena Rosen co-wrote the original script. Their son, Dean Rosen, collaborated with Janice Y. Perez to turn it into a screenplay. Dean Rosen also composed the original music, which incorporates songs written by concentration camp victims. Several Manilaners, including Weissler, share reflections during the credits.

"One of the most common [reactions to the film] by rabbis and Jewish communities is, ‘I had no idea,'" said Rosen, who with "Quezon's Game" made his feature film directorial debut. "For me, it makes me feel more necessary to do [this], to tell the Jewish community that the Philippines stuck out a helping hand when they really needed it."

In "Quezon's Game," the protagonist is portrayed by Filipino actor Raymond Bagatsing, whom Rosen describes as "really brilliant" in the role. Bagatsing's Quezon strives for Philippine independence from the US - which governed the former Spanish colony as a commonwealth - and is a devoted family man to his wife Aurora and their daughter Baby. He also has a penchant for cigars.

In real life, Rosen said, Quezon befriended five brothers from a Jewish cigar manufacturing family, the Frieders. In the film, one of the brothers, Alex Frieder, learns in a telegram that the Germans are making death camps for Jews. He urges Quezon to offer a haven for Jews wishing to flee Europe.

Quezon requests thousands of visas from the US government, but he faces anti-Semitism in the State Department, personified by a composite character, a consul named Cartwright. Other Americans in the Philippines support Quezon's proposal: high commissioner Paul McNutt, a former Indiana governor; and future Allied commander-in-chief and US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was at the time a military aide.

Eisenhower is absent from most of the literature by Jews who got to the Philippines, Rosen said. "Because he left before the Japanese arrived, these accounts kind of drop him from the whole process, which is quite a shame ... If you study the Frieders, Quezon, look at Filipino history, he was very much involved with it," Rosen said.

As for the high commissioner, he said, "I really feel Paul McNutt needs a movie of his own. He was really a very great man ... It was lucky for Quezon that he was [high commissioner] at the time."

Obstacles towards freedom

Quezon faced internal opposition to his refugee plan within the Philippines. "The people were friendly, the politicians were worried," NY-based rescued Jew Ralph Preiss told The Times of Israel. "Quezon had to do this at his own political disadvantage. The opposition party certainly was against it."

Quezon's health also hindered his ability; he was battling a relapse of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him while convalescing at Saranac Lake, New York, in 1944 - two years before Philippine independence following World War II.

Philippine ambassador to Israel Imperial told The Times of Israel that at the commemorative event in Tel Aviv, he tried to emphasize "the importance of Quezon's focus, his humanitarianism and the fact he simply wanted to do the right thing in order to save as many Jewish people [as possible]."

According to Imperial, the real-life Quezon wanted to bring tens of thousands of Jews to the Philippines and permanently settle them on the island of Mindanao.

"Unfortunately, the Americans rejected the idea," he said, adding that a compromise figure of 10,000 was reached - 1,000 visas over 10 years - but the Japanese invasion of the Philippines brought the program to "an abrupt end."

Imperial said that the number of Jews saved by Quezon is between 1,200 and 1,300. "There is no exact figure," he said.

Rosen lists the number as 1,226: 1,200 off the boat and 26 refugees from Shanghai before the Japanese invasion. But he estimated that "nearly 100 more [found] their own way here, escaped on their own."

"He put them on his land," Rosen said, referring to part of the presidential home in Marikina. "He actually [saved] a few more than [Oskar] Schindler."

Firsthand accounts

Preiss recalled his own journey to the Philippines as an eight-year-old from Rosenberg, Germany.

Jewish refugee George Lowenstein
(Ten-year-old Jewish refugee George Lowenstein (standing at mic), who arrived in the Philippines as a toddler, attends a bar mitzvah celebration in 1945 in his new country. (Courtesy of George Lowenstein))

"We should have been away already before Kristallnacht, but the visas never arrived," said Preiss, who lost family and friends in the Holocaust. "The US State Department held up everything until January 1939 ... We were ready to go to the Philippines since July 1938. We didn't get to [go] until March 1939."

His father left first. Then he and his mother endured a three-week sea voyage via the Suez Canal, Bombay, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), Hong Kong and finally Manila.

"Mr. [Alex] Frieder welcomed us," said Preiss, who recounted getting an autograph from Quezon. Asked what he remembers about Quezon, Preiss replied, "Just that he was a nice, kind man ... He helped people. That's all I really knew about him at the time."

Weissler arrived two years later. Like Preiss, his father had gone first, then he followed with his mother. A policeman had warned his family to leave their home near Breslau, Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland). Their original destination was Denmark but they were denied entry, and eventually changed course to the Philippines - Weissler's father by boat and Weissler and his mother on a route including a train trek through Siberia and Manchuria. Eleven-year-old Weissler arrived on February 7, 1941.

"We had a community, we had a synagogue, we had a rabbi, a cantor," Weissler said. He interacted with Filipino peers. "Kids looked at me and thought I was an American," he recalled. "Then they thought I was Spanish. Finally they figured out I only spoke German." He learned their language of Tagalog. "For kids, it's easy to pick up languages," he said.

War came when Japan invaded the Philippines. The Japanese occupiers surprised some of the Jews by favorably looking upon their German passports, according to Alan Schneider, director of the B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem, who participated in the Tel Aviv commemoration. Yet Preiss said that 85 Manilaners were killed during liberation. He characterizes the occupation as a grim period.

"The bridges were blown," Preiss said. "We couldn't communicate." And, he said, "We fled for three months before the Americans liberated us."

Weissler said that his Manila home was burned, and that his best friend Peter Mintz was slain by the Japanese. "The name ‘Peter Mintz' will always remain with me," he said.

Weissler witnessed the notorious Bataan Death March of American prisoners of war. He said he saw the death march "from the beginning to the end" on Manila's Dewey Boulevard.

Imperial said that Manila itself was the second-most devastated city of WWII after Warsaw.

In the postwar years, Weissler and Preiss each ended up leaving the Philippines. Weissler worked on a Philippine ship, and wound up in Japan, where he fell in love with a seventh-generation Israeli named Esther and relocated to Israel. Max and Esther Weissler have been married for 64 years and have two children - Danny in Israel and Tova in Washington, DC. Weissler's name is inscribed on the Open Doors monument to Quezon in Rishon LeZion, first exhibited to the public in 2009.

Preiss helped fundraise for the monument, which was made in the Philippines and transported to Israel. He now lives in the US with his wife Marcia. They have four daughters and for each of their weddings, their daughters have used their mother's original wedding dress made in the Philippines.

From almost 1,300 Manilaners have come 8,000 descendants - reflecting the continuing legacy of Quezon's heroism.

"Of course we all talk about it at home," Preiss said. "In the Jewish community, we're all very grateful that he saved us."

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