President Manuel Quezon and the people of the Philippines welcomed 1,305 Jewish refugees at a time when every other country closed its doors to Jews fleeing Nazi death camps.
The amazing rescue effort started with Jewish cigar-maker Herbert Frieder and his three sons, who owned the Helena Cigar Factory in Manila. Highly successful businessmen who employed hundreds of Filipinos, the Frieders traveled among the Manila elite. As soon as they found out what was happening to their brethren in Europe, they launched a rescue mission. The first step was asking help from their powerful poker buddy – President Manuel Quezon.
Quezon immediately offered sanctuary in Manila to up to 10,000 Jewish refugees. He encountered great resistance from both U.S. and Philippine government officials who – echoing Nazi rhetoric – accused Jews of being communists who wanted to take over the world.
The president assured the Frieder family that despite the opposition, he was undeterred. Alex Frieder remembered, “President 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.”
Historian Sharon Delmendo speculates on the motivation for Q’s extraordinary heroism. “Quezon, like most Filipinos, was Catholic and yet he developed an affinity for Jews because he felt that there was a sense of symbolic brotherhood between Filipinos and Jews. As the Filipinos were recipients of racial discrimination and bigotry on the part of many Americans at that time, the Jews were similarly recipients of bigotry by the Nazis.”
Despite Quezon’s offer of refuge to 10,000 Jews, only 1,305 were able to make it out of Europe. Those who did were given visas by the Frieders to work in their cigarette factory. They were also provided with free housing and education for their children.
Incredibly, Quezon donated his own land in Mindanao and Marikina to house the refugees.
When the Jews arrived, they were treated with respect and compassion. Remembered the daughter of refugee Frank Ephraim, “My father got a lot of positive attention, coming from a place where Jews were exiled and treated so poorly. The Filipinos were incredibly kind and treated him extremely well. There was an element of something so redemptive.”
The rescue operation ended when Imperial Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941, leading to one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II. The Jewish refugees felt like they’d gone from the frying pan to the fire, but it was still better than being in a Nazi death camp. During the Battle of the Philippines, which lasted from December 1941 to May 1942, there were 146,000 Philippine casualties, including 25,000 dead.
The Philippines were finally liberated in March 1945 after the brutal Battle of Manila, one of the bloodiest of the war.
In 2009, a monument honoring the Philippines was erected at the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion in Israel. The monument thanks the Filipino people and President Quezon for taking in Jewish refugees.
The Jewish community has not forgotten the Filipinos’ kindness. When typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, relief workers from the American Jewish Join Distribution Committee immediately rushed in with aid and support.
Danny Pins, the son of a Jewish refugee, helped lead the relief mission. “For me it was like coming full circle and I couldn’t help but think of what it must have been like when my grandparents and mother arrived 76 years ago. My going to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan was very special. I was repaying a debt to a country that saved my family.”
Israeli Ambassador to the Philippines Effie Ben Matityau compared the small island nation to the European continent: “There you have the biggest moral collapse of those who call themselves enlightened nations. That was a total darkness and collapse. And here you have the little Philippines, without any connection to the Jewish people, without any obligation to the Jewish people because they are not Filipino citizens, out of pure moral conviction, having one of its biggest moral victories.”
For being the only nation on earth to officially welcome Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, we honor the Philippine people led by President Manuel Quezon as this week’s Thursday Heroes.
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