Twin events in New York, Tel-Aviv remember President Quezon’s open door policy that saved 1,300 European Jews fleeing the Holocaust
New York City and Tel-Aviv, 27 January – Twin events organized by the Philippines in partnership with B’Nai B’rith were held concurrently in New York City and Tel-Aviv last January 27 to pay tribute to the legacy of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, whose Open Door policy saved close to 1,300 European Jews fleeing Hitler in the eve of the Holocaust.
Organized in observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in New York and the Philippine Embassy in Israel hosted “Safe Haven: Jewish Refugees in the Philippines” at the United Nations headquarters in New York and Balai Quezon in Tel-Aviv, respectively. The twin events consisted of a viewing of excerpts of documentaries depicting how President Quezon, with the help of US Commonwealth Commissioner in the Philippines Paul McNutt and the Jewish community in Manila, offered safe haven to Jews seeking refuge from Nazi persecution. The event also featured personal testimonies from survivors Mr. Max Weissler, Mrs. Margot Pins Kestenbaum and Mr. Ralph Preiss who escaped to the Philippines and lived to tell about it.
In his keynote address at the New York event, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. cited President Quezon’s legacy as an important but relatively unknown story of courage and decency that took place in the darkest period of the dark history of inhumanity.
“In this time of rising anti-Semitism, this story of my country’s Open Doors Policy shows how plain decency can triumph over raging prejudice — which seems so irresistible when all we have to counter it is the soft quality of caring. It is a great moral victory that recognizes every life saved as immeasurably valuable for containing the infinite possibilities of a single human life,” Secretary Locsin said.
In the 1930s, the eve of the Holocaust, President Quezon decided to issue 10,000 visas to the Philippines to European Jews fleeing Hitler seeking to find refuge. Commissioner McNutt, at great political risk, facilitated the issuance of the visas. The Jewish community in Manila, led by the Frieder brothers of Cincinnati, owners of a Manila tobacco company, made sure the Jewish refugees had a home in Manila.
About 1,300 Jews from Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, Russia, Italy, Latvia and Bulgaria – who came to be called the “Manila-ners” – eventually found their way to the Philippines. Many of them had to flee to America and other countries to escape the Liberation of Manila years later, but some stayed on. Regardless, the Manila-ners have come to consider the Philippines their second home.
In Tel-Aviv, where the event, co-organized by the B’nai B’rith Worldwide Center Jerusalem, was held at the Balai Quezon, a cultural center housed at the Philippine Embassy there established to commemorate President Quezon’s legacy, clips of the documentary “The Last Manila-ners” and the full length film “Quezon’s Game” were shown. The event included a panel discussion featuring Professor Robert Rockaway of Tel-Aviv University and B’nai B’rith Center Director Alan Schneider, and the personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors Mr. Weissler and Mrs. Pin Kestenbaum who found refuge in the Philippines.
In New York, an excerpt of the documentary “An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines” was shown, followed by presentations from a panel of speakers consisting of the film’s director and producer Mr. Noel “Sonny” Izon, B’nai B’rith International CEO Mr. Daniel S. Mariaschin and Chair of their UN Affairs Ms. Millie Magid, US-Philippines Society Executive Director Mr. Hank Hendrickson, and University of San Diego Professor Dr. Bonnie Harris. The event also included the testimony of Mr. Preiss, another Holocaust survivor who fled to the Philippines, and some words from Ms. Barbara Sasser, granddaughter of the Frieder Brothers. The New York event was co-organized with B’nai B’rith International and -Philippines Society.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr., in his keynote speech at the event at the United Nations in New York: “President Quezon’s legacy as an important but relatively unknown story of courage and decency that took place in the darkest period of the dark history of inhumanity… In this time of rising anti-Semitism, this story of my country’s Open Doors Policy shows how plain decency can triumph over raging prejudice — which seems so irresistible when all we have to counter it is the soft quality of caring.”
Mr. Ralph Preiss, Holocaust survivor who fled to Philippines with his parents and lived there for x years: “I was able to escape Germany with (my) parents because of the Open Door policy practiced by Commonwealth of the Philippines President Manuel Quezon despite U.S. State Department and local political objections.”
Philippine-American filmmaker, director and producer of “An Open Door: Jewish rescue in the Philippines” Mr. Noel “Sonny” Izon: “While all other nations were still debating on what to do with refugees, the Philippines already had an active rescue program publicizing the country's open door policy in Jewish newspapers around Europe. It offered the whole country as a sanctuary. There was no other program like it in the world."
In Tel-Aviv: Members of the panel on the historical context of President Quezon’s “Open Door” policy: (L to R)
Mr. Alan Schneider, director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem; Mr. Max Weissler, a “Manilaner” who escaped to Manila with his mother at the age of 11, and now resides in Hod HaSharon, Israel; Philippine Ambassador to Israel Neal Imperial; and Professor Robert Rockaway, from the Department of Jewish Studies of Tel-Aviv University. Mr. Weissler shared fond memories of his childhood in Manila.
The panel and Mr. Max Weissler with Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan and Sri Lankan Ambassador Waruna Wilpatha, in front of Quezon in Spontanrealismus, a painting by Filipino artist Celeste Lecaroz. Members of the diplomatic corps in Israel, as well as members of B’nai B’rith International, turned out in support of the event.