February 14, 2007

A Filipino-American Effort to Harbor Jews Is Honored



CINCINNATI, Feb. 12 – It was a time when Jews were frantic to get out of Germany, risking voyages to places they were not sure would accept them and finding doors closed almost everywhere.

In Manila, though, a vigorous expatriate cigar manufacturer from Cincinnati had been playing poker and bridge with the likes of Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower; Paul V. McNutt, the American high commissioner; and Manuel L. Quezon, the first Philippines president. When the manufacturer, Alex Frieder, saw refugees straggling to the port pleading for entry, he cajoled his poker cronies to let the Philippines become a haven for thousands more.

Through his efforts and those of three of his brothers, about 1,200 German and Austrian Jews eventually found sanctuary in the Philippines in the late 1930′s, then an American protectorate…

Over the weekend, 98 of Mr. Frieder’s relatives came together here with a half dozen refugees and a grandson of Mr. Quezon to celebrate this little-known tale of one of the war’s unlikely rescues.

”They were the right persons in the right place at the right time,” said Mr. Frieder’s daughter, Alice Weston, 78, who was a young girl in Manila in 1938 and 1939 when her father and her uncle Philip Frieder masterminded the rescue. ”My father wasn’t an exceptional person. He was an ordinary businessman and he saw this horrible situation and he thought of a way to help a little bit.”

Filipinos from the Cincinnati community serenaded the relatives with love songs in Tagalog as well as ”Hava Nagila.” Mrs. Weston, among others, sang along with the Tagalog lyrics she remembered from childhood. There were Filipino dishes like chicken adobo. Refugees led a Sabbath eve prayer service, and Manuel L. Quezon III, a 34-year-old journalist in the Philippines, introduced the blessing over the challah.

”We’re a very hospitable people and we had experienced exile and imprisonment during the Spanish colonization and the early American occupation, so someone of my grandfather’s generation would have been conscious of the plight of refugees,” Mr. Quezon said. ”We’re a sucker for anyone who’s suffering.”

The reunion, organized by the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion here, was held on the 60th anniversary of the Japanese destruction of Manila’s synagogue, Temple Emil.

The story of the Manila rescue begins in 1918 with the decision of the Frieder family to move much of its two-for-a-nickel cigar business from Manhattan to the Philippines, where production would be cheaper. Alex, Philip, Herbert and Morris took turns living in Manila for two years each, Mrs. Weston said, in a community that had fewer than 200 Jews.

Frank Ephraim, who as a child was one of the Jewish refugees in Manila and who wrote a history of the rescue, ”Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror” (University of Illinois Press, 2003), said that in 1937 Philip Frieder saw European Jews arriving in Manila’s port from Shanghai while it was under siege by the Japanese. Shanghai remained an open port and eventually harbored 17,000 German Jews.

The Frieder brothers were reluctant to burden the Philippines with poor refugees, so they focused on importing people in occupations the country needed, like doctors. Mr. McNutt, the high commissioner, was able to finesse State Department bureaucrats to turn a blind eye to quotas and admit 1,000 Jews a year.

Mr. Quezon’s approval was also needed. Dr. Racelle Weiman, the Holocaust center’s director, said there was a letter written by Alex Frieder to Morris Frieder that said skeptics in Mr. Quezon’s administration spoke of Jews as ”Communists and schemers” bent on ”controlling the world.”

”He assured us that big or little, he raised hell with every one of those persons,” Alex Frieder wrote of Mr. Quezon in August 1939. ”He made them ashamed of themselves for being a victim of propaganda intended to further victimize an already persecuted people.”

Mr. Frieder combed lists of imperiled Jews for needed skills and advertised in German newspapers. The brothers and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee arranged visas, jobs and housing and raised thousands of dollars for sustenance.

Ralph J. Preiss, 74, of Manhattan, was 8 when he left Germany and recalled his family studying Spanish on the ship because they had read an outdated encyclopedia describing their intended haven as a colony of Spain. ”We didn’t know what the Philippines was or where it was,” Mr. Preiss said…

Most refugees hoped the Philippines would be a way station to America, yet were delighted at the kindly reception from Filipinos…