How Filipinos became heroes during the Holocaust
It’s a little known piece of history – a side story on how a young nation halfway around the world saved thousands of lives deemed lost during the dark days of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
It is for this reason that it is a story worth telling, a story that also deserves a film like Schindler’s List, said Barbara Sasser, a descendant of the Frieder brothers who were key players in the rescue of around 1,200 Jews.
The film was eventually produced and screened at Malacanang Palace on August 7.
Titled “Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust,” the one-hour documentary tells the story of how a family of tobacco-makers, former President Manuel Quezon, US high commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt and then Army Colonel Dwight Eisenhower put their neck on the line to bring Jewish refugees to the Philippines.
While many countries closed their doors on Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis, the Philippines became one of the few places they were able to escape to.
“At a time when almost every other nation in the world was turning away people who were in dire need, they (Filipinos) opened up their arms. They took a step forward. They embraced people from half way around the world. And the Filipino people and their president were nothing short of heroic in doing it,” said Russel Hodge, director of the film and president of 3 Roads Communications.
Taking two years to produce, the film was created using archival material and interviews of the survivors and descendants of those involved in the rescue. It was first screened in the United States last year and has since been shown 2,000 times on American television.
Hodge said the film was entered in dozens of film festivals and had even made it to the first cut for an Academy Award or Oscar nomination.
Sasser said many of the footages were from their family’s personal collection of 16mm videos of parties and meetings held at their house in Brixton Hill in Manila.
Through the painstaking research of senior writer Terry Irving, the story was pieced together, verified and written into a compelling narration.
To many of those involved in the film, it was mostly a story of moral courage.
“Quezon was willing to accept the Jews when so many countries did not. And the Frieders were willing to sacrifice some of their business interests to take time and give money to this effort,” Sasser said. “It’s a story of moral courage, religious tolerance and the benefits of being a concerned citizen. And that message is as relevant today as it was then.”
Sasser, who was the granddaughter of Alex Frieder, said the story also showed cooperation among people with different religious backgrounds since Quezon was Catholic, McNutt was Protestant and the Frieders were Jewish.
Cynthia Scott, chief executive officer of 3 Roads Communications, said they hoped the audience would learn from such an example.
“Instead of being apathetic and turning away and not doing anything, they decided to take action and do the right thing,” she said.
Courage alone, however, was not enough.
“Rescue in the Philippines” also tells the story of how the key players were able to go about the legal processes that would allow the stay of the Jews in the country.
In the end, visas were issued to Jews, depending on their occupations.
In the film, letters from Jews were shown, some of them pleading for refuge, detailing their work experience.
Hodge said they were able to get copies of the letters after they were given access to Quezon’s personal library.
“There were hundreds of letters still there, some of them yellowed, some of them almost destroyed by fire but from Jews in Europe writing to him directly and pleading for asylum and talking about what kind of skills they could bring here. And you realize the enormity of the problem, the very human aspect of the problem. And what a true leader and visionary Quezon was to make this all happen,” he said.
For a larger audience
Sasser said although they had heard of stories about how their grandfathers helped Jewish refugees in the Philippines, the descendants of the Frieder brothers – Morris, Herbert, Philip, Henry and Alex – did not know of the pivotal roles their forefathers played in the rescue.
She said the story was only brought to the “forefront of (their) minds” during the launch of Frank Ephraim’s book “Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror.”
Ephraim was one of the children who fled to Manila with his Jewish parents. His story not only recounted how they sought refuge in the Philippines but also how both Filipinos and Jews suffered during the Japanese occupation.
Hodge said that while they were the ones approached by the Frieder family to produce the story, their group also developed a personal interest in the film.
“We wanted to get the story out there to an American audience and a Filipino audience. And we feel very much that the Philippines has much to be proud of here, something that would hopefully inspire Filipinos and people around the world to act in a positive way,” Hodge said.
Scott said they very much wanted to bring the story to a larger audience, especially since it was “a very little known piece of World War II history – compelling story that people should know about.”
“Most people in the United States know about the war and its impact on Europe than the Pacific so we felt it incumbent upon us to educate people about what happened to…the enormous sacrifices and the enormous devastation that happened here as well,” Hodge said during an interview with INQUIRER.net.
Scott said they had done screenings at local schools, in addition to the premiere in Malacanang.
They are also exploring the possibility of including the story in the curriculum of schools in the United States and the Philippines.
“We have been talking to government agencies here that there will be film screenings around the Philippines. And we are also talking to the two major networks television networks about broadcasting the full documentary itself,” Hodge said.
Sasser added that since the Holocaust was not really discussed in Philippine schools, the film could help Filipinos learn more about it because of the role the country played in saving Jews.
She said in addition to history, it also taught people about cooperation of people from different faiths.
“Quezon was Catholic, Mcnutt was Protestant and the Frieders were Jews and they worked together despite their religious differences for this good,” she said.
Sasser said screening the film in the Philippines was a “dream come true” for them.
“I enjoy getting to know the Philippine people. I can understand why they would accept the Jews during that time, such a welcoming people…And I really treasure getting to know this culture,” she added.
Sasser said they also had the opportunity to somehow give back to the Filipino people while screening the film in the United States.
She said their screening at the United Nations headquarters in New York coincided with the landfall of typhoon “Haiyan” (local name “Yolanda”) last year.
“We had just finished the film and the American Jewish joint distribution committee used the story of the rescue and the timing that the Philippines have helped Jews in their time of need and they reached out to other Jewish organizations and raised money to help with typhoon recovery,” she said.
Hodge, who is a member of the board of directors of Ability Prosthetics, was also able to encourage the company to donate artificial limbs for the typhoon survivors.
“We’re very proud to be able to give back in that way,” Sasser said.
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