Most of us are well aware of various stories of extreme heroism during the Holocaust like, for instance, those depicted in Schindler’s List and The Zookeeper’s Wife, but the following is about another story of heroism of which you are probably not cognizant.
It is a little-known story that between 1937 and 1941 some 1,200 Jews fleeing the Holocaust found a safe haven in, of all places, the Philippines. Most of us are aware that many countries were unwilling to admit Jewish refugees either because of anti-Semitism or opposition to immigrants, in general, or, if they did, the Nazis eventually got them anyway. For example, take the sad plight of the St. Louis.
On May 13, 1939 the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg to Havana carrying 937 passengers, almost all of them Jews fleeing the Nazis. They had been told they would be able to enter Cuba, and most of them had even obtained visas to enter the US, which they intended to do after a short stay in Cuba. However, when the St. Louis arrived only 28 of them were admitted. The reasons were not clear, but apparently it was due to a combination of internal politics, anti-Semitism and a bias against immigrants, in general. The remaining 908 passengers were also denied admittance to the US for the same reasons even though the ship passed close enough to Miami that they could actually see the city’s lights. How frustrating was that! Many Jews blamed FDR. He was a great president, but this was not exactly his finest hour.
Eventually, the ship returned to Europe. Its passengers were disembarked in England, the Netherlands and Belgium. Those who went to England survived the war, but the majority who went elsewhere did not. One may view the heart-wrenching story of the St. Louis in greater detail at the Museum of Jewish Heritage located in lower Manhattan.
Now, back to the Philippines. It was not easy to bring in large numbers of immigrants. At the time, the Philippines were under US supervision and control. A group that included President Manuel Quezon, Dwight Eisenhower and a cadre of wealthy and influential Jewish businessmen forged a workaround. They focused on highly skilled professionals, such as doctors, mechanics, rabbis, scientists and accountants who were in short supply and great demand. One emigrant, Herbert Zipper, was a musical conductor who went on to found the Manila Symphony. Quezon’s original goal was to admit 10,000 Jews, but the Japanese invasion thwarted that.
The Jews’ joy and relief of escaping the Nazis was soon tempered by the fact that they found themselves in the cross-hairs of the brutal Japanese. According to Lottie Hershfield, age seven at the time, “we were going from the frying pan to the fire.”
Hershfield added that for the most part the Filipinos accepted the Jews and treated them well, but it was a culture shock, especially for the adults. The kids adapted more easily as kids do, but the adults stayed among themselves, and had difficulty adapting to the intense heat and humidity, learning the language, and familiarizing themselves with Filipino customs. Also, many of them had been wealthy professionals or business owners in Europe and were faced with the daunting task of starting all over.
Ironically, for the most part, when the Japanese conquered the Philippines the Jews were treated better than the Filipino natives. Ursula Miodowski, age seven at the time, told CNN, that was likely because their passports had the Nazi swastika on them. That may also have been the reason why many Jews were not interned, like the British and Americans. Nearly 1 million Filipino civilians were murdered during the Japanese occupation.
Better treatment did not, however, mean avoiding Japanese brutality altogether. Survivors told stories of starvation, rapes, torture, beheadings, hiding in jungles and muddy ditches, and wanton destruction of property. However, Miodowski was quick to add that it beat being interned in a concentration camp. “We would not be alive today if not for the Philippines,” she said.
A handful of the refugees are still alive today. Their story has been told in two documentaries, “Rescue in the Philippines” and “An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines.” Additionally, Frank Ephraim, one of the survivors, depicted his experiences in his biography, entitled “Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror.” The title pretty much tells the story.
In 2009 Israel memorialized the Philippines’ actions with a monument at the Holocaust National Park in Rishon Lezion.
Finally, in an illustration of “what goes around comes around,” in 2013 when a typhoon decimated the Philippines, workers from the American Distribution Committee provided much-needed help. The team was led by a man named Dan Pins, whose mother and grandparents had been among the WWII Jewish refugees that had been saved by the generosity of the Philippines. Pins was happy to return the favor.