When the Philippines government honored Holocaust researcher Racelle Weiman in a public ceremony in Washington, D.C. last May, it was a culmination of sorts for Weiman, who has been working for the past 18 months to uncover the little-known rescue of Jews by the Philippines government during World War II. The Order of Lakandula, one of the Philippines' highest honors, was presented to her by visiting Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto Romulo at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Weiman heads the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. During a recent visit to Jerusalem, she stressed that the Philippines rescue is a story largely overlooked and untold in the mainstream Jewish narrative. Most people do not even know there was a Jewish community in Manila, where hundreds of German and Austrian Jews found refuge in the Nazi era.
Weiman, who has a doctorate in Holocaust studies, is trying to change that.
"Some 1,200 Jews were given refuge in the Philippines, which is the same number that [Oscar] Schindler saved," she said during an interview in Jerusalem. "But for some reason, no one knows about the case of the Philippines. Everyone is familiar with the story of Shanghai, but the Philippines rescue has been overlooked."
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, has already developed its Holocaust narrative and her recent addition just "doesn't fit," Weiman says.
Weiman goes nowhere without the small, black, wheeled suitcase that is stuffed with fading photos from Manila, letters from the late 1930s detailing the rescue, transatlantic telegrams and memorabilia that could be behind glass in a museum. She and her staff are working on a documentary of the rescue, which she hopes to release by next winter.
Weiman's own connection to the Philippines began when she came across "Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror," which was published two years ago. The book was written by Frank Ephraim, a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime with his family as a young boy and found refuge in the Philippine capital. Ephraim immigrated to the U.S. after the war and was a volunteer at the Holocaust Museum in Washington when he began sharing his story with the museum's curators and researchers. "Escape to Manila" was an answer to the skeptics.
At the start of the 20th century, the Frieders, a Jewish family living in Cincinnati, owned a cigar factory in Manhattan. In 1918 they decided to relocate it to Manila to reduce production costs. Brothers Alex, Philip, Herbert and Morris took turns living in Manila for two-year stints, where they rubbed elbows with the city's wealthy and powerful.
Col. Dwight Eisenhower, who would later become U.S. president; Paul McNutt, the American High Commissioner; and Manuel Quezon, the first Philippines president, were poker buddies of the Freiders'.
The Philippines was a U.S. commonwealth at the time and gained independence in 1947.
In 1938, Alex Frieder convinced his well-heeled friends to allow in a few German and Austrian refugees who were docked, without proper visas, at the port of Manila. The goal was to bring in thousands more. Within a few months, the brothers gained President Quezon's approval, while McNutt persuaded his State Department colleagues to be more flexible with visa quotas.
The Frieders then began putting Help Wanted ads in Jewish newspapers in Germany, offering refuge in Manila. To prove that the refugees would improve the local economy, the Frieders focused their efforts on professionals such as doctors and veterinarians.
They continued to advertise in German Jewish papers until 1940, but the rescue effort ended in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After the attack and the subsequent American entry into the war, U.S. consulates in Germany - which had been issuing visas to the Jewish refugees - were shut down.
"Throughout the rescue, McNutt continued to ask his friends in the State Department to make sure that the flow of visas [to the Philippines] continued," Weiman said. "He risked his whole career to help smuggle in Jews. The Philippines government didn't demand money for taking the Jews and as far as we know there was no pay-off of officials.
"The idea was to get 10,000 refugees into the Philippines, but the rescue effort ended in 1941 and when the Japanese invaded, the Frieders had to leave Manila."
During the war, the Jewish community continued to celebrate bar mitzvahs and holidays such as Purim and Passover. Photos attesting to this, together with an original Frieder brothers cigar box, are stuffed into the rolling suitcase.
In February, the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education hosted a reunion for those involved in the rescue to mark the 60th anniversary of the Japanese destruction of Temple Emil, Manila's only synagogue.
Nearly 100 members of the Frieder family took part, including Alice Frieder Weston who was a young girl in Manila when her father, Alex, helped mastermind the rescue. Also participating were Frank Ephraim, author of "Escape to Manila," and other refugees, as well as President Quezon's grandson, Manuel L. Quezon III, a Filipino journalist.
"The Philippines government was so grateful that we recognized them, because before this we never bothered to say thank you to the people who were so kind to us," Weiman said.
The reunion drew local, as well as national coverage, including a long account in The New York Times. Weiman says the Israeli media, which largely takes its cues from Yad Vashem, has continued to overlook the Philippines rescue.
In response to Weiman's remarks, a Yad Vashem spokesperson said that "the Holocaust is comprised of myriad details, many of which have yet to be fully explored. Yad Vashem encourages research in this and every aspect of the Shoah, but many aspects have not yet been investigated."
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