This Woman Survived the Holocaust Thanks to the Philippines. Now She Wants to Return the Favor

Margot Pins Kestenbaum was only able to escape Nazi Germany in 1938 after her family received an entry visa to the Southeast Asian state. Now 86, she feels the Filipinos’ life-saving actions need to be officially recognized in Israel

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Margot Pins Kestenbaum posing for a photograph in Jerusalem, August 2017.
Margot Pins Kestenbaum in Jerusalem, August 2017. "You have to reach a certain age before you can deal with" war and terrible memories.Credit: Emil Salman
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

When Margot Cassel was 7, her parents announced they would be leaving Germany. It was 1938, five years since Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, when the walls began closing in on the country’s Jews. Margot, an only child, was already attending a Jewish school, so she didn’t suffer the indignity of being expelled from school. But she still remembers when a sign appeared in the park across the street, announcing Jews were no longer welcome to use its benches. To her recollection, however, the Jewish community of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) “landed on its feet.” Banned from public parks, the Jews rented land outside the city, where families could plant gardens. On weekends, “instead of going to the park, we would take a streetcar to this [community garden] and have a picnic and a wonderful time.”

Margot’s parents also landed on their feet. When Salo Cassel, her father, was fired in 1935 by the Breslau department store where he was a manager, he and Erna, her mother, began to make and sell housedresses and aprons. Until 1938, the couple “were sure that this Nazi thing was going to blow over,” recalls Margot Pins Kestenbaum, as the twice-widowed 86-year-old is known today.

By the time Salo understood the danger they were facing, however, leaving Germany was not so easy. He and his brother began making the rounds of foreign consulates in Breslau, but no country was offering entry visas to Jews.

One day, though, “my father came home with the great news that there were visas available to a place called the Philippines,” Pins Kestenbaum says. They’d never heard of it, but they began planning their departure.

Months later, on the eve of their voyage, the Cassel family attended a farewell party given in their honor by very well-off cousins. She recalls that guests to their house “were received by a maid in a black dress and a lace apron and hat.” She remembers the gentle teasing she and her parents received from their relations, who told them that where they were going, “You’ll be riding elephants and there will be lions in the streets.”

She pauses. “Of course, nobody survived from that family. It’s hard for me to fathom.”

Margot Cassel age 4, in Breslau.Credit: Courtesy Margot Pins Kestenbaum

The three Cassels were among some 1,300 German Jews who did survive after being taken in by the Philippines.

Long a Spanish colony, the Philippine Islands had become a territory of the United States after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Over time, and after an uprising, the United States granted home rule to the Filipinos, and in 1935 promised to bestow them full independence by 1945.

Although the first Jews had arrived in the Philippines in 1590, a century after the expulsion from Spain, it was only after the American occupation that the Jewish community was permitted to organize openly and officially.

In 1919, the country’s first synagogue, Temple Emil, was established. Most of the Jews who settled in the country – coming from the United States, Turkey and later Russia – were involved in export industries, ranging from embroidered goods to tobacco, wood and hemp.

Key to the Philippines’ decision to open its door to Jewish refugees was the lobbying of the Frieder family of Cincinnati, four of whose sons took turns running a family-owned tobacco factory in Manila. One of the brothers, Alex Frieder, played poker regularly with Manuel Quezon, president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. They were joined by Paul V. McNutt, the American high commissioner, and Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who at the time was serving as an American military adviser to the Filipino army.

Frieder lobbied his poker partners to allow the Philippines to take in Jews. Quezon was sympathetic and McNutt convinced the State Department, which refused to grant visas for more than a minimal number to come to the U.S., to agree to a more liberal policy when it came to the Philippines. That was made easier when Frieder and the Jewish Rescue Committee he and his brothers set up offered to screen candidates who were likely to contribute to the Filipino economy. All told, Quezon’s government was prepared to take in 10,000 Jews.

Margot and Erna (left) and Lotte and her mother in 1930s Germany.Credit: Courtesy Margot Pins Kestenbaum

The Cassel family left Germany in early November 1938, missing the devastation of Kristallnacht by just a few days. They arrived in Manila in early December, shortly before Hanukkah. There they were reunited with three other families, one of them that of Salo’s brother, with whom they had planned the emigration. Pins Kestenbaum remembers the great excitement she felt on seeing her cousin Lotte, who was 10 days her senior, and whom she loved like a sister.

Japanese occupation

During their first month in Manila, the family lived in a boarding house located a few blocks from the sea. “As soon as we got permission,” Pins Kestenbaum recalls, Lotte took her by the hand, and “we ran to the water, where she showed me all these live things that were floating in the water.”

Margot says her parents’ confidence and resourcefulness made her feel safe. “Even at moments where you knew there was a good chance that you wouldn’t live” – for example, in the final months of the war, when Manila itself became a battleground – “I did not feel abandoned in any way, and I was not given to panic. I felt protected.”

Margot and Erna Cassel in their neighborhood park in the 1930s, before it was declared off-limits to Jews.Credit: Courtesy Margot Pins Kestenbaum

After a brief period at a German-speaking Catholic school, which Margot and her cousin Lotte were asked to leave when it became clear they weren’t going to convert, the two girls were accepted to the Philippines Women’s University, a private school that went from kindergarten through university. It was, says Pins Kestenbaum, “established by well-off, well-educated women who felt strongly about education,” and she and Lotte attended the English-speaking school on full scholarships.

The Japanese brought World War II to the Philippines on December 8, 1941, shortly after their attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. By then, the Cassel family had been living in Manila for three years. Salo was now a traveling salesman, after a period spent working in various jobs, including selling hair-growth pomade door to door (“He would say, ‘Look at my head: If I had used this, I wouldn’t be bald.’ That didn’t go over very well.”).

Himself a veteran of the German army in World War I, Salo was not impressed with the level of readiness he saw among the U.S. defenses in the country. His daughter recalls him telling the family, “America is not ready in any way to deal with [war]. No preparedness, no materials, no manpower, no nothing.”

Indeed, the Japanese overran the U.S. defenses in the Philippines easily, completing the occupation of the country by March 1942. Those soldiers who were not killed, whether American or Filipino, were captured in the tens of thousands and sent on what became known as the Bataan Death March.

Homemade bomb shelter

For the German Jews in Japanese-controlled Manila, however, life was better than it was for other refugees. Germany was Japan’s partner in the Axis, and the occupiers didn’t distinguish between Jews and other Germans.

The Allied liberation of the Philippines took months to complete, not surprising considering the archipelago comprises more than 7,600 islands, many of them overgrown with jungle or mountainous terrain. It began in October 1944, although the fighting did not reach the capital until early February 1945. During the next two and a half months, the Cassel family – together with the rest of the city’s population – was caught in a struggle to survive as the besieged Japanese occupiers seemed determined to leave behind scorched earth in their defeat.

When the war reached their neighborhood, the Cassels and their neighbors had to flee as the Japanese set their homes ablaze. Even the supplies they had stockpiled for this moment were destroyed. For the next week or so, the family and the other refugees with whom they had thrown in their lot slept in the bomb shelter Salo had built – a wooden structure fortified by thick walls of mud – and searched for fresh water and foraged for edible plants.

When they could remain there no longer, they began walking – crawling, actually, to avoid being shot – toward what they hoped were the American lines. In less than an hour they came upon a group of soldiers, camouflaged as bushes, who indeed turned out to be GIs. Pins Kestenbaum recalls how “all of the boys emptied out their K-rations and shared with us all they had,” before helping the refugees find a safe place to take shelter until the end of the fighting.

When the battle for Manila finally ended on March 3, 1945, about one-tenth of the 1,300 Jews who had been taken in by the Philippines were dead. The total number of civilian casualties in the city surpassed 100,000. “You would walk in the streets. You got used to seeing a body being covered with newspapers. People had starved to death, people had been stabbed to death,” recounts Pins Kestenbaum.

Fittingly, Passover of 1945 took place a few weeks after liberation. The U.S. Army arranged for a mass seder to be held for its Jewish soldiers at a Manila stadium, and invited the local Jews. The following day, it rented a Protestant church to mount holiday services.

The Americans were still there a year later when, at Pesach services in 1946, Margot met a young GI named Arnulf “Arnie” Pins. When the rabbinical chaplain scheduled to lead services failed to show up, it was Pins – a German-born émigré whose family had moved to Palestine in 1936, before coming to the United States two years later – who stepped forward to conduct services and read the Torah.

When Pins discovered there was a vibrant Jewish community in Manila, with a large number of children and adolescents, he asked to be reassigned to Manila to serve as a chaplain’s assistant. He began leading a Jewish youth group – and fell in love with one of its members.

Margot Cassel, second from left, and Arnie Pins, far right, in postwar Manila.Credit: Courtesy Margot Pins Kestenbaum

Five years after 19-year-old Arnie met the 15-year-old Margot in Manila, the two were married in New York. By then, she was a student at Barnard College and he had just received his master’s in social work at Columbia. Arnie’s dream, however, was to return to Israel, where he had lived briefly as a child – an ambition Margot came to share.

‘Terrible, terrible memories’

The family lived in Jerusalem for a year after 1967’s Six-Day War and finally, in 1974, returned for good. A year earlier, Danny, the eldest of the couple’s three children, had made aliyah and been drafted, shortly before the Yom Kippur War.

Arnie Pins took a job with the Joint Distribution Committee, where he began a rapid ascent in the organization’s management before his early death from cancer in 1978. At the time of his death, he oversaw the sensitive work of the Joint in Jewish communities in the Middle East, including Iran, Egypt and Morocco.

For her part, armed with a degree in early-childhood education, Pins Kestenbaum began working with the Community Centers Association to develop a pioneering network of early-childhood services for communities around the country. It was an audacious program, in both its methodology and scope, and included helping to organize a university-level training course for early-childhood teachers at the Hebrew University.

The program also offered training and employment to women in many of the underprivileged neighborhoods in which it operated.

For decades, Pins Kestenbaum’s connection to the Philippines remained dormant. Not that she kept it a secret – but she wasn’t in contact with people there, and certainly didn’t visit. She explains that she had “left behind war and terrible, terrible memories, and I guess you have to reach a certain age before you can deal with that.”

Salo Cassel, third from right, and employees at his store in Manila, 1950s.Credit: Courtesy Margot Pins Kestenbaum

For her, that age was her late 60s, when she and her second husband, Lionel Kestenbaum, went to the Philippines for a short visit as tourists. “Basically, I wanted to show him where I had spent the war,” she says. “But the real ‘rekindling’ came through my son” – Danny, who, like his father, is a professional with the Joint – “who was sent to the Philippines after several disasters to extend help.”

She gave him a list of places to visit while he was there, including her former schools.

In 2015, Pins Kestenbaum returned to Manila to participate in a reunion at the former American School, her high school. At the same time, she reinitiated contact with the Women’s University, which conducted a video interview with her. The then-Israeli ambassador to Manila, Matti Ben Matityahu, became involved and helped set up other meetings for her during her visit.

Partly through Pins Kestenbaum’s willingness to tell her story, the part played by the Philippines in saving the lives of 1,300 German Jews has become better known.

There have been two documentary films – “Rescue in the Philippines” and “Open Door” – on the subject, and a monument, organized by Max Weissler, another one of the refugees who later emigrated to Israel, was inaugurated in Rishon Letzion in 2009.

Justice for children of Filipino workers

Lionel Kestenbaum died last year, and today Margot lives alone in a residence for independent retirees in Jerusalem. She says she is gratified to see the Philippines finally getting some recognition for its act of rescue, but believes it is too little and too late. She feels that, even today, too few Israelis know the Philippines was one of a small handful of countries that took in Jews during the Holocaust. “I regret deeply that at Yad Vashem there is no mention of the rescue of 1,300 people,” she says.

Although Yad Vashem sponsored a 2015 screening and discussion of “Rescue in the Philippines,” the permanent exhibit at the Israeli national Holocaust memorial and museum does not reference the role played by the Philippines in saving Jews.

She also feels strongly that Israel could learn from the Philippines when it comes to its policy on children of Filipino workers born here, yet who get no special consideration for remaining in the country when their parents’ work permits expire.

She says she has great empathy “with the children who were born here and lived here and [went] to school here, and then were expelled, deported. I want justice [for] these children.”

Pins Kestenbaum acknowledges that this is an emotionally driven wish, “a result of the fact I’m alive – not only that I’m alive, but also that I have a very, very large family here in Israel.”

Historical justice should compel Israel to find a way to allow these children to stay in the country, she says, “because of what the Philippines did for the Jewish people.”

The author is the son-in-law of Lionel Kestenbaum, Margot Pins Kestenbaum's late, second husband.

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