Philippines’ WWII Rescue of Jews

Quezon saves Jews

At the height of anti-Jewish campaigns during WWII, the Philippines was one of the few countries that accepted Jews. And although the swastika meant death for Jews in Europe, it ended up saving them in their new home in the far east.

Records suggest that Jews had been in the Philippines as early as the 1600s. However, it was only when the Suez canal opened in 1869 that their numbers grew, and when the US took over in 1898, their numbers grew even larger.

The exodus of German Jews from Germany started in 1933 when the Nazis took over Germany. The first of which arrived in Manila in 1935, but most preferred to settle in Shanghai, China, as there were already around 18,000 Jews, settled there. Things took a turn when Japan joined world war 2 and allied with Germany, Japan started invading China and soon it was feared that Japan will adopt anti-Semitic policies, which was eventually the case. To deal with this development, Manila then created the Jewish Refugee Committee which sought to repatriate the Jews of Shanghai to Manila.

Mr. and Mrs. Alex Frieder (center right) in 1940 posing with some members of the Jewish Refugee Committee of Manila
Mr. and Mrs. Alex Frieder (center right) in 1940 posing with some members of the Jewish Refugee Committee of Manila

As Germany advanced in Europe in 1938 and annexed Austria, huge numbers of Austrian Jews were displaced and had nowhere to go. These events would lead to the Open Door policy under President Manuel Quezon with the influence of Jews who had strong economic influence in Manila. 

Cysner with children before the occupation. Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego
Cysner with children before the occupation.
Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego
As world war 2 raged and the attack on Jews went deeper in Europe, few countries dared to take in Jews fleeing persecution for fear of getting involved in the war. However, in Manila, things were a bit different as thousands rallied to condemn Germany and calls were made to offer refuge to them. 

On December 5, Quezon made a public announcement offering asylum to as many as the country could take. However, there were political and financial obstacles that their project entailed whereas the former being the American's rejection of the whole idea. Nonetheless, both were overcome with the aid High Commissioner Paul McNutt agreeing to issue visas to Jews in Germany and Austria, and the Frieder brothers agreeing to cover the financial aspect of the mission which eventually lead to the saving of at least 1,200 Jews.

Health Care

In 1941, the Japanese started bombing the Philippines. The Japanese Army took food and other resources, seized houses and businesses. Women and girls were turned into “comfort women” (sex slaves) for the Japanese military. Beatings and summary executions were also common. By the time their occupation ended in 1945, it’s estimated that over a million in Manila alone had died, many from hunger.

German Passport
Jewish German passport

Amidst all wreckage, German and Austrian Jews ended up safe in the Philippines. The former had kept their passports which had swastikas on them. The latter were native German speakers, so they were considered to be German citizens.

And although Germany did ask Japan to adopt anti-Semitic policies, the Japanese had no idea of what a Jew was or actually cared. As far as the Japanese were concerned, they had an alliance with Germany – and if a European spoke German, then they had to be German.

left in ruins
Destruction of the Legislative Building

Also, the Japanese didn’t easily give up the Philippines in 1945. Foreseeing defeat, they went on a killing spree and destroyed what they could by burning or shelling. Prior to 1941, the Philippines was one of the largest economies in Asia second only to Japan, but it never recovered after the war.

Approximately around 1,200 to 1,300 mostly German and Austrian Jews made it to Manila before the Japanese invasion - 67 of which died during the Japanese occupation.

In 2009 the Israeli city of Rishon LeZion set up the Open Doors monument to commemorate the refuge the Philippines provided.

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