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Holocaust Rescue in the Philippines

January 26, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Over poker games and whiskey, a group of idealistic men hatched a plan to rescue 1,200 Jews.

A group of high-level American officials and Manuel Quezon, the recently-elected President of the Philippines, used to gather after dinner to play poker and drink whiskey in the late 1930s. The group included Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a Lt. Col. in the US army; US High Commissioner in the Philippines Paul V. McNutt; and Phillip, Alex, Morris and Herbert Frieder, Jewish businessmen were brothers from Cincinnati who ran a large cigar-making business in the Philippines, producing low-cost two-for-a-nickel cigars for the American market.

It was an exciting time in the Philippines. After becoming an American colony in 1898, the Philippines became a Commonwealth in 1935 with a plan to transition to independence in ten years. Philippine native Manuel Quezon was elected President, and he ruled the island nation with Paul McNutt, the US High Commissioner of the Philippines. The two were good friends, and their regular poker games were opportunities to discuss the important news of the day.

One topic that came up regularly was Germany’s anti-Semitism and the increasingly draconian laws and rhetoric against Jews there. Morris, Phillip, Alex and Herbert Frieder were particularly concerned. They were Jewish and as the fates of their fellow Jews in Europe became ever more precarious, they wanted to do something, anything, to help.

President Manuel L. Quezon (left) in high stakes discussion with American diplomat Paul V. McNutt, 1938

The Frieder brothers had been a presence in the Philippines for many years, ever since their father Samuel - known as “Pops”, his great-granddaughters Barbara Sasser and Peggy Ellis recently reminisced to in exclusive interviews - started building a cigar factory in Manila in the early 1920s. Their company, Helena Cigar Factory, produced up to 250 million “two for a nickel” cigars each year, under the brand names Tiona and El Toro. Each of the four Frieder brothers would take turns spending two-year stints in Manila overseeing operations. When they weren’t in the Philippines, the four brothers and their families lived near each other in a tightly-knit Jewish community in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In 1937, a small group of 28 German Jewish refugees arrived in Manila. They’d fled Germany for Shanghai, which was a relatively easy city for Jews to flee to at the time. As fighting raged there between Chinese and Japanese troops, Germany evacuated many of its nationals from the city, bringing them by ship to Manila. Even though Jews were increasingly hated and persecuted back in Germany, the ship brought these desperate Jews with them to the Philippine's capital city. High Commissioner McNutt was a passionate advocate for Jews: the former Governor of Indiana (1935-1937) learned about the plight of German Jews from his friend Jacob Weiss, a fellow fixture in Indiana’s Democratic Party. McNutt had spoken out against Hitler and supported the Jewish goal of establishing a homeland in the land of Israel. When the 28 Jewish refugees arrived from Shanghai, McNutt waived their visa requirements, letting them settle in the Philippines.

McNutt also encouraged Manila’s tiny Jewish community form a committee to help the refugees settle. Alex and Philip stepped up, helping form the Jewish Refugee Committee in Manila, which Philip led. Now that they’d helped settle 28 Jews in the Commonwealth, the Frieder brothers realized they had the resources to help many more. In late-night card games, they floated the idea of bringing more Jews to the Philippines. They soon found welcome allies in some of the most high-profile figures in Philippine politics, including President Quezon and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was stationed in the Philippines as an aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. With their well-connected friends, the Frieder brothers “were in a so-called strategic position there” reminisced Frank Ephraim, one of the Jewish refugees the Frieder brothers helped save, who later wrote about his experiences.

Passover Seder in 1925, photo courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society

In 1938, High Commissioner McNutt had a private conversation with Philip Frieder: if the Jewish community in Manila could guarantee to financially support Jewish refugees, he confided, then the Philippine government would grant them visas. Philip, his brothers, and the rest of the Refugee Committee got to work, devising a plan to recruit Jews to come to the Philippines.

They came up with a list of 14 occupations to recruit, including doctors, engineers, technical specialists and rabbis. The first group of German Jews arrived in the Philippines in October 1938. Numbering over a hundred, they were given visas and provided with jobs.

By then, Philip Frieder was preparing to go back to the US and Alex Frieder was about to arrive in Manila to take his turn running the family business there. Alex took a different approach, and worked to find jobs and arrange visas even for some Jews who weren’t on the approved list of occupations. One German Jew Philip personally intervened on behalf of was Egon Juliusberger, who arrived in Manila with his son Ernst. He brought the family to see High Commissioner McNutt, who took the highly irregular step of granting them visas. (When World War II broke out and fighting erupted in the Philippines, Ernst was later captured and tortured by the Japanese, but eventually enlisted and served in the American army.)

Herb Frieder (center) with tobacco leaves, 1940

Philippine President Manuel Quezon was personally invested in the rescue work. He hatched a plan, in coordination with the Philippine’s Congress, to bring 10,000 Jews to the Philippines and settle them in the southern island of Mindanao. Pres. Quezon and his friends, including the Frieder brothers, McNutt and Eisenhower “had a shared view of the world, they were men who understood what was happening in Europe” explained Russ Hodge, who co-produced a documentary with Barbara Sasser, Alex Frieder’s granddaughter, titled Rescue in the Philippines. They realized the fate that could befall European Jews. Even as the United States turned Jewish refugees away and imposed a strict quota system, the poker-playing friends in the Philippines continued to plan and wonder how to save more lives.

Paul McNutt worked to issue visas, while the Frieder brothers recruited Jews from Europe and worked to find them work once they were in the Philippines. Pres. Quezon lent his active support, while Dwight D. Eisenhower guaranteed the tacit support of the US military, which protected the island nation.

Back in the United States, Philip Frieder continued to work to save German Jews, cooperating with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to raise more money to settle Jewish refugees. He and his brothers also negotiated with the owners of a ranch in the Philippines to see if they could buy land on which to settle Jews. Sadly, their plans didn’t have a chance to come to fruition.

The outbreak of World War II made it virtually impossible for Jews to leave Europe to travel to the Philippines. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the United States entered the war, all refugee plans in the Philippines ended. By then, 1,200 Jews had travelled to the Philippines from Germany, finding relative safety there. Tragically, the Philippines saw heavy fighting later in the war. The country sustained heavy casualties; many died, including some of the Jews who’d moved to the Philippines from Germany. The Frieders’ cigar factory was destroyed. Manuel Quezon died in 1944. Paul McNutt left the Philippines in 1939 to head Pres. Roosevelt's Federal Security Agency. Dwight D. Eisenhower was offered a job by the Frieders working to resettle Jewish refugees in the Philippines full-time; he turned them down and went on to become Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe instead.

The Frieders and Pres. Quezon at Marikina Hall Dedication (1940)

For years, news of the audacious plan to save Jews, hatched in late-night poker sessions in Manilla, remained unknown. “None of the descendants of the rescuers knew about it,” explains Peggy Ellis. Her grandfather and great-uncles never mentioned their wartime activities, despite the fact that theirs was a very close-knit family and they spent a lot of time together, both in Cincinnati and also in Deal, New Jersey where the whole Frieder family would take vacations together each summer.

Peggy has spoken with Pres. Quezon’s daughter, who says her father might have mentioned something to her about his rescue of European Jews when she was very young but she was too young to appreciate the details. Dwight Eisenhower seems to have been the only person who told anyone about the rescue plan: his granddaughter Susan told Peggy that her father John was told the story. “The big mystery is why my grandfather and none of his brothers ever mentioned a word of it,” Peggy wonders. She feels that perhaps they felt they were only doing what any decent person would do – helping their fellow Jews in their hour of need. “They were men who weren’t in anything for adulation. I think they probably did what they could and didn’t feel like they did anything anybody else would have done if they were in the same position.”

The Frieder brother’s descendants learned about their wartime rescue work in 2003, when Frank Ephraim wrote about his family’s rescue in his memoir Escape from Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror. His book provided one of the only first-hand accounts of this daring rescue route. Intrigued, the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center in Cincinnati arranged an event around the book, and managed to track down many of the children and grandchildren of Manuel Quezon, Paul McNutt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Frieder brothers, many of whom still lived locally in Cincinnati.

Barbara Sasser, Alex Frieder’s’ granddaughter, recalls the amazing reunion. “Pres. Quezon was Catholic, McNutt was Protestant, the Frieders were Jewish, Eisenhower was raised Quaker. People from very different backgrounds and religions could work together to accomplish this humanitarian achievement.”

She also realized that the Philippine rescue program was almost entirely unknown. The movie Schindler’s List, about the Czech industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews by employing them as slave labor in his factory, had recently come out. “I said to myself this effort saved a similar number of lives to Schindler,” Barbara recalled. She realized that “most of the people in the world know about Schindler’s List because of a movie, not a book.” She embarked on an ambitious project to research her family’s rescue of 1,200 Jews. Despite the fact that she did not have a background in film, she taught herself about documentary film-making, hired collaborators, and eventually created the 2013 documentary film Rescue in the Philippines. The film told some of the amazing stories of individual Jews who escaped certain death thanks to this little-known rescue program.

Barbara’s cousin Peggy Ellis notes that by spreading the word of the role that their family and the nation of the Philippines played in saving hundreds and hundreds of Jews, they have been able to help people today, as well.

In November 2013, she and Barbara showed Rescue in the Philippines at the UN in New York. That night, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, causing catastrophic damage. The next day, Barbara phoned the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in New York - just as her great uncle had done two generations before, when he was seeking to help settle refugee Jews. Barbara explained that she’d like to set up a relief fund to help typhoon victims in the Philippines. “Five days later, when we screened Rescue in the Philippines in Congress, we’d already raised $130,000 with the JDC,” Peggy explains proudly. (She also notes that other Jewish charities in the New York region went on to raise over a million more dollars to help with rescue work after the typhoon.)

Learning about her family’s role in saving 1,200 Jewish refugees has changed the way Barbara Sasser looks at her family and how she is living her own life, sparking her connection to Judaism.

Quezon’s Game, a new feature length film directed by Matthew E. Rosen, tells this dramatic story, educating and inspiring a new generation to learn about the rescue of 1,200 European Jews, thanks to a group of highly idealistic poker buddies, and the audacious plans they hatched in the course of their late-night games.

“The film captures a fascinating historical juncture,” The New York Times notes. “The real challenge Quezon faced wasn’t getting the refugees out of Germany but persuading the United States to grant them visas to the Philippines.” Perhaps at long last, the story of the Jews given refuge in the Philippines will be more known and receive the recognition it so richly deserves.

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