Eighty-three year ago this week – November 15, 1935 – 300,000 Filipinos witnessed the inauguration of Manuel L. Quezon. Quezon was the second president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. Not as well known is that he helped save the lives of approximately 1,300 Jews during the Holocaust.
Quezon was born on August 9, 1878 to school-teacher parents. He studied law at the University of Santo Tomas and was aide-de-camp to General Emilio Aguinaldo (the Philippines’ first president) during the Philippine-American War in 1899. He later became a governor and senator.
As president of the Philippines, Quezon – in what would later prove to be a most felicitous coincidence – often dined and played poker at the home of Philip, Alex, Morris, and Herbert Frieder, Jewish brothers from Cincinnati, Ohio who owned a successful manufacturing business in the Philippines. Other players were Paul V. McNutt, the U.S. High Commissioner for the Philippines, and Army Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, chief assistant to General Douglas MacArthur, who headed the Philippine Constabulary.
In August 1937, a month after the Sino-Japanese War began, the German government evacuated German nationals – including 28 German Jewish refugees – from Shanghai to Manila. The German Consul in the Philippines requested that the Jewish community in Manila – totaling approximately 500 souls – assume responsibility for them, which they did.
In fact, the refugees’ arrival inspired the Frieder brothers to help resettle even more Jews in the Philippines. Philip Frieder consulted with McNutt and President Quezon, both of whom agreed to allow Jewish refugees into the country provided they would not become a financial burden to the state.
McNutt traveled to Washington (which maintained control over the Philippines) on February 23, 1938 where he met with representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and obtained financial aid for the immigration venture from the Refugee Economic Corporation (REC). Upon his return to the Philippines in April 1938, he organized the Jewish Refugee Committee (JRC) of Manila.
McNutt and the JRC compiled a list of vocations that needed to be filled immediately in Manila: medical specialists, chemical engineers, nurses, dentists, oculists, auto mechanics, cigar and tobacco experts, ladies’ dressmakers, barbers, accountants, film and photograph experts, farmers, and a rabbi.
Ads were placed in Jewish newspapers throughout Europe.
“My father, a professor of physics, was dismissed from the University of Vienna,” said Mary Farquhar in an interview with The Jewish Press. “My mother, a physical education teacher at a girl’s school, was fired on June 9, 1938. After being made redundant, my parents lived off their savings. They grew fearful about the situation for the Jews living in Austria and started searching for a place to go.
“In late 1938, my parents got a call from a couple whose son had gotten a job as a doctor through Frieder’s list in a Jewish newspaper. The doctor asked his parents if they knew anyone who could fill a position for a physics professor in Baguio, Philippines. Hastily, my father sent a letter to the Philippines applying for the position.
“Meanwhile, my parents grew desperate to leave. Nazis were killing people everywhere. Fortunately, my grandparents remembered a lady in Australia whom they had befriended in 1937 while on a trip to England to see the coronation of King George VI. My parents were so desperate that my father wrote to her for help.
“Luckily, the Australian lady agreed to sponsor my parents. Shortly after, they left Austria with my mother wearing a fur coat in which she had hidden jewelry. Confirmation about the job in the Philippines never arrived.
“My parents arrived in Australia on March 14, 1939. My father, aged 34, tried finding work but couldn’t due to strict trade union laws. My parent’s next decision was to travel to the Philippines. My father got the job at the University of the Philippines in Baguio. A year later he was transferred to the main campus in Manila. My mother became a physical education teacher.”
Soon, the Frieders, McNutt, and Quezon were discussing settling 10,000 Jews – 1,000 annually – on an agricultural colony in Mindanao. Quezon’s political rivals opposed the plan, which became known as the Mindanao Plan, maintaining that Mindanao should be given to Filipinos. U.S. officials, for their part, feared it would fail, resulting in the U.S. having to absorb the refugees. But in 1941, the plan was approved by the U.S.
Meanwhile, in 1939, Philip Frieder was in the U.S. meeting with the JDC to raise more money for his rescue mission. Jewish refugees who didn’t possess the skills on Frieder’s list were able to obtain a temporary two-year residence visa in early 1940 if they, a friend, or relative deposited $1,200 with the JRC to establish a trust account in a Manila bank. Additionally, an affidavit from a financially secure sponsor and $100 for administrative expenses had to be supplied.
In 1940, Quezon personally donated 7.5 acres of his private estate, Marikina Hall, for a group home inhabited by 40 European Jews, who became self-sufficient through farming.
All in all, between December 1937 and September 1941, the powerful poker players successfully rescued 1,300 Jews.
They would have rescued more, but the Japanese attacked Manila in 1941 and entered the city on January 2, 1942. Quezon escaped to Corregidor where he took an oath of office for his second term on December 30, 1941 and then fled to Washington where he led a government-in-exile.
“After the war broke out, schools in the Philippines closed down, and my parents were out of work again. My father used his knowledge of chemistry to make soaps from coconuts. He’d put them in a wheelbarrow for my mother to sell at the markets. She returned with a barrel full of money from which we bought rice.
“Over time, the money and food grew scarce so my mother sold her jewelry and the fur coat.
“The Japanese interned civilians in the University of Santo Tomas. Jewish immigrants who had German or Austrian passports were not interned because these countries were allies. So my parents were safe.”
Conditions at these internment camps were deplorable as internees battled malnutrition, poor sanitation, and disease. The Japanese also seized businesses and houses. Opposition was met with brutal beatings, hangings, imprisonment, starvation, torture, and executions.
In January 1943, the Nazis asked their Japanese allies to place German Jews in ghettos. They did not do so, but two years later, realizing they were losing the war, the Japanese went on a rampage, killing civilians and decimating most of Manila.
“Life grew difficult. There was no meat. People survived on tropical fruit and vegetables. Many were starving.
“I was born in 1943 during the Japanese occupation. During the Battle of Manila, my parents hid with me and several others in a foxhole while the Japanese went on a massacre and burned everything in sight. To stiffly my cries, my mother stuffed handkerchiefs into my mouth.
“Suddenly, we heard footsteps approaching the edge of the foxhole. An American male said, ‘Anybody want a Chesterfield [cigarette]?’ We were liberated!”
Fatalities during the war were: Filipinos – 1,000,000; U.S. – 10,300; Japanese – 255,795; and Jews – 67.
“My parents remained in the Philippines and became citizens. I attended the American School in Pasay, Manila until I was 17. After graduation, I moved to the U.S.”
President Quezon died on August 1, 1944 of tuberculosis at Saranac Lake, New York.
On July 4, 1946 the Philippines gained its independence. A year later, it was the only Asian country to vote in favor of the creation of Israel.
An “Open Doors” monument was unveiled on June 21, 2009 in the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon LeZion, Israel, as a token of appreciation to the Philippines.
Manuel Quezon was honored posthumously on August 19, 2015 in a ceremony held at the Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City. Effie Ben-Matityau, Israel’s ambassador to the Philippines, and Lee Blumenthal, senior member of the Jewish Association of the Philippines, presented the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation Medal and a diploma to Manuel Quezon’s eldest daughter, Zenaida Quezon Avancena.