Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting Israel. Through our pastor’s teachings and our tour, I learned how President Manuel L. Quezon accepted about 1,300 Jews facing persecution in Germany and Austria. The lesson became more real to me when we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust victims.
The museum aims to preserve the memory of the dead and to honor both Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need. And most gratifyingly, the Philippines was one of the few nations that did this.
I culled the following facts from various news sources:
In 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler sent to concentration camps thousands of Jews, who would be released only if they agreed to leave Nazi territory. In 1940, persecution across Europe started, with camps being created for Jews to die in. More and more Polish Jews were relocated to ghettos. In 1941, commanders were ordered to systematically murder the Jews of Europe. More Jews were murdered in 1942 than in any other year of the Holocaust, the majority in the new camps.
Fearing for their lives, Jews in Germany and other parts of Europe appealed to the world for asylum.
US President Franklin Roosevelt believed that the refugees threatened national security. In 1939, he refused asylum to the 937 German Jew passengers of the SS St. Louis after Cuba refused their entry. Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú feared that the immigrants would compete for jobs with Cubans during the Great Depression. The US excuse was the country’s yearly immigration quota. Eventually, Belgium, France, Holland, and the UK agreed to take the refugees.
Upon learning of their plight, Quezon announced that Jews were welcome to stay in the Philippines. He could do this because as a commonwealth, the Philippines could set its own immigration policies. Despite his opponents’ criticism that Jews were “‘communists and schemers’ bent on ‘controlling the world’,” Quezon worked hard with American High Commissioner Paul McNutt, Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, and the Frieder brothers — Alex, Philip, Herbert, and Morris — to admit Jewish professionals, such as doctors, engineers, and accountants, who would benefit the Philippine economy (“A Filipino-American Effort to Harbor Jews Is Honored.” The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2005). They needed to do this because as a commonwealth, the Philippines could not accept people who would need public assistance.
Quezon offered 10,000 visas and his Marikina property to the Jews. He also allotted a farm and a large settlement area in Mindanao. Unfortunately, the Japanese invasion stopped the rescue plans; only about 1,300 Jews reached the Philippines.
According to Lee Blumenthal, executive director of the Jewish Association of the Philippines, the Philippines was “the only country in the world that went out to save Jews that were not their own” (“How Jews secretly found a home in the Philippines.” CNN Philippines Life, June 10, 2019). Says presidential daughter Zenaida Quezon Avanceña: “…I know that dad had the moral courage to do it because he believed in the sanctity of human life, and the right of people to live as they believed they should” (“Jews honor Manuel L. Quezon on his 134th birthday.” Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 19, 2012).
According to Commonwealth historian Sharon Delmendo, Quezon empathized with the Jews because “As the Filipinos were recipients of racial discrimination and bigotry on the part of many Americans at that time, the Jews were similarly recipients of bigotry by the Nazis.” (as quoted in “Why President Manuel Quezon Sheltered Jewish Refugees in the Philippines in 1939.” Esquire Philippines, May 9, 2019).
Those of us who are of Judeo-Christian faith believe that God has chosen the Jews as His special people. Thus, David exhorts us in Psalm 122:6: “Pray for peace in Jerusalem. May all who love this city prosper.”
I am sure Quezon was not thinking of the Psalm’s promised prosperity when he accepted the Jewish refugees. In fact, we don’t know how familiar he was with the Bible. Quezon’s rationale was simple: the Philippines “could not turn a deaf ear to the sufferings of these unfortunate people. The Philippine Commonwealth, founded as it is upon justice and righteousness and the preservation of essential human liberties, could not but view with sympathy the opportunity to do its share in meeting the situation.” Quezon, in his February 15, 1939, statement on the Jewish Settlement in Mindanao, expressed in a nutshell what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, four years after his death.
But Israel, which became a state in May 1948, has since reciprocated our kindness. (The Philippines was the only Asian nation to vote in favor of its statehood.) Since 1969, Filipinos have been able to enter Israel, a First World nation, visa-free for up to 59 days. In 2009, Israel erected the Open Doors Monument at the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion to commemorate the Philippines’ generosity and friendship to Israel. In 2013 and 2014, Israel sent humanitarian and medical supplies and emergency response teams when the Philippines was devastated by Typhoons Haiyan and Ruby.
In April 1940, Quezon said, “It is my hope, and indeed my expectation, that the people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad that when the time of need came, their country was willing to extend a hand of welcome.”
Indeed, after having watched Quezon’s Game, I felt proud to be a Filipino, and proud that we once had a president who responded with solidarity and moral courage to the cries for help of those who were being oppressed and killed. May we — and other nations — have more presidents like Quezon.
Marissa C. Marasigan teaches Business Communication, Management Principles, and Lasallian Business Leadership, Ethics, and Corporate Social Responsibility in the undergraduate and MBA programs of De La Salle University.