Documentary chronicles how the Philippines rescued 1,300 jews from the Holocaust

Carmela G. Lapeña/DVM, GMA News – As a little girl during the Holocaust, Lotte Hershfield could not quite understand what it was all about.

At five years old, she would see benches that would say “Dogs and Jews not allowed.” She remembered being terribly frightened by the Nazis’ big police dog when they came to their house and took their Jewish books away. She recalled her mother crying bitterly, telling her that her father was away on a business trip, not divulging that he had been arrested at the Breslau town hall.

In contrast, she was excited as they fled Germany on board a ship. “It was sort of an adventure and I felt somewhat secure. I had my brother there and I had my parents there. I knew I was going to to a new country, it was somewhat exciting,” said Hershfield, who was among over a thousand Jews who came to the Philippines.

“You saw how the doors were basically closed to all of us except the Philippines, and how the Filipino people are a very warm people, they’re a very friendly people,” Hershfield said in “An Open Door”, a documentary about the Jewish rescue in the Philippines. The documentary is the third film in his World War II trilogy “Forgotten Stories.”

For almost nine years, she stayed in the Philippines, which she remembered fondly. “I was very impressed because we road up Dewey Boulevard into Pasay. Lovely beaches, beautiful banana trees, and there were polo grounds I remember… We learned Filipino songs and there were quite a few performances, art was very important,” she said.

By the time the war was over, the Philippines had become her home. “I really did not want to leave. That was my home, that was all that I knew. I was there from the time I was seven,” she said.

Unknown to many, the Philippines provided refuge for 1,300 Jews that fled Germany after the Nazi regime passed the Nuremberg Laws. “With the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws and the depriving of German Jews of their German citizenship, this enabled the government to confiscate businesses, confiscate homes, to appropriate all their assets,” holocaust historian Bonnie Harris explained in the documentary.

Filmmaker Noel M. Izon noted that after Jews were declared stateless by the Nazi regime, 47 nations convened in France in 1938 to deal with Jewish refugees, but not one nation during that conference changed their immigration laws to make them more accomodating of Jews. “They all washed their hands and said there was nothing they could do,” Izon said in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio host Jean Feraca on “Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders.”

“The Philippines was not represented. But the Philippines, because it was a Commonwealth, had served a quasi-autonomous status. And they were able to interpret some of the immigration laws especially with the power given to the Philippine President, he was actually allowed to issue visas directly,” he explained.,

The Nuremberg Laws were issued in 1935, the same year that the Philippines was inaugurated as a Commonwealth. Most of the Jewish rescue in the Philippines happened between 1935 and 1941, according to Izon.

Sharon Delmendo, author and commonwealth historian, explained that Quezon, although Catholic, developed an affinity for Jews because he felt that there was a sort of symbolic brotherhood between Filipinos and Jews.,

“The Filipinos were the recipients of racial discrimination and bigotry on the part of many Americans, at that time that the Jews were similarly recipients of bigotry by the Nazis. So even though Quezon had extremely important and critical political and economic issues to wrestle with at this time, he was willing to take a stand to help the Jews,” said Delmendo, who co-produced the documentary.

Izon noted that Quezon ran for the Commonwealth presidency on a platform of opening up the Philippines to the world.

According to Izon, “When President Quezon initially heard of the Jewish plight in Europe, he had said he was willing to actually reserve visas for up to a million or more and that whatever land was needed he would make sure that the leases were turned over to the Jewish settlers.”

“Having grown up quite a bit of my life in the Philippines, there truly is a genuine sense of hospitality. It’s in the DNA. People are friendly, they want to welcome you, they want to make you feel at home. You could go to the poorest house and they could just be having canned goods or whatever but they’d always invite you to eat with them,” Izon said.

However, the U.S. State Department was not very comfortable with such large numbers, as they were concerned the Jews might use the Philippines as a back door to the U.S. They were also concerned that the experiment would fail. So they decided to limit the number and truth be told there was quite a bit of anti-Semitism within the American government at that time.

“They were not really all that interested in any kind of experiment that involved saving Jews,” Izon said.,

He noted that Quezon may also have had some pragmatic reason in mind when he let the Jewish refugees in. That they were a new talent pool, in terms of what possible contributions they could make to the country and the economy, was not lost on the Philippine government. “I don’t think that one can be totally altruistic with these things… but at the end of the day he risked a lot of political capital… In fact there were some anti-Semitic factors in the Philippine legislature and he publicly rebuked them,” Izon said.,

Quezon may not have been able to save millions, but the the rescue’s impact goes on for generations.

“Roosevelt and Churchill saved Western civilization but President Quezon, and so few people know that, of the Philippines, saved 1,200 Jewish souls. As many as Schindler and maybe even more. And that is the epitome basically of Judaism. It says if you save one soul you save mankind,” Hershfield said.

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