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Durham, NC - While much of the world turned its back on those fleeing from the Holocaust during World War II, the Philippines opened its doors.
Sharon Delmendo, English professor at St. John Fisher College, spoke at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life Thursday about her documentary "An Open Door," which details efforts in the Philippines to rescue Holocaust survivors. Holocaust survivor Juergen Goldhagen joined Delmendo to recount his experiences as a refugee in Manila.
In 1935, thousands of German Jews began to flee the country as a result of anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws passed in Germany, followed by a forcible annexation of Austria known as Anschluss in 1938.
Many countries, including the United States, put barriers and limits on the numbers of Jews they would accept, even knowing the growing threat to them. But the Philippines, then in the midst of a transition to independence from the United States, actively sought to offer sanctuary.
Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, who served during the commonwealth period, was the main instigator of plans to accommodate European Jews. With the support of U.S. High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt, who was the highest-ranking U.S. official in the Philippines at the time, Quezon prepared settlement plans for up to 1 million refugees.
“The United States could have announced these plans,” Delmendo said. “Because the Philippines was technically American soil at this time, the United States could have taken credit and looked like a big hero. But in all of my research, I've never seen a word of that scenario even being discussed.”
Beyond creating an independent municipality on the island Polillo, Quezon donated 7.5 acres of his personal real estate for a group home and farm, known as Marikina Hall, for the refugees. Although his plans to accommodate 1 million people fell through, Quezon’s efforts saved the lives of more than 1,300 European Jews.
“This property that Quezon donated for Marikina Hall was adjoining his own house in Marikina,” Delmendo said. “He made the Jewish refugees his next door neighbors.”
Goldhagen and his parents were amongst those who sought refuge in the Philippines. Although Goldhagen his mother were Lutheran, his father was Jewish, putting them at risk if they remained in Germany. His father moved to the Philippines in 1935 to search for work, while Goldhagen and his mother waited until 1937 to travel East. There, they experienced the Japanese occupation and the Allied liberation of the Philippines.
Manila fell to the Japanese in 1942. “The Japanese were pretty well behaved," Delmendo said. "They tried to capture the hearts and minds, and within three days of their arrival, all Allied nationals interned in Santo Tomas Internment Camp. This was not a concentration camp like the Nazis had in Europe—the only restriction was you were not allowed to go outside the camp.”
Since Goldhagen was from Germany, he was not interned during the Japanese occupation. His family moved several times to avoid the violence of the Japanese occupation and for his father to find work to support the family.
“In the city, you had to bow to the Japanese sentry,” Goldhagen said. “If you didn’t, he would call you back, slap you, kick you and yell at you in Japanese. Fortunately for us, there were not many Japanese in the country or the suburbs where we lived.”
But despite the cruelty Goldhagen often witnessed, he said many of the Japanese soldiers were kind to his family.
“Across the street from us, a Japanese machine gun unit had moved in,” Goldhagen said. “Mom was kind in the sense that she let them keep their canteens and water in our refrigerator to cool. One day one of the Japanese came over with a big fish for us, and another time a Japanese guy came over with a bottle of sake.”
Japanese occupation ended with the month-long Battle of Manila in 1945, in which more than 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed.
“Manila was the second most damaged allied city of all WWII,” Delmendo said. “Whole sections of the city were completely destroyed during the battle for Manila.”
Among the damage was Temple Emil, the Jewish synagogue in Manila. Temple Emil was the only synagogue on American soil that was destroyed during World War II.
But amongst the violence and war, the Jewish refugees had found a new home.
“One thing that’s true of every ‘Manilaner’ is they have strong and affection ties to the Philippines,” Delmendo said. “It’s become someplace where they don’t just land in for a while, but is a very important piece of their identity and a place the considered home for a while.”