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Rescue in a Manila Envelope

Barbara Bensoussan

Schindler’s list, the Mirrer Yeshivah’s miraculous escape to Shanghai — these are well-known chapters in the story of Holocaust rescue missions. But what secrets were playing out in the Philippines? It started with a weekly poker game and ended with a logic-defying safe haven for more than 1,000 Jews in Manila. Some operations, no matter how daring, are just in the cards.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

phillipinesIt’s a balmy night at the Manila Hotel, but the large dining room is air-conditioned and the ceiling fans are languidly revolving. Here, where the elite of Manila society come to relax, a poker game is underway, comprised of a distinguished group of players: Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, then deployed to the Philippines under General Douglas MacArthur; Paul V. McNutt, the US high commissioner to the Philippines; Manuel Quezon, the newly elected president of the Philippines; and Alex Frieder, one of five Jewish brothers from Cincinnati who had come to the Philippines to buy tobacco for cigars and ended up staying to manufacture them.

All four have been appalled by the turn of events in Germany; Eisenhower calls the Nazi persecutions “as black as that of any barbarian of the Dark Ages.” Can’t something be done for the Jews who are desperate to leave Europe, but can’t find countries to take them?

President Quezon offers his willingness to allow in refugees — if they can become self-sufficient. The Frieder brothers offer to provide shelter, and to work with Manila’s Jewish community to absorb them. McNutt, who as commissioner has the authority to approve visas, knows the State Department may not view the plan favorably — in fact, the move could potentially jeopardize his own political career. He nevertheless chooses to follow his conscience.

The poker partners’ joint efforts ultimately saved as many Jewish neshamos as Oskar Schindler’s much more famous machinations. A total of 1,301 Jewish refugees were brought out of Europe to the Philippines, until the Japanese invasion brought an abrupt halt to these rescue missions in 1941. Despite the hardships suffered under the Japanese, most survived and remained eternally grateful to have escaped the European inferno.


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