MANILA, Philippines—Before Schindler’s List, there was another document—the Philippine visa—that saved hundreds of Jews from the gas chambers and mass graves of the Holocaust.
In 1939, two years before World War II reached the Pacific, the Commonwealth government under President Manuel L. Quezon allotted 10,000 visas and safe haven to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. Some 1,200 Jews made it to Manila before the city itself fell to Japanese invaders.
Before sunset on June 21, 70 years later, the first ever monument honoring Quezon and the Filipino nation for this “open door policy” was inaugurated on Israeli soil.
The monument—a geometric, seven-meter-high sculpture titled “Open Doors”—was designed by Filipino artist Junyee (Luis Lee Jr.).
At the program held at the 65-hectare Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon LeZion, Israel’s fourth largest city south of Tel Aviv, the mere mention of “Taft Avenue” by one of the speakers brought Ralph Preiss to the verge of tears.
Preiss, a father of four now in his 70s, later explained that Taft Avenue was where a synagogue-run soup kitchen provided the first hot meals he had as a refugee. He was eight when he arrived from Rosenberg, Germany, with his parents at the port of Manila on March 23, 1939.
“If I stayed in Germany I would have been killed,” Preiss, a retired engineer living in Connecticut in the United States, told the Inquirer in an interview.
“My cousin who lived in Berlin and whose father was a lawyer went to Paris [instead]. The Paris police handed them over to the Nazis, and they were sent to Auschwitz and got killed,” he recalled, adding:
“I’m very grateful to the Philippines for opening the doors and letting us in.”
‘Salamat sa inyo!’
At the program with an audience of around 300, Max Weissler, glib as a jeepney driver plying the streets of Quiapo, barked onstage: “Thank you! Salamat sa inyo lahat, lahat nandito! Nakapunta kayo lahat! Salamat sa inyo!”
“Unfortunately,” Weissler noted, “very little is known about this great deed of President Quezon and the Filipino people during the Holocaust. Very little is known about this among us Israelis, the Jews around the world, and even in the Philippines.”
Weissler was 11 when he and his German family settled in Pasay City. To eke out a living, his mother baked cakes that his father sold.
They all survived the war, and Weissler went on to fight another by joining the US Army in the Korean War.
“We came to Manila with practically nothing and always found help one way or another from the Filipinos,” Weissler said. “They have an open heart, and this is why we have this monument.”
Junyee won a competition held by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in February 2007 for the monument project.
He bagged a P300,000 cash prize for his design, which bested seven other entries, including one submitted by a National Artist, according to the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Rendered mainly in steel and set on a base of marble tiles shipped from Romblon, the monument depicts three doors of ascending heights (three, five and seven meters).
Viewed from above, Junyee’s work joins together “three triangles”—one representing the triangle of the Philippine flag, and the others signifying the two triangles that form the Star of David in the Israeli flag.
Etched on the marble floor are three sets of “footprints” approaching the doors. The prints are said to be those of Weissler, fellow Jewish refugee George Loewenstein, and Doryliz Goffer, a young Filipino-Israeli born in the Philippines and a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.
In November 2005, speaking before the Rotary Club of Jerusalem, then Philippine Ambassador to Israel Antonio Modena launched a “campaign for the remembrance of the Philippines’ humanitarian support for the Jews,” according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
That campaign merely proposed that a marker for the Philippines be placed on the Holocaust Memorial Park’s “Boulevard of the Righteous Among the Nations,” which features a row of red granite blocks with the names of countries and number of persons in each country who saved Jews.
But the response from then Rishon LeZion Mayor Meir Nitzan “surprised” the Philippine mission: Not just a slab of granite but a monument with its own prominent spot in the park was to be built to thank the Philippines and its people.
Technical and financial difficulties delayed the completion of the monument for two years; Modena and Nitzan originally set the inauguration in 2007 to mark the golden anniversary of Philippine-Israeli relations.
Modena died of lung cancer in February 2007. His name is first on the dedication plaque unveiled at the “Open Doors” monument on June 21.
Modena’s campaign was said to have been inspired by the 2003 book “Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror” by Frank Ephraim.
The 246-page eyewitness account gathers the voices of 36 refugees, who described in detail their arduous journeys to Manila, the lives they tried to build, and their fresh ordeals under Japanese rule.
Born in Berlin, Ephraim was eight when he fled to Manila with his parents in 1939. After the war he immigrated to the United States, began a career in naval architecture and later worked with the US Department of Transportation.
Ephraim died in August 2006. “He was very attached to the Philippines and was very anxious to go back there. We were supposed to go, and then he got lung cancer and that was the end of it. It was just too bad,” said his American widow Ruth, another special guest at the inaugural.
Tourism Secretary Joseph Durano, who attended the inaugural on the invitation of the Israeli government, shared passages from the book which, he said, “made me proud to be a Filipino.”
Quoting Ephraim, Durano read: “Filipinos were a tolerant people who never interfered or took any action against the Jews. [Their temple] on Taft Avenue was very visible and Jews attended services and congregated in front of the temple without the slightest disturbance.
“There was never a ghetto in Manila, and Jews lived in close proximity with Filipinos, and all sides introduced neighbors to each other’s cuisine, music, culture and history.”
According to Durano, the “Open Doors” monument “celebrates the most powerful force on earth, second only to God’s will, and that is the human will.”
“It was just amazing, the will of these Jewish families who escaped to Manila. Some had to go through Siberia, some had to take boats for weeks and months,” he said.