OPEN DOORS: A MONUMENT TO THE FILIPINO HEART
[PHOTO AT LEFT - The Philippines was the only Asian country to vote for the United Nations Partition Plan creating the State of Israel on Nov. 29, 1947]
MANILA, JULY 1, 2009 (STAR) CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara - It took Max Weissler over a month to get to Manila from Germany in 1941. He was 11 years old, fleeing Nazi oppression in Europe, and with his mother Henrietta, he boarded what he later found out was the last ship that carried displaced Jews to Manila.
They had nothing except for two small suitcases.
The ship passed through Siberia, Manchuria, Japan, Shanghai….and, finally, the 17 Jews escaping probable death in Nazi Germany arrived in Manila on Feb. 14, 1941. In those endless days at sea, Max doesn’t remember now if they ever changed clothes, or how they lived out those weeks in Europe trying to find a country that would take them in — but he does remember the relief of being reunited with his father, Martin Weissler, who was already in Manila after having secured ahead a safe passage to the Philippines from the American Consulate in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Two years earlier, then eight-year-old Ralph Preiss had made the same journey with his parents. The family had been living in Rosenberg, and were told in July 1938 that they would be granted asylum, but the American Consulate in Breslau, Germany, didn’t release their visas until January 1939.
Max and Ralph are two of the thousands of Jews granted asylum with their families in the Philippines. Theirs was a passage of which very little was known until Frank Ephraim, a fellow “Manilaner” or a Jew who fled to the Philippines from the Nazis, wrote his book Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror. Ephraim, who died in August 2006, got in touch with 36 fellow refugees, searched through historical and newspaper records, and government documents to piece together the Manilaners’ shared history.
How did the Jews come to find asylum in the Philippines when most of the western world — and all of Asia — refused them entry to their borders?
President Manuel L. Quezon knew about the Jewish plight in Europe and, as a matter of policy, the Philippine Commonwealth government opened its doors and welcomed the refugees in 1939, earmarking 10,000 travel visas to the Philippines. President Quezon also built a housing community for the refugees in Marikina and allotted vast tracts of farmlands in Mindanao that could accommodate as many as 35,000 settlers. After World War II broke out, the Jewish exodus to Manila came to a stop.
Quezon and his government saved some 1,200 Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
On June 21 — a week ago today and 70 years after President Quezon’s open-door policy — the Philippines and Quezon were honored with the unveiling of the monument “Open Doors” at the Holocaust Park in Rishon Lezion, a city located 40 minutes from Jerusalem.
Representing the Philippine government were Ambassador to Israel Petronila Garcia, and Tourism Secretary Ace Durano who flew to Israel with DOT Undersecretary Edu Jarque and DOT consultant Ram Antonio.
“It is a good day to be a Filipino,” Durano says with pride to the audience composed of Filipinos working in Israel, Israelis, and Holocaust survivors who lived in Manila and are now based in Israel and the United States.
Durano adds the Jews were welcomed to the Philippines even before Quezon’s policy. “It is more than hospitality. It is the compassionate spirit of the Filipino. It is this compassionate spirit that allows us to be open to others, to understand others, and accept others. This compassionate spirit distinguished and gave distinction to the Filipinos in 1939. It is the same compassionate spirit that distinguishes and gives distinction to the Filipinos today…who are nurturing millions all over the world. And to my mind, it is a great and noble calling for a nation to care for the world and be a blessing to the world. This monument celebrates the Filipino heart. A heart that touches others through compassion, a heart that makes one a blessing to others and to the world.”
The Holocaust Park is a quiet, 60-acre space of rolling, green terrain surrounded by mid-rise residential buildings in the western part of Rishon Lezion (“the first to Zion” in Hebrew), the fourth largest city in Israel and located south of Tel Aviv. At the park is the Boulevard of the Righteous Gentiles, dedicated to non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to save Jews. Parents walk their kids here and teenagers bike around under the blue skies — as they did on the afternoon of June 21.
At one corner of the park stands the imposing Open Doors monument, the first Philippine monument in Israel, designed by Jun Yee who won the top prize from eight entries by sculptors and architects in a design competition conducted by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 2007.
Yee’s geometric sculpture of open doors represents the “feeling, sentiment and emotion as the Filipinos showed the courage to welcome into the country and provide humanitarian assistance for the Jews.” It is made up of three open doors in metal sheets of varying heights standing on a base of Romblon marble. The triangular patterns represent the triangles of the Philippine flag and the Star of David to mark the friendly relations between the two countries. The Philippines, after all, was the only Asian country to vote for the United Nations Partition Plan creating the State of Israel on Nov. 29, 1947.
The sculpture also features three sets of footprints: George Loewenstein’s are carved on the first door (he sent his cast from Florida where he lives); Max Weissler, who learned his Filipino from the streets of Manila in the 1940s, lives in Israel and went to the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv to have his footprints cast; and Dorylyz Goffer, a 10-year-old Filipino-Israeli born in the Philippines and a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
This recognition of the Philippines has taken an unnecessarily long journey as very few Filipinos, Israelis, and Jews around the world know about the Jews that emigrated to Manila. It seems almost unbelievable now that such a significant story of that war went largely untold.
Frank Ephraim’s book started the journey for this recognition — and to think it might not even been published. His widow Ruth Ephraim tells us that several publishers turned it down — but Frank persevered and his book found a home in the University of Illinois Press.
Escape to Manila inspired then Ambassador to Israel Antonio Modena to launch in 2005 a campaign for the remembrance of the Philippines’ humanitarian support for the Jews. Modena met with Avner Shalev, chairman of the directorate of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, and the mayors of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Rishon Lezion to discuss his plans. Mayor Meir Nitzan of Rishon Lezion responded that the Municipal Council approved the construction of a Philippine monument at the Holocaust Memorial Park.
Ambassador Modena passed away in February 2007; the work was continued by the committee he had organized, by Chargé d’Affaires Gilberto G.B. Asuque, and current Ambassador Petronila P. Garcia.
On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass) took place — a coordinated attack on the Jewish people where 91 Jews were murdered, 30,000 were deported to concentration camps, 200 synagogues were destroyed, and Jewish-owned businesses were ransacked. This was the beginning of the Holocaust, the genocide of six million Jews during World War II.
What the Jewish refugees in Manila underwent was life under two wars — their escape from the Nazis in Europe and the War in the Pacific with the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
Ten months after Max Weissler arrived on the last boat from Germany, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. At Ambassador Garcia’s residence in Tel Aviv, Max, who admits his Filipino is “kanto boy” because he learned it from the street kids in Tondo, recalls the brutality of the Japanese Imperial Army, and the Filipino and Jewish kids’ attempts at sabotage.
“I saw the Bataan Death March with my own eyes on Dewey Blvd. (now Roxas Blvd.) I saw people being bayoneted at the back and thrown into Manila Bay,” he says. “They were very brutal.”
At the corner of Padre Faura and Guerrero St. stood the Japanese Embassy, which had small windows facing Guerrero. “As children we wanted to burn down that place,” he says. One night they took a match, lit maybe a paper or a piece of cloth — and threw it through the window but nothing happened. “The next day, my friend went again with the kids to burn it down, and they were caught by the Japanese soldiers who were using the compound for their horses. My friend didn’t come home that night. His mother went looking for him. The next day I went to the breakwater on Dewey Blvd. next to the embassy and I saw four bodies floating with their hands tied to their back and stabbed in the back. According to his clothing, I knew it was him. I told his mother where I had found him.”
His name was Peter Mintz
“You see, we were all Filipino kids.” But 11-year-old Max was, of course, different. He was a white kid who spoke neither English nor Spanish. His friends called him “mestizong bangus, madaling maubos.” His mother baked cakes and pies to make money; she called them apple and apricot pies, but they were really stuffed with papaya and added with a squeeze of calamansi.
“Mahirap ang buhay diyan eh,” says Max with the perfect kanto accent. “Kumakain kami ng kamote.”
Unfortunately, Max’s stories are not included in Ephraim’s book as the two had lost touch with each other.
Max stayed in Manila for seven years, then went to Okinawa, Japan, where he put to good use his skill in the dockyards. He began corresponding with a fellow Jew from Israel named Esther. Sight unseen, Esther traveled to Japan to marry him. Later, he joined the Korean War as a soldier for the US Army and was sent to Pusan alongside Filipino and Korean soldiers, and then he went to the US to study.
Max’s mother died in 1950 and was buried in the Jewish section of the North Cemetery in Manila. Her remains are there to this day. Max came back three years ago with Esther to visit his mother’s grave and the streets he grew up in.
“I was in the Philippines less than 10 percent of my life. But I am still there,” he says.
‘And here we are’
For Ralph Preiss, life in the Philippines under the Japanese occupation was lived both in Manila and San Pablo City. His family arrived in Manila on March 23, 1939.
“We were helped all along by the Jewish community and the Filipinos,” he says. “During the war we had soup kitchens on Taft Avenue. I had lunch every day there as my main hot meal.”
His father, Harry Preiss, was a doctor but couldn’t practice medicine in Manila because the medical association said he had to speak the language and had to be a citizen to practice.
In 1940, the family moved to Laguna. “We were in Liliw when the Japanese came,” he says. “The bridges were blown up, so we moved to San Pablo City.”
His wife Marcia, whom he met at the University of Connecticut years later, says that Ralph and his parents also had to stay in the mountains for three months with guerrillas. “After they bombed Manila, the Japanese went to the countryside to get the Americans. They were told the night before in San Pablo that the Japanese were going to kill all the white people and the Chinese in town, so they left. They lived in the jungles for three months — 70 people. The Filipino guerrillas were the ones that saved them again because they had guns.”
Ralph was eight when he arrived; 19 when he left. In between those years was a life that they tried hard to live as normally as possible — even during the war. He studied high school in San Pablo; he made friends with the local kids; he lived with Rabbi Schwartz in Manila while he was studying for his bar mitzvah; he studied engineering at the University of the Philippines in 1948, and a year later he was accepted at MIT in the US.
“I was there when they moved the UP Oblation monument from Manila to Diliman,” says Ralph with laugh. “We also had a hurricane that blew away the engineering building.”
Even after he had left the Philippines and settled in the US, his parents stayed as Dr. Preiss had founded a pharmaceutical company called Striaco. They lived in the Philippines from 1939 to 1969, and retired in the US.
For Ralph and Marcia’s wedding in Connecticut, Ralph’s mother, Margot Preiss, sent Marcia yards and yards of piña fabric for her wedding dress. Thirty-four years later, in 1988, Marcia unrolled the wedding dress from her suitcase because her daughter Lisa wanted to wear it at her own wedding to Eitan Fried in Jerusalem. Jacqueline, another daughter (Ralph and Marcia have four girls), also wore the piña wedding dress to her nuptials.
“My own daughter Yarden, who is 17, has asked my mother if she, too, can wear the wedding dress someday,” says Lisa Preiss-Fried. “We know that the material will look beautiful then, since it held up so well after all these years.”
Lisa grew up in New York calling her two sets of grandparents two different names: It was “lolo” and “lola” for Ralph’s parents, and “grandpa” and “grandma” for Marcia’s parents. Lisa felt unique growing up, having these “exotic” grandparents who lived on the other side of the globe and would visit them only every three years in New York.
In 1965, Ralph took his family to the Philippines for a visit. Lisa was but a little girl then, but she remembers the jungle and the volcano in Tagaytay, and going down the river in a hollowed-out tree trunk for a boat.
One of the stories Ralph told his daughters was about his bar mitzvah and the fountain pen he was given as a gift. He left the pen in his school but the building was bombed by the Japanese. “He lost the fountain pen because of the Japanese invasion,” says Lisa. “That was something I remember very well because as a kid growing up in the US you don’t think about these things. Another story that he told us only recently was that when he and his parents went back to Manila after they hid in the mountains, the city had been razed by the Japanese. He said it was the most horrible thing he had ever seen.” Then she adds, “But his dogs survived; my father’s dogs survived the war!”
Lisa says her father’s life in the Philippines was “always very much a part of my family’s history. We knew about it. He was always very grateful that he had survived.”
“And now here we are,” she says, standing by the Open Doors monument.
One life saved and there are 20 of them today — four daughters, sons-in-law, and 10 grandchildren.
After the unveiling of Open Doors, Ralph Preiss shows people a class picture taken in 1945 at the Laguna Academy in San Pablo City, where he graduated from high school in 1948. He is standing at the back, the tallest among the children — and they all are really children that have just survived the war.
At the Holocaust Park, Ralph walks around with his wife Marcia, daughter Lisa, son-in-law Eitan, and grandson Yonatan.
Now, finally, 70 years after the first boat arrived in Manila from Europe, Ralph Preiss, Max Weissler and all those who found refuge in the Philippines have a monument to tell the whole world of how they escaped, survived, and lived.
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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