Sunday, February 15, 2015

Jewish memories of WW II Philippines

FEBRUARY 2015 in Manila is the 70th year since the Battle for Manila, the World War II destruction and eventual liberation of the city from its tragic involvement with World War II, an agony that the whole country in varied ways experienced. This is a dreadful chapter in our history for which fewer and fewer are there to remember and even talk about. It was such a terror-filled time that erupted in dire and irreversible events that perhaps those who were close to them wished to forget and may have unconsciously repressed their memories.
In the last 10 years, there has been a conscious review of that time with books and a monument in Intramuros to remember the civilian dead who paid the price of being in a war zone. Since last week in various parts of the city, commemorative events are taking place bringing back World War II to our minds on the 70th anniversary of its end.
The importance of remembering is now being celebrated for its role in identifying us to ourselves and to others. An understanding of the past makes the present much clearer and prepares us to meet the future armed with what we need to make it better. Many people think that only the players of history, the leaders, the protagonists, the prominent figures’ memories are the crucial and essential ones. They believe that only their memoirs matter. This is untrue and has been proven so. Think of Anne Frank’s diary, the ordinary solders’ tales, the stories of families, individuals, etc. that have made their way to us in books, films, documentaries, artistic expressions or just by word-of-mouth. They depict ordinary lives in historical upheavals to which ordinary people exposed to them recount them thereby furthering knowledge and understanding of what happened.
Ordinary lives recalled within historical upheavals, eras, experiences are equally vital as those who were in leadership positions for the insight that they give to the facts and their consequences that occurred. Everyone’s memory is critical to how we view the landscape of the past from the present as well as peer into the landscape of the future. It defines a person and those who vicariously experience the same.
Among us this week and last are a group of Jewish refugees. Their parents were escapees from the Holocaust that engulfed Jewish communities in Europe prior to World War II. These then children now adults in their later years had a press conference/forum to tell their stories last Tuesday under the auspices of the Israeli Embassy and the Pilipinas Sandiwa Foundation.
They came to the Philippines because it was the only country in the world at that time that opened its doors to people escaping persecution from Europe because of their Jewish ethnicity or religion. Many of them stayed decades here, including the time of World War II, working, studying, growing up. A few made their home here permanently. Their parents have long since gone from life, and they as their children are at last telling the stories of their parents and themselves, reviewing their memories, analyzing them in the context of history and underlining the necessity of conveying them to others leaving a picture of the past for today and tomorrow.
Ironically, in the way things do in the crux of living, none of them thought about what brought their parents here as they grew up going to American School, living in Pasay City, seeing the sunsets of Manila Bay, practicing their religion, seeing their parents make a living for them to live normal lives. If they had paid some attention then to their pasts they may have seen a similarity in their origins if not their experiences. But as children they did not. Now in their seventies, they have become conscious of it and its importance to themselves and to others which encourages them to share their memories. Now they note too the similarities they have with each other for they were all refugees seeking a country that would let them live freely and equally with its citizens.
Gordon Lester was born in Pasay. He took it for granted that his German parents who were Jewish happened to be in Manila. He never knew or heard his parents discuss how life was for them in the past. Only later did he find out that his father had been taken to a concentration camp in the Nazi hysteria against Jews. That German Jews including his father were not allowed to practice their professions, to do business, to go to parks, hold educational posts in Hitler’s Germany. So they fled and came to Manila in the Philippines, the country that through its then president, Manuel Quezon, took the moral decision that all people are equal and must be treated equally and fairly and therefore offered his country’s hospitality to them.
Celia Tischler Black was born in Manila in 1948. Her father was a scale expert (weighing machines) who had a sister-in-law who had a sister who was married to Martin Bormann, a top Nazi. In roundabout ways, he gave them the message that it was best for Jews to get out of Germany. After Cristalnacht, the infamous evening when the Nazis attacked all Jewish businesses and homes by breaking their windows and vandalizing their contents, they knew it was time to accept the message. Her parents took a train to Genoa, embarked on a boat to Shanghai that docked in Manila and having been told that the Philippines opened its door to them, came to live here. She grew up here and never knew what happened before her parents came to the Philippines until much later. Only when she returned for a visit in 1978 did she consciously decide to inquire about her parents’ past, and learned what they had gone through.
Mary Brings Faquhar was born in Manila in 1943. Her parents were academics from Austria. Her father was a Physics professor at the University of Vienna and her mother was a physical education teacher. All Jewish faculty lost their jobs in 1938 after the German invasion of Austria. They had to leave and found themselves in the Philippines whose hospitality allowed them to continue teaching. Professor Brings at FEU, Ateneo and Trinity College. Mrs. Brings will be remembered by Assumption alumnae as the long-time Physical Education teacher.
Margo Cassel Pins came because her father, an owner of a department store in Germany was not allowed to continue in the business. She studied at Sta. Scholastica and Philippine Women’s University. Her father worked for Berg’s Department Store in the Escolta but somehow was put in Fort Santiago for some infraction but her determined mother rushed to Fort Santiago with his WWI medals (he had fought for Germany) and reminded the Japanese that Germany was their ally in Europe. He got out. They, however, had to endure the Battle for Manila.
Hans Holfein born in Cologne, Germany, fled with his family to Madrid. But the Spanish Civil War made them leave and end up in the Philippines when it opened its doors to Jewish refugees. His parents were able to get his grandfather out of Germany later. He went to La Salle, endured World War II in Manila and wrote a book together with others about it.
Ralph Preiss came in 1939 to the Philippines because his father, a physician, was no longer allowed to practice because he was Jewish. There was an ad in the Jewish press looking for physicians for the Philippines but when his father applied, there was a law passed allowing only Filipinos and Americans to practice medicine. So, he ended up in Liliw, Laguna running a soft drinks factory. Ralph went to high school in San Pablo City and UP College of Engineering.
All of the above came to the Philippines fleeing Nazism only to endure World War II here but they survived. They had many experiences to relate– from their cowering in air raid shelters, to having their homes sequestered by Japanese, to experiencing shelling and seeing death at close hand. But Filipinos treated them well with caring and kindness throughout.
They were upbeat and grateful to this country for having had the moral certitude and the moral strength to welcome Jewish victims of persecution, welcoming and accepting them into everyday Philippine life, sharing this country with them. Ultimately their memories of good and bad times merged into a happy past that overcame vicissitudes and found hospitality in a tropical archipelago.
All of us should know this history. All of us should know that there is a monument in Israel to the Philippines and President Quezon in gratitude for Filipino hospitality. This history explains why today Filipinos do not need visas to travel to Israel. That nation too remembers.

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