A Rescue Hatched Over Poker, Bourbon and Cigars

President Quezon with U.S. High Commissioner McNutt, 1938

Just before World War II, a group of political leaders socializing over poker, bourbon and cigars hatched an extraordinary plan to save thousands of Jews from the horrors of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The unlikely group of rescuers, which included Philippine President Manuel Quezon, came up with a careful list of over a thousand Jews who would receive visas to escape Germany and begin new lives as part of the Filipino community between 1937 and 1941. 

The documentary, “Rescue in the Philippines,” depicts how the plan came about and successfully rescued 1,200 Jews from Hitler’s Germany and brought them to the warmth and welcome of the Philippines. 

Many other countries shut their doors to the refugees for fear of risking their own wellbeing, but Quezon did not refuse them.

Award-winning 3 Roads Productions produced “Rescue,” which will premiere on April 7, on Israel’s national Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, on both coasts and on American Public Television. Producers Peggy Ellis and Barbara Sasser, are descendants the key planners. 

Sasser, is the granddaughter of Alex Frieder, one of the Jewish-American Frieder brothers who owned and ran a cigar business and were friends of President Quezon. Frieder and his brothers Philip, Herbert and Morris, often looked forward to poker nights with Quezon, U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt and then-Army Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower. They often saw one another at society balls, family celebrations, yachting trips, at Malacañang Palace, or at the well-known Manila Hotel.   

Barbara describes her grandfather, Alex, as a “jovial man” and “very sociable.”  He had learned about the SS attacks in Germany while he was in his hometown in Cincinnati. The Germans had begun to send Jews to concentration camps.  After Alex and his brothers got the help of his friend, President Quezon, they were able to take advantage of McNutt’s ability to sign off visas for the thousands of Jewish refugees. 

Many other countries shut their doors to the refugees for fear of risking their own wellbeing, but Quezon did not refuse them.  He felt the Jewish refugees would also be of great service to the country. Barbara Sasser says in the film: “Quezon was a good Catholic, and he thought the most unreligious thing he could think of was to think badly towards the people that gave them their Savior.”  He committed to the plan with courage and no sign of doubt.  

“It is my hope, and indeed my expectation, that the people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad that when the time of need came, their country was glad to extend to a persecuted people, a hand of welcome,” Quezon said in 1940 as president of the Philippine Commonwealth. According to one of the Frieder brothers, Quezon was willing to embrace “a million” more refugees and save them from death in the concentration camps.   

The determined collaborators garnered the support of the small Jewish community already living in the Philippines who opened their houses, helped feed the refugees, create jobs for them and provided spiritual support so that they could begin anew. This led to the affinity that Filipinos and Jewish people experience today. Barbara points out that the Filipinos and Jews shared the feeling of being a “minority” or an “underdog.”  

Quezon’s decision is celebrated every year in Israel where a monument unveiled in 2009 honors the leaders of their rescue efforts. The monument, “Open Doors,” stands near Tel Aviv as a mark of perpetual gratitude to the rescuers and is the only one dedicated to Filipinos in Israel.   

Why is the story of the rescue not well known? Sasser says, “One, the Frieders were ordinary people that in their minds did an ordinary thing.  And second, the refugees were a part of history that was scary--they just wanted to start a new life.” They just wanted to forget their painful past and move on.”  

Sasser’s wish is to raise awareness of and celebrate the humanitarian efforts of the Philippines. 3 Roads website is www.rescueinthephilippines.com

Esperanza Catubig

Esperanza Catubig

Esperanza Catubig is a Filipino-American actress and independent producer. She is dedicated to telling Filipino-American stories through short films, documentaries, features, and multimedia.

Come see RESCUE IN THE PHILIPPINES: REFUGE FROM THE HOLOCAUST at the San Francisco Premiere and Private Screening at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post St., Japantown, San Francisco on Sunday, April 7, 2013.

Screening times: 5:00-6:00 pm and 6:30-7:30 pm. Each screening is followed by a reception and refreshments. Admission is FREE. Donations are appreciated. Seating is limited. Please "RSVP" in Subject line to bwsasser@gmail.com.


Russell C. Hodge, New York Times

Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times