Quezon Saved Jews from the Holocaust

 Frank Ephraim (right) and his family when they arrived in Manila (Source: CNN)

Frank Ephraim (right) and his family when they arrived in Manila (Source: CNN)

From the frying pan to the fire, is a figure of speech used to describe a situation that goes from bad to worse. It best describes the experience of Frank Ephraim, a Jew whose family escaped Hitler’s Germany in 1939 by relocating to the Philippines. He was eight years old when he arrived in Manila, his new home in a new and strange land, after a long sea voyage from Europe. Unfortunately, their story had just begun and would not have the fairy tale ending “and they lived happily ever after.”

The Japanese occupied the Philippines and they barely survived the rape, looting, and murder that accompanied the Battle for Manila in 1945. Ephraim emigrated to the United States in 1946, studied at the University of California, and later wrote a memoir combining his personal experience with archival research and oral history drawn from other survivors. Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror was first published by the University of Illinois in 2000 and re-issued in 2008. I was lucky to find a hardcover copy in a bargain bin of a New York bookshop.

For the past year, I have received inquiries about the Jewish and White Russian communities in pre-war Manila. There is a Jewish section in the Manila North Cemetery and an active synagogue in Makati. For many years now, I have been wishing to be invited to a Passover meal in a Jewish home just to form an idea of what Biblical people ate. I am curious about “White Russians” who escaped the “Reds” or Bolsheviks, settled in Manila and even built a Russian Orthodox Church that is no more. Someone pointed out leads to sugar centrals in Negros managed by White Russians, then for those so inclined. White Russians prostitutes were available in Manila together with Japanese who were known as “karayuki-san.” The late actor Ronald Remy is descended from White Russians, his off-screen surname is Kookooritchkin.

A history of Jews in the Philippines is a doctoral dissertation crying out to be written and fortunately Jo-ed Tirol of the Ateneo is currently writing it. Ferdinand P. Flores of the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv emailed background material they used to build on historic ties between Israel and the Philippines that goes all the way back to the late 16th century when Jorge and Domingo Rodriguez who had gone to the Philippines were tried by the Inquisition in Mexico in 1593. Perhaps we can push this back even further because there much have been a Jew or Jews in Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet who saw action the Battle for Mactan in 1521.

There were many unrecorded Jews who came on board the Manila-Acapulco galleons seeking fame and fortune. Some have reinvented themselves over time. For example, many Filipinos today will be surprised to know that the Zobel Ayala family that seems so Spanish actually has its roots from a 19th-century German Jew named Jacobo Zobel though this Jewish connection has to be validated by more research. In many old periodicals, I saw advertisements from Jewish business establishments or stores run by “Levy Hermanos” (Levy Brothers) or Bachrach. There were less than a hundred Jews known or registered in the Philippines at the end of the Spanish period in 1899. During the American period, more Jews must have arrived in the Philippines as soldiers, teachers, colonial bureaucrats and businessmen. By 1936, there were about 500 Jews in the Philippines, but not all of them came from Israel; some were from other parts of the Middle East, others from Europe and Russia making it a mixed ethnic community.

 An ad for the Levy Brothers (Source: Manila Nostalgia)

An ad for the Levy Brothers (Source: Manila Nostalgia)

There are many Filipino OFWs in Israel today, some of them caregivers to survivors of the holocaust and it is important to remember how Commonwealth President Manual Luis Quezon welcomed Jews escaping Nazi Germany into the Philippines by ordering an “open door policy” in 1939, perhaps the only Asian country to do so. Ten thousand visas were offered to European Jews who needed them; 1,200 were taken. Jews who escaped the holocaust by finding refuge in the Philippines called themselves “Manilaners.” It is significant that the Philippines was still on the road to independence from the US at the time, yet Quezon went ahead, offered asylum, lobbied for a permanent Jewish settlement in Mindanao, and even donated land he owned outside Manila for a settlement and farmland for Jews. [This was] inaugurated in April 1940 where [Quezon] said, “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 willing to extend a hand of welcome.”

 President Manuel L. Quezon welcoming Jewish refugees at his property, Marikina Hall (Source: GMA Network) 

President Manuel L. Quezon welcoming Jewish refugees at his property, Marikina Hall (Source: GMA Network) 

Two years earlier, in November 1938, an indignation rally was held in Manila to protest and make known the Nazi persecution of the Jews where Senator Quintin Paredes delivered a stirring speech. This was followed by a resolution passed by the Municipal Board of Manila condemning Nazi persecution of Jews and extended a “brotherly welcome” to Jewish immigrants.

These small gestures gain significance in the context of polite silence from other countries that allowed Hitler to implement the notorious “final solution.”

On March 14, 2011, Philippine Ambassador to Israel, Petronila P. Garcia will unveil a historical marker in Jerusalem that commemorates this link, this bond of friendship between our countries and our peoples. One can only wish that our new Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario will encourage the establishment and use of history and culture as an integral part of Philippine diplomacy. Contrary to popular belief, culture is relevant to our foreign relations and should be as important as current issues of security, politics and economics.


Posted with the author’s permission from Chulalongkorn’s Elephants: The Philippines in Asian History Revised Edition (Anvil Publishing Inc., 2016). This article was first published in February 2011.

For more information on Jews in the Philippines, https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&p=jews+in+the+philippines#id=3&vid=d9137b2140632f4f895a115dd879789c&action=click


 Ambeth Ocampo

Ambeth Ocampo

Ambeth R. Ocampo teaches history in Ateneo de Manila University, writes a well-read op-ed column in the Philippines Daily Inquirer, and moderates a growing Facebook Fan Page.


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