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Escape to Manila
FROM NAZI TYRANNY TO JAPANESE TERROR
By Frank Ephraim
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Destination: The Philippines
VISITORS RARELY ARRIVE in Manila by ship anymore. Air travel has changed that, which is a little disappointing because passengers in airliners forego the magnificent vista of Manila Bay after navigating the wide northern channel between the island of Corregidor that guards its entrance and the forbidding Bataan Peninsula, with its 4,722-foot-high volcanic Mt. Bataan starkly visible on the port side of the ship. Both Corregidor and Bataan are historic sites now, but in early 1942 they were the scenes of bloody fighting that ended with a valiant last stand by Filipino and American forces, followed by their surrender to the Japanese invaders.
After passing through the channel, a ship sails east across the bay toward the harbor to anchor or dock at one of the many piers. Manila in the 1930s was a regular port of call for ships of American, Italian, Dutch, British, Japanese, and German registry, and the arrival of a passenger liner was always an event.
To the many passengers who stepped ashore for the first time, Manila was a shimmering modern capital with wide streets lined with acacia trees, stately homes, and trade, cultural, and sports centers. Yet alongside its Western-style structures and avenues were large sections of slums and nipa hut barrios, home to many of the one million Filipinos in the city and its suburbs.
The sights and sounds of Manila were not absorbed right away by the Jewish refugees who arrived in the 1930s and early 1940s, as they would be with visiting tourists, because the refugees were apprehensive. Most of them had wanted to immigrate to the United States or to other countries more compatible with their background and experience, but here they were, arriving in a land that was very different and which they hoped would be only a way station for a short time. Little did they know that they would remain there for six or more years. Most arrived with little money, but the Philippines held out the promise of a safe haven from Nazi oppression, offering survival from the mass murder of the Jewish people in Europe.
Our first impression of the Filipinos, a people of Malay descent with a rich heritage of many cultures, was their friendliness but also their poverty, which was hard to comprehend in a land rich in resources. We found them to be hospitable yet caught up in an unyielding economic and political structure that favored a select group of landed families. All this was, however, beyond our immediate grasp on arrival.
With the pressure to find a country that would accept refugees, to get sponsors, obtain an entry visa, acquire all the exit permits, and book passage, and then to have some funds available despite the ever-tightening Nazi restrictions, there had been little time to learn anything about the Philippines. The oppressive heat and humidity and the bloodthirsty mosquitoes were the first experiences the refugees had to cope with. Finding housing and jobs further sapped their energy in the early months after arrival, and those with children sought out schools that were affordable—not an easy task.
A few weeks after our arrival in 1939 I ended up in Mrs. Hoey's elementary school on Mabini Street and was set back a year because I did not speak English. That problem was overcome very quickly. Soon I learned something about Philippine geography by coloring the islands' many provinces, as outlined in my Philippine workbook, in pastel shades of yellow, pink, and green.
As most refugees would eventually find out, there are more than seven thousand islands in the Philippine archipelago, which José Rizal, regarded as the Philippine's greatest hero, had called "Pearl of the Orient Seas." West of the archipelago is the South China Sea, beyond which lay French Indochina—today's Vietnam. The Pacific Ocean flows along the eastern shores of the Philippines; two hundred miles north of Luzon, the archipelago's largest island, is Taiwan (Formosa), with Japan another six hundred miles to the north.
Filipino society, while being influenced by many other societies, had its own culture and writing form that was derived from the alphabets of Southeast Asia. The many Malayo-Polynesian dialects developed into Tagalog and other languages that supported a literature of folklore, legends, and poems. The Filipino family has long been a strong unit with close bonds, and as far as religion was concerned, the early Filipinos found deliverance in a wide variety of deities—spirits, nature, animals, and also a supreme being, Bathala.
The early economy in the islands was based on agriculture, fishing, poultry, mining, forest products, weaving, and boat building, while the rich soil produced a large variety of vegetables and fruits as well as potential export commodities such as coconuts, hemp fibers, and sugarcane. One of the most spectacular construction achievements were the ifuago rice terraces in northern Luzon.
By the end of the fifteenth century the island archipelago had its own civilization and a rudimentary government. Then, in 1521 Ferdinand Magellan "discovered" the islands and claimed them for Spain. Upon his landing a wooden cross was erected to celebrate the first Catholic mass, and he managed to convince two local chiefs to participate in the ceremony. Under the subsequent 377-year Spanish colonial rule, the Catholic faith permeated the archipelago. Little did the Spanish Inquisitors, not to mention their explorer-servant Magellan, foresee that a Catholic country would, four and a half centuries later, be a refuge for Jewish people fleeing another European inquisition.
Magellan was killed by the Cebuano chief Lapulapu after he and a band of his men wanted to force the chief to convert to Catholicism. Filipinos view Lapulapu's victory to have been the first successful resistance against foreign invaders, and he remains a symbol of freedom.
The name "Philippines" had to await another expedition from Spain in 1542, when Ruy López de Villalobos bestowed the name "Felipinas," in honor of Felipe II, the son of King Carlos of Spain, upon the island archipelago.
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The Suez Canal opened on March 17, 1869, three and a half centuries after Magellan's discovery. That event brought a more direct trading link between Europe and the Philippines, allowing traders to exchange manufactured goods in exchange for raw materials.
The first Jews to land in the Philippines, two young brothers, Adolphe and Charles Levy, arrived in Manila in 1873 after a six-month journey from San Francisco aboard a sailing vessel. The Levy brothers brought five crates of religious medals, statues, gold chains, and gilt eyeglass frames that they had been unable to sell in California. Catholic Manila was the perfect market for these goods. Their first store was in Iloilo, on Panay Island, where the population thrived on the sale of sugarcane. Calling the store Estrella del Norte, they later added Levy Hermanos (Levy Brothers) to the name. In the late 1870s they expanded their trading business, and Charles opened what became the main office on the Escolta, the central business street in Manila. There they sold jewelry, diamonds, gold watches, bicycles, and other eclectic goods—mimicking the businesses of Asian traders.
A relative, Charles Weil, took over management of the Manila business after Adolphe's death in 1889. Weil, a gourmet, established a dining room for his employees above the store in Manila, and important visitors sought invitations to what the local people called the "European French Jewish eating place." One day, the acting archbishop of Manila, Eugenio Netter, made known his desire to dine at this famed table and was asked to join Charles Weil. The date fell on a Friday. Archbishop Netter joined the diners in the Sabbath prayers—in Hebrew—later explaining that he came from a poor Jewish family in Alsace. He had converted to Catholicism and became a priest but had not forgotten his heritage. He thoroughly enjoyed the evening with his Jewish companions.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century only a handful of Jews had settled in the Philippines, living precariously under Spanish rule but managing to prosper. There was no Jewish community yet; the Levys tended to quietly support the Filipino quest for sovereignty, hoping it would bring about more religious freedom. In fact, Adolphe and Charles Levy befriended José Rizal and were supportive of his views.
Born in 1861, the son of wealthy sugarcane farmers, Rizal studied medicine at the University of Santo Tomás in Manila. He visited Spain and other European countries and in 1886 published a novel, Noli me tangere (Do not touch me), a tale of suppression overcome by the moral virtues of the protagonists. The novel put the believers of Catholic doctrine on the block and railed against subservience to the friars and the Spanish authorities. At the same time the novel depicted the Filipinos as good family people, modest and of fine character. The message, however, was clear: the Philippines were a nation. The Spanish administration, as expected, banned the book, but its secret circulation fanned the flames of nationalism. Rizal fled the Philippines and returned after obtaining permission from the Spanish governor, but revolutionary materials were allegedly found in his luggage by customs inspectors, which led to exile on the island of Mindanao. Although he volunteered to join Spanish forces as a doctor during the Cuban revolt of 1896 and refused to lend his name to the Katipunan, an organization founded by Filipino nationalists to support the overthrow of the Spanish administration, Rizal was ordered to be arrested. Charged with inciting a rebellion, he was tried by a military tribunal and declared guilty of subversive activities. The death penalty—execution by firing squad, as a traitor, to be shot in the back—was carried out at dawn on December 30, 1896.
Even before Rizal's execution, a bloody uprising against the Spanish regime had begun in August 1896 that could not be completely subdued. A Filipino officer by the name of Emilio Aguinaldo became the revolutionary leader. He offered a constitution that called for independence from Spain, a bill of rights, and the establishment of a Philippine republic, but the constitution was rejected by the Spaniards. Two years later unrest against Spanish rule erupted in Cuba, during which the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, on February 15, 1898.
At that moment, U.S. Navy Commodore George Dewey was in Hong Kong aboard his flagship, the cruiser Olympia. He was directed to be ready for action in the event of war with Spain to block Spanish ships in Asian ports, particularly in Manila. That word came on April 26, 1898, when Dewey was ordered to attack the Spanish fleet. He sailed his ships into Manila Bay and the next day defeated the Spanish squadrons. On August 13, 1898, after token resistance, the Spaniards surrendered. With that, the Spanish-American War peace conference was concluded, and the Philippine Islands were ceded to the United States. The U.S. government sent a study commission headed by William Howard Taft to Manila to recommend ways to govern the newly acquired territory.
Among the seventy thousand American troops in the Philippines were a number of Jews who took their military discharges in Manila. The new possession also attracted Jewish entrepreneurs from America who sought contracts from the army and navy and opened retail establishments. One of them was a young man by the name of Emil Bachrach, who arrived in Manila in 1901 to enter the furniture trade and who later became prosperous in the motor transport business.
There were major social changes in the Philippines between 1900 and World War I. In the late summer of 1901, five hundred young college graduates arrived in Manila as part of an ambitious education program for Filipino children. A decade later, in 1911, a Jewish schoolteacher and his wife, the recently married Morton Isidore and Katherine Netzorg, arrived from the United States to join the Philippine public school teacher corps.
After World War I, the Jewish population in the Philippines had grown to 150 families. The community was bolstered not only by Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and the continuing arrival of American Jews seeking new business opportunities but also by Russian Jews who had fled to several Chinese cities after the Czarist pogroms and later made their way to the Philippines, where immigration was relatively easy since there were no quota restrictions.
The 150 Jewish families in Manila represented just about every Jewish religious practice, from secular to orthodox. Religious services were held in private homes, and later larger gatherings for High Holiday services were accommodated in local halls. In 1919 Yom Kippur services took place in the Eagles Hall, where Mottel Goldstein, a Russian Jew, officiated. That year, the Jewish community was formally organized. Officially the name Temple Emil Congregation was chosen to honor the now prominent Emil Bachrach, who had pledged substantial support for building a synagogue.
In 1921 an American businessman arrived in Manila with whom Morton Netzorg would work in the 1930s on behalf of the European refugees. This man was Alex Frieder, who was born in New York City in 1893, where his parents, Samuel and Esther Frieder, had established a hand-rolled cigar business that they later continued after moving the family to Cincinnati, Ohio. Although the Frieders obtained cigar-making tobacco from a U.S. firm, they became interested in buying tobacco directly from the Philippines.
Alex Frieder, then twenty-eight years old, arrived in Manila with his father to look for cigar manufacturing possibilities. With his older brother, Phillip, he began their business in the Philippines by buying and exporting cigars to the United States. After a short time, however, the brothers founded the Helena Cigar Factory to manufacture their own brands. They joined the Temple Emil Congregation, becoming active supporters in the synagogue construction campaign.
In late November 1919 the Temple Emil Congregation bought a site for the synagogue on Taft Avenue for which they paid 18,000 pesos, about $9,000. In 1923, a year after the temple groundbreaking, Mottel Goldstein, at the behest of the Temple Emil Congregation leadership, was sent to Shanghai to explore the possibility of hiring a rabbi.
Arriving in Shanghai, Goldstein met Israel Konigsberg, a teacher who prepared boys for their bar mitzvahs. Konigsberg, who was born in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, serving as a Jewish chaplain, but was soon captured. After the armistice he made his way to China, married, and settled in Shanghai. Konigsberg's cantorial training and his expertise at blowing the shofar (the ram's horn used in religious services) impressed Mottel Goldstein, and he offered Konigsberg a tryout with the Manila congregation. In 1924, Israel Konigsberg sailed for Manila. He officiated at the first Rosh Hashanah service in the new Temple Emil, and with the congregation's approval he was hired. Among his first tasks was to prepare Morton Netzorg's son for the first bar mitzvah and help start a Sunday school for the expanding population of children in the Jewish community. Gone were the need for rented halls and scattered venues for religious instruction.
The new synagogue, Temple Emil, was a unique structure, not only because it was the first synagogue in the South Pacific but because its design was singular among the buildings of colonial Manila. While incorporating several styles of architecture into an eclectic whole, the building reflected a strong Moorish influence. Aside from architecture, the completion of Temple Emil demonstrated, for the first time, that Judaism was able to anchor its faith in the Philippine Islands. Filipinos knew little about Jews, but the few Jews living in Manila in 1924 were accepted and never threatened.
Besides the Jewish community, some five hundred Germans, including a large number who were members of religious orders, lived in the Philippines in 1930. There was a German Club with more than two hundred members that included the well-known Dr. Kurt Eulau, a German Jew born in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, who joined in January 1926. Two years later, in 1928, Dr. Lothar Lissner, another German Jew, became a member. Although German racial policies would later be confronted by the club, the line between Jewish and Gentile Germans was blurred when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933.
Excerpted from Escape to Manila by Frank Ephraim. Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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