Rescue in the Philippines
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An uplifting and enlightening one-hour documentary about a little known story that’s fallen through the crack of WWII history, as told by the last living refugees and descendants of the leaders involved.
SAG Award winner Liev Schreiber narrates while intrepid documentarists Russell Hodge (Follow Us: 100 Years of Fort Benning) and Cynthia Scott-Johnson (The Truth About Money with Ric Edelman) write and direct.
As the Israel-Hamas conflict escalates, we are reminded of the painful lessons of history and mankind’s struggle for freedom, self-determination, and the right to exist. I’m not here to give a reductive explanation about the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. It’s a complex, controversial, and tragic geopolitical issue that requires a lot of expertise, experience, and a deep understanding of cultural, religious, and political nuances to navigate and address equitably. Though the documentary doesn’t explain the modern-day conflict, it talks about its genesis: The Jewish diaspora and their desire to establish a homeland.
During the early and middle part of the 20th century, Jews from Germany and Europe sought a safe haven from the holocaust and growing movements of antisemitism throughout the continent. While most countries closed their doors, an emerging nation in Southeast Asia – still reeling from the bloody history of colonialism and oppression – wholeheartedly offered asylum to the Jewish refugees. Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust is a gut-wrenching yet deeply moving story about moral courage, empathy, solidarity, and humanity.
As heartbreaking as it is impactful, the historic event’s origin story is just as unbelievable as its execution. As documents and testimonies show, the ambitious rescue plan to bring Jewish refugees to the Philippines was conceived over games of poker! High-stakes poker buddies comprised of Dwight D. Eisenhower (then chief of staff to General Douglas MacArthur), Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul V. McNutt, and the Frieder brothers, American businessmen from Cincinnati who set up a successful cigar business in Manila. They devised an elaborate strategy to rescue more than 1,200 Jews during their late night poker games.
To President Quezon, it was not a question of whether his country would help, but why other nations did not. It was personal to him. He was a devout Catholic but he developed an affinity for Jews because according to him, the most unreligious thing he could think of was to think badly towards the people who gave them their ‘Savior.’ The Philippines was also receptive to the idea of an ‘Open Door’ policy. There was a sense of symbolic brotherhood between Filipinos and Jews since both have experienced racial bigotry and discrimination throughout their dark colonial histories. Quezon even mentioned that he was willing to take as many as 30,000 refugees to be relocated permanently to the southern island of Mindanao. However, the Philippines was under U.S. supervision at that time and the US only allowed 1,000 refugees a year, over a 10-year period.
By 1938, a stream of refugees began arriving in Manila and were welcomed with open arms by the people and the government. As the number of refugees swelled, Quezon donated a portion of his country estate and built a housing community for them.
Unfortunately, the ‘Open Door’ program was brought to an abrupt end when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941. As one surviving Jewish refugee says in the film, “We have gone from the frying pan into the fire.” Though life under the Japanese occupation was brutal (Manila became the second most devastated city in the world during the war), the refugees remained grateful. “We would not be alive today if not for the Philippines. We would’ve been destroyed in the crematorium,” Lotte Hershfield, a former Jewish refugee in the Philippines, says in the documentary.
Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust is an exhaustively researched and expertly crafted documentary that juxtaposes the horrors of war and the resilience of the human spirit. Rife with drama and heartrending testimonies, the film powerfully illustrates that hope can thrive in any environment and that compassion is the ultimate antidote to cruelty.
A chilling yet inspiring story about an often-overlooked act of kindness that ultimately changed the course of history. Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust is a testament to hope, that people of different backgrounds, political leanings, and religions can come together to fight against injustice and oppression.
Where to stream it: Prime Video (for $2.99)
History buffs, friends and family who are intrigued by forgotten stories and uplifting documentaries, and those in need of a feel-good humanitarian film.
Most Filipinos are familiar with The Schindler’s List but surprisingly, only a few know about Manuel L. Quezon’s heroic act that saved more than 1,200 Jews. The late president actually saved a few more lives than Oskar Schindler, which the Academy Award-winning film was based on.
To honor President Manuel L. Quezon and the Filipino nation for the ‘Open Door’ policy that enabled Jews to escape the Nazi regime, an Open Doors Monument was built at the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion in Israel. Unveiled in 2009, the monument featured President Quezon’s portrait that contains an excerpt of his speech on April 23, 1940, when he donated his country estate to the Jewish refugees: “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.”