Manila as a haven for Jewish communities

Fleeing Nazi Germany, many European Jews settled in the Philippines and in several ways contributed to the cultural enrichment of its Capital


During their stay in Europe, Dr. José Rizal and other Ilustrados eventually also got in contact with Professor Rudolf Carl Virchow, who was one of the towering figures of nineteenth-century medicine, pathology and social reform. (1) His radical political views were clearly shown during the revolutionary uprising in Germany in 1848. Virchow had presented a report on a typhus epidemic in Upper Silesia in which he recommended that the best way to avoid a repetition of the epidemic would be to introduce genuine democratic forms of government. When the revolution broke out in Berlin, Virchow joined the revolutionaries fighting on the barricades. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the struggle, much to the displeasure of his father. In 1856 Virchow accepted a chair at the University of Berlin on condition that a new building be constructed for a pathological institute. He remained in this position for the rest of his life. In 1861 Virchow was one of the founding members of the Deutsche Fortschrittspartei (German Progressive Party) and was elected in the same year to the Prussian Diet. He vigorously opposed Chancellor Bismarck’s preparations for war and his “blood and iron” policy of unifying Germany. Virchow characterized Bismarck’s struggle with the Catholic Church as Kulturkampf – a fight for culture – by which Virchow meant a fight for liberal, rational principles against the dead weight of medieval obscurantism, and authoritarianism. Virchow is also credited with the founding of “social medicine”, focusing on the fact that disease is never purely biological, but often, socially derived. In this sense, he was instrumental in developing what is now referred to as community-based primary health care, programs which also have been advocated and practiced in the hinterlands of the Philippines for quite some time.

What Virchow had labeled the dead weight of medieval obscurantism and authoritarianism, later morphed into the barbaric rule of the Nazis whose pronounced anti-semitic policies made many a people flee Germany and seek safe havens elsewhere. Lots of intellectuals, writers – like Stefan Zweig, the author of “Magellan: Der Mann und seine Tat” – , scientists and artists settled in the Americas and Shanghai, which then still practiced a relatively lenient immigration policy. The Philippines, along with Alaska, Madagascar, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Palestine, ranked among those different worldwide resettlement projects proposed for investigation and eyed as new homes for Jewish communities. President Quezon and the Commonwealth authorities were prepared to admit during 1939 some 2,000 families of Jewish refugees into the Philippines for colonization on Mindanao, and about 5,000 families annually until a total of 30,000 families has been reached. Mindanao – especially the Bukidnon Plateau – quickly went to the top of the list as a potentially successful haven for refugee resettlement. Legal delays and finally the Japanese invasion and occupation thwarted such plans. Even prior to the war, one of the biggest Japanese colonies were to be found in Mindanao which served as a magnet for Japanese big business because of its richness in resources.

The Philippines were able to control their own immigration policies and were exempt from the quota restrictions on immigration. After the first wave of refugee immigrants began arriving in September 1938, the Jewish community of Manila swelled with European refugees reached its maximum population of about 2,500 members by the end of 1941. (2) In early April 2005, Philippine Ambassador to Israel Antonio C. Modena reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs that the Embassy is now working for the recognition of the role of the Filipino people in helping Jews escape Nazi Europe during the holocaust. “The Filipino people welcomed Jewish refugees to the Philippines at a time when the rest of the world slammed its doors to a people seeking safe sanctuary from Nazi tyranny. Surely the Filipino people should be recognized for upholding a high sense of morality and humanity,” Ambassador Modena said. In fact, Filipinos held a huge indignation rally on November 19, 1938 to denounce the inhumanity of Kristallnacht, the night the Nazis run rampage and destroyed Jewish homes and stores, burned synagogues and threw children off windows. The Ambassador pointed out that while the American government refused (in Miami) to take in 900 Jews sent on board the lines “St. Louis” by Nazi Germany to prove that no other countries wanted the Jews, as documented in ”Ship of Fools” by Katherine Anne Porter and a movie of the same title, President Manuel L. Quezon set up a housing project for Jewish refugees in Marikina and was planning to set up a farm settlement for Jews in Mindanao. (3)

Two important names appeared in the Jewish community in Manila at the turn of the century: Emil Bachrach and Morton I. Netzorg. Emil Bachrach arrived in Manila in 1901 and soon “built a commercial empire of fairly substantial proportions.” Because he is regarded as the first American Jew who permanently settled in the Philippines, the synagogue and cultural hall, which the Bachrach family financed in subsequent decades, bore his name: Temple Emil and Bachrach Hall. Bachrach’s economic successes allowed him to support both Jewish and Christian causes. Manila Jewry included the founder of the Makati Stock Exchange, the conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and other professionals such as physicians and architects. Temple Emil was destroyed by the Japanese during WWII. (4)

As the Nazis took power in Germany and the world turned its back on Jewish refugees, four brothers who ran a cigar factory in the Philippines worked quietly to help 1,200 Jews flee to Manila. The Frieder brothers – Alex, Philip, Herbert and Morris – “were just ordinary Jewish businessmen, but they went out of their way to save lives,” said Frank Ephraim, who was eight years old when his family fled to Manila from Germany in 1939, and who later wrote a history of the rescue – Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror. (5) The brothers from Cincinnati had taken turns going to Manila for two-year periods during the 1920s and ’30s to run the Helena Cigar Factory, started by their father in 1918. While they were there, they established a Jewish Refugee Committee and worked with highly placed friends to help the mostly German and Austrian refugees get passports and visas, then find employment and homes in Manila. (6) It was a truly reciprocal affair that the Philippines in one way or another helped save the lives of so many Jews, who in return brought with them their talents and make use of it in their host country. During the height of its immigration years, the Philippines benefited from the arrival of such renowned Jewish refugees as Dr. Herbert Zipper, who became conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and his wife Trudl Zipper, who taught modern dance to many Filipino performers. Dr. Eugene Stransky, a specialist in blood disorders, and Ernest Kornfeld, an accomplished architect, augmented Philippine life with their professions. Cantor Joseph Cysner, whose dramatic flight from Poland via Germany to Manila has been well depicted in Bonnie Harris’ – From Zbaszyn to Manila: The Creation of an American Holocaust Haven (7) –, secured an additional position as a music professor at De La Salle College in Manila and developed a reputation for his classical music training. The Manila Jewish community and the Jewish Refugee Committee of Manila (JRC) under the leadership of Philip Frieder, comprised of influential and affluent American members of the Jewish community, was formed with the intention of rescuing German members of the Shanghai Jewish community. (8)

One of the most outstanding Jewish refugees in Manila was Herbert Zipper, born in Vienna (April 24, 1904), Austria. Before World War II, Dr. Zipper was a classical musician, composer and conductor who knew well renowned personalities in the scene of music like Igor Strawinsky, Paul Hindemith, Sergej Prokofjew and Kurt Weill. During the war, like so many others of Jewish decent, Zipper and his brother were arrested by the Nazis and put in Dachau concentration camp. In Dachau Zipper organized a secret orchestra playing on improvised instruments in an abandoned latrine. Further, in 1938 he composed a piece of music, Dachau Lied (Dachau Song), for which his friend and fellow prisoner Jura Soyfer wrote the lyrics. (9) Soyfer was less fortunate than his colleague Zipper, he was transferred to Buchenwald where he died of typhus. The inscription over the gate to Dachau, “Arbeit macht frei” (Work Liberates), appears in the lyrics to the song, the first verse of it in English translation runs as follows:

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Footnotes & Sources

Dachau Lied (Dachau Song)
Charged with death, high tension wire
Rings around our world a chain.
Pitiless a sky sends fire,
Biting frost and drenching rain.
Far from us is lust for living,
Far our women, our town,
When we mutely march to toiling
Thousands into morning’s dawn.
But we all learned the motto of Dachau to heed
And became as hardened as stone
Stay humane, Dachau mate,
Be a man, Dachau mate
And work as hard as you can, Dachau mate,
For work leads to freedom alone!

[Here the original German version
for all Pinoys, who do have a fair
command of the German tongue =
Stacheldraht, mit Tod geladen,
ist um unsere Welt gespannt.
Drauf ein Himmel ohne Gnaden
sendet Frost und Sonnenbrand.
Fern von uns sind alle Freuden,
fern die Heimat, fern die Frauen,
wenn wir stumm zur Arbeit schreiten,
Tausende im Morgengraun.
Doch wir haben die Lösung von Dachau gelernt
und wurden stahlhart dabei:
Sei ein Mann, Kamerad,
bleib ein Mensch, Kamerad,
mach ganze Arbeit, pack an, Kamerad,
denn Arbeit, Arbeit macht frei!]

This song became an anthem of resistance which was passed from camp to camp throughout the war. At each of the five extermination camps, the Nazis created orchestras of prisoner-musicians, forcing them to play while their fellow prisoners marched to the gas chambers. While these musicians were given clean clothes and other benefits, the suicide rate among musicians was higher than that of most other enslaved camp workers except those who were involved in some of the killing or burying. (10) Later in the war, Zipper was transferred from Dachau to Buchenwald, another concentration camp, where his release was secured with the help of his family. Zipper then traveled to the Philippines to direct the Manila Symphony Orchestra. When the Japanese invaded, he was again interned. During the occupation of Manila Zipper was active in the underground resistance, radioing Japanese ship information to the U.S. fleet. When American forces retook Manila in 1945, Zipper organized a concert for U.S. troops. The concert turned out to be so successful that American military commissioned Zipper and the Manila Symphony Orchestra to continue the concerts, eventually performing before over 200,000 military personnel. After the war, Zipper and his wife Trudl moved to the United States, where Zipper continued composing, conducting and teaching music. (11)

This once American-dominated Jewish community that had saved the lives of well over 1,000 European Jews from potential extermination faced an unexpected persecution of their own. Within a matter of days, every American, British, British Commonwealth, Dutch, Polish, Belgian, or other citizen of a country at war with Japan or Germany, began to be bussed to Santo Tomas University for immediate internment by the invading Japanese forces in early 1942. January 1943 brought a new, and yet an old, threat to the Jewish Community of Manila as anti-Semitic persecution targeted the non-interned German Jews. Nazi diatribes had found their way to the Philippines via German alliance with the Empire of Japan. In January 1944, the German ambassador to Japan, Heinrich Stahmer, assisted in the appointment of a new German Nazi Party overseer, Franz Josef Spahn, to the German Community of Manila. Rumors about forcing the German Jews into a ghetto began to circulate. Spahn called for the immediate internment of aliens guilty of “acts inimical to the peace, security, and interest of the Republic of the Philippines.” (12) By falsifying the facts concerning the abandonment of the Mindanao Resettlement Project and claiming that the Jews sabotaged the plan with the intention of dominating the Philippine urban economy, the Nazi Party in the Philippines targeted the Jewish community. As war in the Philippines persisted, the situation in Manila deteriorated rapidly. All civilians were viewed as subversives and many fled the city into the mountains to escape retaliation. The “Battle for Manila,” which officially began on February 3, 1945 and lasted for one month, left the city in total ruins. Over one thousand Jews escaped the holocaust of Manila by crossing the Pasig River to the north, leaving sixty-seven of their members dead and more than two hundred wounded. Many eventually left Manila for the United States to permanently settle there. (13)

1) Rudolf Carl Virchow [b. Schivelbein, Pomerania (Poland), October 13, 1821, d. Berlin, September 5, 1902] studied medicine in Berlin and taught there for a great part of his life. His prolific writings, while mainly on topics in pathology, included many essays and addresses on social medicine and public health. Virchow also contributed substantially to anthropology, palaeontology and archaeology. In 1869 he founded the Society for anthropology, ethnology and prehistory. – See: Erwin Heinz Ackerknecht, Rudolf Virchow, New York: Arno Press, 1981,1953 & . Byron A Boyd, Rudolf Virchow: The scientist as citizen, New York: Garland, 1991.

2) Bonnie Harris, Cantor Joseph Cysner: From Zbaszyn to Manila – The Creation of an American Holocaust Haven, University CSB, research paper, February 6, 2005; converted and uploaded Feb. 10, 2005, 75 pp. – See also: Ernest Heppner, Shanghai Refuge: A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 1993; David Kranzler, Japanese, Nazis, & Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938-1945, Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1988 & Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2003.

3) Philippine Ambassador to Israel Pushes for Recognition of Filipinos’ Role in Saving Jews, Department of Foreign Affairs, Press Release (SFA-AGR-186-05), Jerusalem, Israel, April 01, 2005.

4) The one and only synagogue in the country – the second ever built in the Philippines – is Makati’s Beth Ya’acov Synagogue, built in 1983. The only other synagogue which existed prior to the erection of Beth Ya’acov was Temple Emil (built in the mid-1920’s) – see: Jews in the Philippines, Wikipedia; pls. do check also the following websites:

5) See note 2

6) Joseph Berger, A Filipino-American Effort to Harbor Jews Is Honored, in: The New York Times, February 14, 2005.

7) B. Harris, Cantor Joseph Cysner …, op. cit.

8) Ibid.

9) The complete Dachau Lied (Dachau Song) in an English translation runs as follows:
Charged with death, high tension wire
Rings around our world a chain.
Pitiless a sky sends fire,
Biting frost and drenching rain.
Far from us is lust for living,
Far our women, our town,
When we mutely march to toiling
Thousands into morning’s dawn.
But we all learned the motto of Dachau to heed
And became as hardened as stone
Stay humane, Dachau mate,
Be a man, Dachau mate
And work as hard as you can, Dachau mate,
For work leads to freedom alone!
Faced by ever threatening rifles,
We exist by night and day,
Life itself this hell-hole stifles
Worse than any words can say.
Days and weeks we leave unnumbered
Some forget the counts of years
And their spirit is encumbered
With their faces scarred by fears.
Lift the stone and drag the wagon
Shun no burden and no chore
Who you were in days long bygone
Here you are not anymore.
Stab the earth and bury depthless
All the pity you can feel.
And with your own sweat, hapless
You convert to stone and steel.
Once will sound the siren’s wailing
Summons to the last role call
Outside then we will be hailing
Dachau mates uniting all.
Freedom brightly will be shining.
For the hard-forged brotherhood
And the work we are designing
Our work it will be good.

10) Another song became famous throughout the world: Die Moorsoldaten (The Peat-Bog Soldiers) was first performed in the Boergermoor Concentration Camp located in the north-western part of Germany, near the Dutch border. The song shows the daily life and forced labor that was done in the camps. In a cabaret performance in the camp, sixteen prisoners with spades on their shoulders marched onto the stage singing this song. The composer conducted the chorus with a broken spade handle. The song was forbidden two days after its debut, but was smuggled to other camps Die Moorsoldaten (The Peat-Bog Soldiers) – in English translation – reads as follows:
Far and wide as the eye can measure,
Heath and bog are everywhere.
Not a bird’s song gives us pleasure,
Oaks are standing bleak and bare.
We are the peat-bog soldiers,
We march with spades on shoulders to the bog.
Here in dreary desolation,
We’re behind the prison wall.
Far from every consolation,
Barbed wire does surround us all. (Chorus)
Mornings we’re marched out in one line,
On the moorland to our toil.
Digging in the burning sunshine,
Thinking of our native soil. (Chorus)
Homeward, homeward, each is yearning
For his parents, child and wife.
In each breast a sigh is burning –
We’re imprisoned here for life. (Chorus)
Up and down the guards are pacing,
No one can escape this place.
Flight would mean a sure death facing,
Four-fold ’round the guards do pace. (Chorus)
But for us there is no complaining
Winter will in time be past.
One day, free, we’ll be exclaiming:
Homeland, you are mine at last. (Chorus)
Then no more will peat-bog soldiers
March with spades on shoulders to the bog.

11) Paul Cummins, Musik trotz allem Herbert Zipper: Von Dachau um die Welt, Wien: Lafite-Verlag, Wien 1993.

12) B. Harris, Cantor Joseph Cysner …, op. cit.

13) Ibid.

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