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Brothers who saved Jews of Philippines honored

CINCINNATI, Feb. 16 (JTA) — Hundreds of people gathered at Cincinnati’s historic Plum Street Temple Feb. 13 to honor the Frieder brothers, five siblings who used connections formed through their cigar business to save 1,200 Jewish lives in the darkening days before the storm of World War II. Organized by the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion here, the event was the culmination of a weekend that reunited 98 Frieder relatives and seven Jewish refugees. Testimony and tributes from those relatives and refugees served as the focal point of the ceremony, which also posthumously honored Manuel Quezon, the first president of the Philippines, and Paul V. McNutt, an American high commissioner there. Alice Weston, Alex Frieder’s daughter, provided the background for her family’s heroic actions. Moving to New York from Hungary in the 1880s, her grandfather, Samuel Frieder, established the S. Frieder Company in midtown Manhattan and eventually opened a distribution office in downtown Cincinnati. It was cheaper to make cigars in the Philippines, so four of the brothers each took turns running the business on the hot, humid island, then a U.S. protectorate. Each lived in the Philippines for two years. Weston said her father and uncles knew U.S. and Filipino officials. They played bridge with then-Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, she said, and practiced their poker skills on McNutt and Quezon. She said the brothers urged Quezon to allow Jewish refugees into the country. They “promised they would not be a burden on the community, but an asset.” To that end the brothers concentrated their efforts on bringing over Jews who had skills that would be useful in the Philippines. Quezon, a devout Catholic, “enthusiastically agreed,” she said, and gave away parcels of his own land to the Jewish refugees so they could begin to make their own livings. Through the efforts of the brothers and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the refugees received the visas that allowed them to escape Europe. When they arrived in the Philippines they were given jobs, money and shelter. Those German-Jewish refugees joined a community that had only a few hundred Jews before they arrived there. A more ambitious plan to open immigration to 10,000 or more Jewish families fell by the wayside as the Japanese army swept through Indochina, said Racelle Weiman, director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education. And the U.S. State Department did not support the idea, she added. Recalling her own escape from Europe as a child, Lotte Cassel Hershfeld said it had been “a great relief” when the Philippines offered visas to her family. She recalled her mother crying as the ship docked in every port on the long trip from Europe. When they arrived in the Philippines, their first Friday night meal included chicken soup. “And my mother cried all over again,” she said. While the Japanese occupation of the Philippines was “terror and hell,” Hershfeld noted the one thing it was not — extermination. Underscoring a message that “goodness and justice must come from an impulse of the heart,” Manuel Quezon III, the president’s grandson, paid tribute to the humanitarian ideals and efforts that saved so many lives. “If misery and the loss of freedom are part of our past,” he said, “then extending sanctuary and embracing the oppressed must be part of our present. History is about choices and history demands that we make the right choice, the compassionate choice, the human choice.” Quezon said that when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, his grandfather, too, became a refugee. The ambitious McNutt, a one-time governor of Indiana, helped the German-Jewish refugees. One of his relatives, John Krauss, recounted how he had his sights set on the presidency. The only problem? President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about to run for a second term. “And where do you send someone who might be a threat?” Krauss asked rhetorically. “You send them as far away as you can.” FDR sent McNutt to Manila to assume the post of U.S. High Commissioner, where he would play an integral part in letting the U.S. State Department ignore immigration quotas and admit 1,000 Jewish refugees a year. And, Krauss noted, when the state department said “no” to Jewish immigration, McNutt said “yes.” “There are few who can make something happen, there are several more who can watch something happen, and a vast majority who have no idea of what’s happening,” said Krauss. “The difference is between dreamers and doers. The dreamer waits for the right moment to act, and the doer acts to change the mood.” Krauss said there were many doers in the story of the Jews in the Philippines, and that many lives had been changed as a result of their actions. Audience members also listened to written tributes from Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, Ohio Governor Bob Taft, and President Bush, and watched a video tribute from Dr. Susan Eisenhower, President Eisenhower’s granddaughter. Frank Ephraim, a refugee and author of “Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror,” recalled how the Japanese stored munitions in the sanctuary of Temple Emil, the local shul. In February 1945, during the month-long Battle of Manila, 100,000 Filipinos were killed. Of those, 67 were German-Jewish refugees. And on Feb. 11, 1945, the synagogue burned to the ground. Ephraim’s book spurred Weiman to find a way to honor those involved and to tell their stories. Albert F. del Rosario, the Philippines’ ambassador to the United States, said Philippine President Gloria Arroyo will present the National Legion of Honor, Commanders Class, to Ephraim and Weiman this spring. The Frieder brothers and McNutt will receive the National Legion of Honor, Heroes Class, posthumously at the same ceremony. “We recall today not only the justice in the face of tyranny,” said del Rosario, “but just as importantly, the common humanity that we can share, even in the darkest of times.”