Although less famous than his German counterpart, late Filipino President Manuel Quezon saved as many Jews during the Holocaust as Oskar Schindler through his controversial open-door immigration policy. Now, The Raul Wallenberg Foundation has honored Quezon posthumously, The Times of Israel reported.
During the 1930s, Quezon, who served as the Philippines’ first president, played poker with US Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, US High Commissioner Paul McNutt, and an American Jewish cigar maker named Herbert Frieder. Hearing of the increasingly oppressive rulings of the Nazi party in Germany, Frieder and his three sons – Alex, Phillip and Morris – were determined to do something to help their European brethren.
They turned to their poker buddies, and Quezon decided to take action by opening the doors of the Philippines to Jewish immigration. Quezon set a target of 10,000 refugees to be welcomed into the country, even offering his own personal land on the island of Mindanao to resettle some of the refugees. Over 1,300 refugees were able to take advantage of Quezon’s generosity before the Philippines were occupied by Japan in 1941, halting the program.
Quezon was honored Wednesday with a ceremony held at Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City, at which Zenaida Quezon Avancena received the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation Medal on behalf of her father. Quezon was recognized for his “life-saving plan” and for “reaching out to the victims of the Nazi murderous machine.”
The Philippine rescue of European Jews was the subject of a book published in 2003 by one of the survivors, Frank Ephraim. Titled “Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror”, it tells the stories of Ephraim and other survivors rescued by the combined efforts of the Freiders and Quezon. The Frieders provided employment offers for work visas, while Quezon fought his own government to allow the refugees in at a time when most of the rest of the world was turning Jews away.
According to a letter by Alex Frieder to his brother Morris, skeptics in Quezon’s government spoke of Jews as “Communists and schemers” intent on “controlling the world.” However, he said, Quezon “assured us that, big or little, he raised hell with every one of those persons. He made them ashamed of themselves for being the victim of propaganda intended to further victimize an already persecuted people.”
In 2009, Quezon was recognized with a monument called “Open Doors”, symbolizing his immigration policy at the time, in Israel’s Rishon Letzion’s World’s Righteous Remembered Park. In 2013, a television documentary about the Philippines’ rescue of European Jews was released.
Wednesday’s ceremony was attended by an estimated 3,000 people, according to the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation website. Effie Ben-Matityau, Israel’s ambassador to the Philippines, and Lee Blumenthal, board member of the Jewish Association of the Philippines, presented the medal. Among the dignitaries in attendance was current president Benigno Aquino III, who led the ceremony commemorating the 137th anniversary of Quezon’s birth.
Ben-Matityau praised Quezon for “his moral conviction” and called him “a great leader and humanitarian,” adding that “when he saw the plight of Jews in Europe, he opened the door for those in need.”
Quezon’s grandson, Manuel Quezon III, delivered an acceptance speech in which he underscored “the importance of people’s right to asylum in a democracy,” urging “the Filipino youth to emulate my grandfather’s compassion towards those in need.”
“May this encourage future generations of Filipinos to stay true to the compassionate ideal of our founding fathers,” he stressed.