NEW YORK — As the extent of the catastrophic damage and tragic death toll continues to grow in the Philippines, a particularly heroic piece of history should be recalled by the global Jewish community, which owes a debt to the island nation.
Seven decades ago, a Philippine president, a globetrotting Jewish family named Frieder and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, my organization, helped save the lives of more than 1,000 Jews who otherwise would have almost certainly died in the Holocaust.
Thanks to their initiative, these refugees were issued rare travel certificates to the Asian country to work as skilled laborers in the Frieders’ cigar factories in Manila — though in reality, few of them had any experience in the industry whatsoever. The audacious operation, seemingly extraordinary today, is the subject of the recently released documentary “Rescue in the Philippines.”
At the time that Manuel Quezon admitted Jews to his country, the Filipino president made what seems today like a remarkably prescient statement.
“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 welcome hand,” he was quoted as saying.
We recalled this moment in history last week when we began reading reports and watching coverage of the impending super typhoon Haiyan — the strongest storm in recorded history — as it barreled toward the Philippines. In anticipation of the impact, JDC’s disaster relief and development staff assembled a contingency plan that went into full effect once news emerged of the death and destruction wrought by Haiyan.
As part of our ongoing response to the typhoon, JDC will ship critically important food, shelter, and hygiene and medical supplies — as well as ensure the provision of water and sanitation items and shelter support — through its partners, the Afya Foundation and Catholic Relief Services. JDC’s advance team of disaster relief and development experts will head to the Philippines later this week to assess damage and needs while consulting with our local/international partners and the Filipino Jewish community to ensure maximum impact for storm survivors.
About 30 percent of funds raised will be dedicated to immediate relief for food, water, shelter, medical supplies and care, unless the emergency phase lasts longer because of expanding, critical needs among survivors. The rest will be invested in sustainable local projects that will emerge in the long, slow process of rehabilitation that is sure to come.
It’s a formula JDC, which is celebrating its centennial this year, has developed over decades of efforts in the field, from helping Ukrainians starved by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s to rehabilitating survivors of genocide in Rwanda. And on behalf of the North American Jewish community and with its support, we have over the past decade delivered tens of millions of dollars in aid to victims of natural and manmade disasters in Southeast Asia, Haiti and Japan.
These efforts now come full circle, especially for one member of our team arriving in the Philippines later this week, Danny Pins. In addition to being one of our development and employment experts, Pins’ mother and grandparents were among the German Jews who fled to the Philippines to seek safe haven in 1938. His posting, in many ways a homecoming despite previous trips to the country, is highly symbolic.
Today, in the wake of one of the worst storms in history, with perhaps more than 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, we are fully committed to fulfilling President Quezon’s prophecy and returning the favor to the Filipino people. Not just because we are Jews, the heirs to this nation’s life-saving actions, but because we firmly believe in mutual responsibility and the idea that each individual life is valuable beyond measure.
Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.