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Kristallnacht program highlights Philippine rescue of German Jews

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From left Larry and Tova Vickar, Rod Cantiveros and Joel Lazar with a plaque commemorating the Philippines’ rescue of German and Austrian Jews MYRON LOVE PHOTO
From left Larry and Tova Vickar, Rod Cantiveros and Joel Lazar with a plaque commemorating the Philippines’ rescue of German and Austrian Jews MYRON LOVE PHOTO

On Nov. 9, Winnipeg’s Jewish community once again commemorated Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass – the infamous night in 1938 when the Nazis ratcheted up the violence and persecution of Germany’s Jewish community to a new level. But this year, the program focused on a different part of the world: the Philippines.

“At a time when everything looked so bleak, particularly for the Jewish communities in Germany and Austria, when all countries doors were closed to them, there was a light in the East,” said Shelley Faintuch, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and associate director of local partner services for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “It was only the Philippines that was prepared to offer a haven to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.”

It was a full house as the Jewish community was joined by 50 representatives of Winnipeg’s 70,000-strong Filipino community at the Berney Theatre to commemorate Kristallnacht and thank the Philippines for saving some 1,200 to 1,300 German and Austrian Jews in 1939.

The short version of what happened – as shown in the documentary Rescue in the Philippines – was that the rescue was a joint effort of Manuel Quezon, the first president of the Philippines; American High Commissioner Paul McNutt, who defied the U.S. State Department by issuing U.S. visas to Jews trying to leave Germany and Austria; Col. (later Gen.) Dwight Eisenhower, the U.S. military commander in the Philippines (which had been under American rule until about five years earlier); and five Jewish American brothers – the Frieder brothers, who were based in Cincinnati, but had extensive business interests in the Philippines. The brothers were also the recognized leaders of the pre-war Manila Jewish community, which numbered about 50, mainly American, families.

While the Philippines was prepared to welcome many more Jewish refugees – up to 30,000, as the documentary noted –rescue efforts ended suddenly with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and subsequent Japanese conquest of the Philippines. Fortunately for the Jewish refugees, their German and Austrian passports protected them from the Japanese forces, who viewed them as citizens of an allied country. Their lives were only endangered when the Japanese went on a killing spree near war’s end.

The hour-long film was the central feature of the Kristallnacht program. It was preceded by short remarks by Jewish Federation of Winnipeg president David Kroft and Orli Marcelino, consul general of the Philippines in Winnipeg. As well, memorial candles were lit prior to the screening.

The Philippines’ role in providing a safe haven for German and Austrian Jews has been little known up to now, not only in the wider world, but even among Filipinos. “I could find very few articles about this,” said Faintuch, who organized the Kristallnacht program with assistant Rhonda Prepes.

Even Rod Cantiveros, co-chair for the evening along with longtime friend Larry Vickar, didn’t know about the episode until long after coming to Canada in 1975.

“I taught history at the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines before coming to Canada,” said the founding editor of Winnipeg’s Filipino Journal. “I knew that the Japanese had turned the university into a concentration camp and that some Jewish refugees were interned there. But the rescue of Jewish refugees was never taught as part of Philippine history. It is a missing chapter in our history.”

Cantiveros first learned about the rescue efforts in the 1990s, when his late wife wrote an article about it. He has since read a memoir by one of the children of those Jewish refugees. He noted that in the 1990s, a monument was erected in Rishon Lezion to mark the Philippines’ rescue efforts, with the grandson of Manuel Quezon in attendance.

Vickar, a business and community leader, has long been a supporter of Winnipeg’s Filipino community and has also funded projects in the Philippines (and Israel). “The Jewish community owes the Philippines a vote of thanks for being righteous among the nations,” he said.

The evening concluded with Vickar and Cantiveros jointly unveiling a plaque recognizing the Philippines for providing shelter to German and Austrian Jews in 1939.