Mindanao as haven for persecuted Jews
Mindanao, a troubled island for centuries, could have been the home of European Jews who were rescued from the horrors of the Holocaust by a welcoming Philippines during World War II.
The idea for a Jewish haven in the country’s southern part preceded the world’s postwar decision to carve out the Israeli state in the Middle East, where animosities have remained unresolved to this day.
To present-day Jewish communities all over the world, the Filipinos were highly commended when refugees were allowed to enter Manila from 1937 to 1938, said Sharon Delmendo, author of the book “The Star-Entangled Banner: One Hundred Years of America in the Philippines.”
Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon imposed an “open-door” policy which granted asylum to over 1,300 families fleeing from Nazi-controlled Germany, said Delmendo in a public lecture at the University of the Philippines Baguio last month. He offered Mindanao’s farmlands for Jewish settlers.
Delmendo, an English professor of St. John Fisher College in the American state of New York, is developing a book on the “Manilaners,” which was what the European refugees were called. Many of them abandoned their homes in Europe, carrying only suitcases, to avoid capture by the Gestapo (Nazi police).
Over 6 million Jews (1.5 million of them children) were “deliberately and systematically” persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust, which took place between Jan. 30, 1933 (“when Adolf Hitler became German chancellor”) and May 8, 1945, when the European war ended.
Quezon’s decision to take in the Manilaners had been hailed as a monumental humanitarian act, drawing full backing from Filipinos, Delmendo said.
On Nov. 19, 1938, over 2,000 Manila residents held an indignation rally against Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), referring to the Nazi attacks on European Jewish communities, Delmendo said.
“A month after this rally, on Dec. 5, 1938, President Quezon declared his ambitious intention of reserving lands in Mindanao for the settlement of 2,000 Jewish refugee families in 1939 and then 5,000 families yearly until 30,000 families would have arrived,” Jocelyn Martin, a faculty member of Ateneo de Manila University, wrote in her paper, “Manilaner Memories: Bridging World War II Memories of East and West.”
The paper, which is accessible online, was read at the Transnational Holocaust Memory conference in England’s University of Leeds on Jan. 27.
US gov’t opposition
Quezon’s plans, however, met “stark opposition from the US state department which described the Jews as ‘another troublesome group’ whose entry they might have to fund should the settlement fail,” Martin said.
Delmendo gave a similar account, saying, “There could have been many more [Manilaners] had it not been for the deliberate obstruction by the US state department.”
“There are various [theories about the ‘open-door’ policy] that people have suggested to me,” she said, adding that some doubted Quezon’s noble agenda. One of them asserts that Quezon “wanted to sow Mindanao with Jews to dilute the Moro influence,” she said.
But the President was dealing with a much bigger crisis, she said, because of war and Japanese adventurism.
Five years after the United States acquired the Philippines at the start of the 20th century, then US President Theodore Roosevelt realized that their new colony was the United States’ “heel of Achilles” when he concluded in 1907 that the Philippines “would get the US into a war with Japan,” Delmendo said.
The Philippines stood in the way of Japan’s ambitions over the former Dutch East Indies, “[so] for over 30 years the US Army, the US Navy and their civilian side argued over whether to retain the Philippines as an American territory,” she said. Quezon knew this, she added.
“In that context, we have to consider Quezon’s action of taking a problem that was not his own… . The Jewish refugees were an extraneous problem,” Delmendo said.
Forced to drop his Mindanao plans, Quezon donated 3 hectares of his Marikina land for a kibbutz (Jewish community) where the Manilaners settled.
They survived the Pacific war and left once more to reside in Israel or the United States. Some made the Philippines their permanent home, only to be driven away during the martial rule of President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s.
Surviving Manilaners retain their “enduring respect and enduring affection for the Philippines and for Filipinos—a sense of ‘utang na loob’ that they carry and that is part of the story I want to get out to anyone that I can,” Delmendo said.
Lotte Cassel, who took refuge here as a young girl and who still cherishes her “bakya” (wooden sandals), idolized Quezon, who gave her a home, Delmendo said.
In his dedication to the kibbutz in 1940, Quezon wrote: “It is my hope and, indeed, my expectation that 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 hand of welcome.”
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