Rescue in the Philippines

As with many countries across the world, the United States’ quota system of immigration severely limited escape routes for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism in the 1930s. Incredibly, it was the Philippines, a U.S. Commonwealth, that became a minor port of rescue in Asia for 1,200 refugees. In this blog posting I briefly explore the history of Jewish rescue in Manila and the networks of aid across the port cities of Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In collaboration with Philippine President Quezon and the U.S. High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt, the Frieder brothers, leaders of the Manila Jewish community, established an official refugee immigration programme that rescued 1,200 Jews from 1937 to 1941. It was a plan based on professions needed in the Philippines including doctors, engineers, mechanics and agricultural experts, amongst others. The trio went further and attempted to rescue tens of thousands of persecuted Jews by opening a major Jewish agricultural settlement on the island of Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines. Although other international agricultural settlement schemes had been proposed (such as British Guiana), the Mindanao Plan was the only such scheme to be seriously considered in Asia. The plan was initially mooted in the months following the failed Evian Conference of July 1938, organized to find a haven for European Jews escaping Nazi persecution, but ultimately failed due to local opposition, problems of land acquisition and funding, and the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines.

Originally from Cincinnati, the Frieder brothers owned the Helena Tobacco Factory in Manila which produced cigars for the U.S. market. They met with the Kadoorie brothers and other Jewish representatives in Hong Kong immediately before Kristallnacht (a violent pogrom in Nazi Germany) in 1938 to offer solutions to the growing refugee crisis most notably in Shanghai, where hundreds of refugees had already arrived. As reported in the meeting minutes, the Frieders were keen to forge links and co-operate fully ‘with the communities of Hong Kong and Shanghai in order to better the situation of these refugees’. Although the Frieders were American and the Kadoories were British, the diverse port communities of Hong Kong, Manila and Shanghai worked closely together, sharing knowledge and resources across the region in their attempts to elicit support and employment for refugees. During my trip to the States I was delighted to meet and interview Alice Frieder Weston, daughter of Alex Frieder, who kindly shared her memories of family trips to Hong Kong and visits to refugee centres in Shanghai with the Kadoorie brothers in 1940, demonstrating the interconnectivity of Port Jews.

For more information as well as oral histories, photographs and records on rescue in the Philippines, please visit the website of the 2013 documentary film: rescueinthephilippines.com (a must watch!).

For further reading, I also recommend:

  1. Ephraim, Frank, Escape from Manila, From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror
  2. Kotlowski, Dean J., Breaching the Paper Walls: Paul V. McNutt and Jewish Refugees to the Philippines, 1938 – 1939

 

 

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Professor William (Wilhelm) Deman

Horace Kadoorie with Miss Smith and William DemanWhilst working through the World Jewish Congress (WJC) records at the American Jewish Archives, I became intrigued by letters written by Professor William (Wilhelm) Deman. Although Professor Deman did not transit through Hong Kong, his plight tells us much about the Kafkaesque difficulties faced by refugees in the immediate post-Holocaust and post-war world – when immigration barriers and quota restrictions remained firmly in place – as well as refugee decisions to leave Shanghai, contentions surrounding repatriation vs. resettlement, and finally, the schisms within the refugee community itself. I’m also interested in Professor Deman as a refugee humanitarian actor. He ran the Gregg School of Business in Shanghai, a valuable training centre for refugees, as well as the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association club, founded by Horace Kadoorie. From 1947 to 1949, Professor Deman was also the Secretary of the Association of Small Quota Committees, formed to agitate for the rights of so-called ‘small quota’ individuals from Austria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Turkey to enter the U.S.

First, a little background on the bureaucratic impasse faced by those from ‘small quota’ countries in Shanghai. President Truman’s directives on immigration in December 1945 gave two-thirds of quotas for all countries for one year to Germany under blanket corporate affidavits. This measure was good news for German Jews in Shanghai hoping to enter the U.S. Adversely, it also split families, for example a German-born woman married to an Austrian or Polish man could not emigrate to America as a couple. To illustrate the difficulties faced by ‘small quota’ individuals, the total number of quotas allotted to Shanghai for Poles, Czechs, Romanians and Hungarians for the year 1947 to 1948 amounted to only 220. As Marcia Ristaino has written, the Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 was a further blow for Shanghai’s refugees. It centred on clearing Austria, Germany and Italy of DPs, and consequently, Shanghai was forgotten.

Professor Deman wrote regularly to Kurt Grossman, the WJC representative in New York, on the issue of small quota emigration. His letters become increasingly desperate as the economic and political climate in China disintegrates, anti-foreign sentiment takes hold, and the Communists approach Shanghai. Deman’s letters also articulate the desires of some 1,314 refugees to emigrate to the States. They speak of a universal yearning to be reunited with surviving family members and describe how professional, middle aged refugees had learned English in Shanghai, meaning that both their familial and professional lives were tied to the United States. The letters also give a very raw insight into the psychological impact of waiting and of the ruin of lives lived with uncertainty.

The Association of Small Quota Committees emerges as a highly organised and resourceful organisation, demonstrating that refugees were not passive victims of circumstance but highly engaged with the changing tides of international politics and immigration legislation. Committee members write pleading letters to the head of the U.S. Visa Section, the State Department, and even President Truman. They are vocal and imaginative in devising strategies to enter the U.S. – opting for temporary evacuation to Japan, Hawaii or Cuba – and often reject suggestions from the WJC, including evacuation to Samar Island on the Philippines.The organisation also acts as a conduit of information for the WJC, who have no representatives on the ground in China (their China Section is made up of refugees), and the data they provide is used as the basis  for WJC bulletins.

At the beginning of 1949, as the British, French and American governments evacuate their civilians from China, the situation becomes increasingly desperate and this sparks a schism within the refugee committee, a rebellion led by Professor Deman. He becomes disillusioned with futile hopes of resettlement and opts for repatriation. In February 1949, he sets sails on the S.S. Meigs to San Francisco, where he takes a sealed train to New York. Refugees are allowed to meet with friends and family for one hour on Ellis Island before taking a second ship to Italy where they continue their journeys.

Kurt Grossman writes an account of his 60-minute meeting with Professor Deman at Ellis Island. In many ways his eloquent prose captures the desperate plight of refugees across the globe:

‘May I say a word about the procedure which the United States authorities have applied in handling these transports. The Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco and then are taken under rigid supervision through the United States without allowing anybody to leave either the transport or Ellis Island. The relatives, among them brothers, sisters, and children, are permitted to see their kin for not quite one hour. The psychological effect must be a devastating one. The most depressing scenes take place. From Ellis Island the people can see the Statue of Liberty but the solemn words engraved therein remain just words and the promise they convey remains unfulfilled. Technically and according to regulations everything is in order, but from a human point of view, the treatment of the Jewish refugees coming from Shanghai is cruel. It is obvious that people who have not seen each other for ten years find 40 to 50 minutes inadequate. Departing from Ellis Island, after being with those refugees for one hour, leaves you with a lump in your throat.’