The little-known story of Manila’s Jews
Max Weissler, 76, relaxes on the veranda of his comfortable apartment in Hod Hasharon and gazes at the serene, tree-shaded suburban vista that stretches beyond his balcony. His thoughts, however, are not focused on the verdant, sunlit landscape of the Sharon but on the Philippines, World War II, and the horrific destruction of Manila by fire and artillery shells in February 1945.
His knowledge of the subject is intimate and personal, drawn not from history books but seen through the eyes of a then-teenage Jewish refugee from Germany – one of perhaps 1,000 Jews that had fled Europe and escaped the Holocaust by being admitted to the Philippines and welcomed by its government and people.
Born in a small village near the town of Oppeln in Upper Silesia – now part of Poland but then in eastern Germany – Weissler was eight years old when a local policeman warned his father of his impending arrest, a few days after Kristallnacht in November 1938. The family, who had been the village’s only Jews, fled to Denmark but were not allowed to stay.
Weissler recalls, “The Danes soon realized that we weren’t there as tourists. They gave us the choice of returning to Germany on our own or being put on a train headed back there. My father said he’d be arrested if we went back, so we were given a little time to find another country to go to.”
Weissler’s father went to the US Embassy in Copenhagen, received one entry visa to the United States and went ahead to the Philippines, then a US possession and outpost in the Far East. Weissler and his mother returned to Germany, to wait for arrangements to join him.
While many people remain unaware that some Jews were fortunate enough to find a haven from the Holocaust in the Philippines, others are often surprised to discover that these Jewish refugees were able to join a small but thriving Jewish community that was already there.
Prosperous and well established, the community could date its beginnings to the final decades of the Spanish colonial period, when Leopold Kahn and three friends known to history simply as “the Levy brothers” arrived in Manila in 1870 from Alsace and established a jewelry store called La Estrella del Norte. Other Jews – mostly from Turkey, Egypt and Syria – followed in the next three decades and set up small import businesses.
It was the Spanish-American War of 1898, however, that brought Jews to the Philippines in significant numbers, as an emergent young United States came to wrest the archipelago – then known as the Pearl of the Orient Seas – from Spain. Jews were well represented in the US army, and some decided to stay on in the country when their service was over. The war also brought other Jews of a more entrepreneurial bent, who descended on Manila to provide the American soldiers with goods and services ranging from the sale of uniforms and medals to constructing a bicycle race track and Manila’s first opera house.
Many more Jews arrived after the American victory, establishing Manila’s first department stores, importing the first automobile to the Philippines and establishing Manila’s first car dealership and radio station, among other contributions.
The community grew with the arrival of more Americans, as well as Russian Jews fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. An ornate Moorish style synagogue and community center were built along William Howard Taft Avenue in 1924, and a Jewish cemetery was consecrated a year later. Manila’s Jewish community grew and prospered, along with the Philippines, under a succession of benevolent, if somewhat patronizing, American governors running what they regarded as a pleasant, sleepy, backwater US colony in tropical Southeast Asia.
In the mid-1930s, however, new circumstances were to have major repercussions in the lives of Max Weissler and more than 1,000 Jews from Europe.
In 1935, the Philippines’s status was officially changed from colony to commonwealth, with a locally elected president and representatives. The US transferred various powers to the new commonwealth government, including the right to set its own immigration policies. Thus, amidst the rise of Nazism and the escalating persecution of Europe’s Jews, Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon announced that any Jew fleeing to the Philippines would be permitted to stay.
Ironically, while an allegedly anti-Semitic State Department was barring Jews from entering the US, its erstwhile Philippine colony was admitting them by the hundreds. President Quezon went so far as to propose that part of the southern island of Mindanao be made a haven for Europe’s endangered Jews.
Weissler recalls, “My father got to the Philippines and made arrangements to bring my mother and me over as well.”
The two finally left Germany in December 1940, heading east in an unheated Russian plane to Moscow (“It was cold and I was in short pants,” he recalls), then a Russian train across Europe and Asia to the Manchurian border, and then a Japanese train to Harbin, on which armed Japanese soldiers made all passengers close the curtains and not look out the windows during the entire trip.
“I suppose they were building secret military installations in Manchuria,” Weissler says.
He and his mother spent several days in Harbin, cared for by the city’s flourishing Jewish community before embarking on a plane to Kobe, Japan, where they spent several days with the wealthy Jewish community there. A tortuous series of boat trips on Japanese freighters followed, until they finally reached Manila and joined Weissler’s father in February 1941.
But there was a problem of affidavits. President Quezon was willing and eager to take in thousands of Jews. He even had places set aside for Jewish refugees to settle. There was, however, a policy that only refugees with an affidavit from the established Jewish community showing that they had useful professions, some funds and the ability to support themselves were allowed to enter. This, says, Weissler, kept a lot of people out.
He insists that the requirement for these affidavits originated neither from the Philippine Commonwealth government nor from the US State Department but from the Jewish community itself.
“The community didn’t want to be responsible for people without professions or means of support. My father had no profession and thus no affidavit, but we came anyway and got in without the Jewish community’s approval,” he says.
Weissler remains bitter as he remembers both his family’s struggle and that of others unable to enter.
“I think these are points that must be be brought up. I want to tell you that our own people can be the worst. I am a Jew and proud of it, but we have too often dug our own graves.”
Once settled, the family’s life gradually fell into a relatively comfortable groove. They lived in the stately, tree-shaded Malate district of Manila, not far from the synagogue. His parents started a small but successful bakery business selling cakes and pies from home. Max, at 11 years old, attended a private school and delivered his mother’s pies by bicycle. Along with other Jewish refugees who continued to arrive, the Weisslers had reason to feel safe and secure in their new home.
Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed the US naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombers appeared in Philippine skies on December 8, destroying the US air fleet at Clark Field and running bombing raids on Manila. As the Japanese naval fleet drew closer, general Douglas MacArthur declared Manila an open city and began withdrawing American forces on December 26. President Quezon and the rest of the Commonwealth government were evacuated to Washington, becoming a government-in-exile.
On January 2, 1942, the Japanese marched unopposed into Manila. A short time later, young Weissler witnessed the public humiliation of US troops as the defenders of Corregidor were herded by the conquering Japanese through the streets of Manila to join the Death March of the remaining soldiers from Bataan.
“I saw the Japanese marching the American GIs down Dewey Boulevard, screaming at them and prodding them with their bayonets. If an American collapsed, he was bayonetted to death right where he fell,” he says.
The Japanese took control of the Philippines and began what was to be a three-year occupation and rule of the country under a puppet native government. Jewish immigration to the Philippines stopped, and Japan’s German allies demanded that the Japanese regime take immediate measures against Manila’s Jews.
Utterly mystified by German anti-Semitism, the Japanese made no distinction between Jews and other foreigners. Foreigners from “enemy” countries like the US, the UK and Australia were taken to the University of Santo Tomas and housed in makeshift prison barracks for the duration of the war. Foreigners – including Jews – holding German and Austrian passports, however, remained in their homes undisturbed.
Thus for German and Austrian Jews and those from countries allied with the Nazis, life continued more or less as before. The synagogue continued to function, with a rabbi and a cantor (both refugees from Germany) performing their duties on a full-time basis.
Weissler, who celebrated his bar-mitzva in the synagogue in 1943, says, “The Japanese did not molest us. They actually treated us well. For example, a lot of things were scarce. It was wartime. We couldn’t get wheat flour, so my parents had to make their cakes with cassava flour and camote flour. But the Japanese saw to it that the community had wheat flour on Pessah to bake matza. They even used to bring the American and English Jews by bus from their barracks at Santo Tomas to the synagogue to celebrate holidays with the rest of the Jewish community.”
With many of the pre-war schools closed, Weissler’s father enrolled Max at a Catholic school called St. Paul’s College, where the teachers were nuns. Soon, however, the nuns were replaced by Japanese army officers, “so we learned more Japanese than anything else. For us kids, to learn Japanese and be instructed by an officer with a samurai sword was a big deal. We even learned Japanese army songs,” Weissler laughs.
The Weisslers moved to a street closer to Manila Bay, where the parents opened a bake shop and Max sold cakes and pies along Dewey Boulevard. The family got by as the war dragged on.
In January 1945, US planes began returning to Philippine skies, dropping leaflets and packages of American cigarettes, signaling their steady advance toward the islands. American forces appeared at the northern outskirts of Manila on the evening of February 3. On February 4, American tanks came crashing through the walls surrounding the University of Santo Tomas, freeing the foreign internees. The battle for Manila had begun.
At his war crimes trial in 1945, general Tomoyuki Yamashita, nicknamed “The Tiger of Malaya” and commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, testified that he had tried to declare Manila an open city as the Americans had done three years before. He withdrew his forces and abandoned Manila. The city was immediately reoccupied, however, by some 30,000 Japanese sailors and marines under the command of a Japanese navy admiral whose orders were to defend the capital to the last man. Their resistance was ferocious. Japanese and American forces fought house to house. At Rizal Stadium, where the New York Yankees had played exhibition games before the war, fighting between Japanese and American soldiers went literally from row to row.
Not far away, the Weissler family sat huddled in their apartment, with all the jalousie windows closed tight.
“A truckful of Japanese soldiers got stuck on our street and couldn’t get through. I reached up and opened the window just a little, and the Japanese fired their guns into our apartment,” says Weissler.
As the Americans advanced, the retreating Japanese sailors and marines embarked on a massacre of the civilian population and a frenzy of destruction, tossing hand grenades into houses, herding civilians into hospitals and hotels which they then set alight, blowing up buildings and setting fire to everything in the path of their retreat. This, combined with American artillery shelling, reduced the once beautiful city to rubble. Little remained, Weissler relates, except sections of concrete walls.
When the fighting stopped on March 3, more than 100,000 Filipino civilians had been killed, and Manila had become the second most heavily destroyed city of WW II, after Warsaw. The synagogue was in ruins, many members of the Jewish community were dead, and the Weisslers found themselves living in a burnt-out concrete garage, along with some of their Filipino neighbors.
Amid the almost total destruction of the Weisslers’ neighborhood, the victorious US army set up a local command post. Max, then 15 years old, supported the family by collecting leftover food from some of the officers and GIs, while Max’s mother made a bit of money by laundering the soldiers’ clothes. The family built a small shack near the site of their former home out of scrap wood and galvanized metal.
Conversant in Japanese, Weissler also began to work for the army as an interpreter, assisting in the interrogation of Japanese POWs – a step that changed his life.
“The relationship between my parents by now was not good. The army asked if I wanted to move with them to Clark Field, away from Manila. They were rounding up Japanese prisoners all over the islands and needed interpreters, so I went away with them. Then they moved farther north to round up more Japanese stragglers who didn’t know the war was over, and I went with them again.”
Through friendships and contacts made at that time, Weissler soon landed a job with the US military in Okinawa, working with an otherwise all-Filipino crew on tugboats, barges and assisting in day-to-day shore operations.
“I was considered a Filipino civilian. I got paid $40 a month. I sent two-thirds of that back home to my parents in Manila.”
Weissler’s parents, meanwhile, had reopened their bakeshop on the same site. The shop survived the death of Weissler’s mother in 1950 and closed with his father’s death in 1954.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, Weissler – at that point an American GI -was sent to the US for eight weeks of training, followed by two years of work with the United States Army in Pusan (Korea) and Yokohama (Japan).
Following his discharge in Yokohama, Weissler pondered his options: return to Manila, move to the US or stay in Japan, where he was employed as a port manager with the US navy.
“Around that time, I had made contact with a girl in Israel,” he recalls, glancing at Esther, his wife of more than 50 years. “She was a nurse in Beersheba. I invited her to come to Japan. Within a year we were married.”
After a four-year sojourn in the States, where Max went to college and Esther worked as a nurse, the couple settled in Israel in 1961.
Recently retired after years of work with the Israel Ports Authority and private port contracting, Weissler – now a grandfather of six – reflects often on his life and good fortune. He wants Israelis and Jews throughout the world to know that he and more than 1,000 others like him owe their lives to a small Far Eastern country that was eager to take in Jewish refugees from the Holocaust when almost every other country in the world was turning them away.
As Philippines Ambassador to Israel Antonio Modena said recently, “Our only regret is that we couldn’t save more.”