Remembering our humanitarian legacy with ‘Safe Haven: Jewish Refugees in the Philippines’
To pay tribute to the legacy of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, whose Open Door policy saved close to 1,300 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, twin events were organized by the Philippine Mission to the UN in New York and the Philippine Embassy in Israel.
The Philippines upholds a strong humanitarian tradition of providing succor for forcibly displaced individuals in need of protection. Long before the Philippines had formal immigration policies and became a State party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Filipinos have embodied the spirit of compassion, solidarity, and humanity. This nation was among the first to spontaneously offer asylum to successive waves of refugees fleeing persecution since the end of World War I.
On January 27th 2020, in observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, twin events were organized by the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in New York and the Philippine Embassy in Israel at the United Nations headquarters in New York and Balai Quezon in Tel-Aviv, respectively. “Safe Haven: Jewish Refugees in the Philippines” featured the viewing of “The Last Manila-ners”, “Quezon’s Game”, and “An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines”, as well as personal testimonies from Holocaust survivors who found refuge in the Philippines.
Philippine-American filmmaker, director and producer of “An Open Door: Jewish rescue in the Philippines” Mr. Noel “Sonny” Izon: “While all other nations were still debating on what to do with refugees, the Philippines already had an active rescue program publicizing the country's open door policy in Jewish newspapers around Europe. It offered the whole country as a sanctuary. There was no other program like it in the world." © DFA / New York PM
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr., in his keynote speech at the event at the United Nations in New York, said, “It is a great moral victory that recognizes every life saved as immeasurably valuable for containing the infinite possibilities of a single human life.” © DFA / New York PM
Holocaust survivor Ralph Preiss who fled to Philippines with his parents and lived there for a number of years: “I was able to escape Germany with (my) parents because of the Open Door policy practiced by Commonwealth of the Philippines President Manuel Quezon despite U.S. State Department and local political objections,” Preiss said. © DFA / New York PM
The panel and Mr. Max Weissler with Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan and Sri Lankan Ambassador Waruna Wilpatha, in front of Quezon in Spontanrealismus, a painting by Filipino artist Celeste Lecaroz. Members of the diplomatic corps in Israel, as well as members of B’nai B’rith International, turn out in support of the event. © DFA / Tel Aviv PE
In 1934, under the admittance of President Manuel L. Quezon and U.S. High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt, Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution were able to find sanctuary in the Philippines before Filipinos and Jews alike experienced the brunt of the Second World War. President Quezon pushed back against critics of his open-door immigration policy by issuing Proclamation No. 173 on August 21, 1937. He called on all Filipinos to welcome the refugees and instructed the government to assist them. This later became the basis of President Quezon’s issuance of Commonwealth Act 613, later the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr., in his keynote address delivered in New York, highlighted the importance of this legacy. He said, “In this time of rising anti-Semitism, this story of my country’s Open Doors Policy shows how plain decency can triumph over raging prejudice — which seems so irresistible when all we have to counter it is the soft quality of caring. It is a great moral victory that recognizes every life saved as immeasurably valuable for containing the infinite possibilities of a single human life.”
Among the personal testimonies heard during the event were those of Holocaust survivors Ralph Preiss and Max Weissler. They are “Manila-ners” – 1,300 European Jews who fled to Manila and have come to consider the Philippines their second home. “The Last Manila-ners,” one of the documentary films shown in the event, shows the personal accounts and stories of the last living Jewish refugees who sought refuge in Manila.
An Unwavering Commitment
The Philippines’ history of providing asylum and protection to the forcibly displaced goes beyond the Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. The succor extended to Spanish republicans fleeing the end of the Spanish Civil war, Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing the Vietnam War, and many others.
The Government of the Philippines continues to uphold this humanitarian tradition through its commitment to the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and its participation in the first Global Refugee Forum, held on 17-18 December in Palais Des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. During this high-level meeting among 3,000 attendees, the Philippines joined other states and stakeholders in pledging commitments of support for refugees and the communities they live in.
The statement of the Republic of the Philippines was read by Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) Legal Staff, Refugees and Stateless Persons Protection Unit Officer-in-Charge Chief State Counsel Ruben F. Fondevilla, and mentions the Philippines’ “unwavering commitment to attain a world that respects the rights of every individual with or without a country because we are all citizens of humanity”.