History of the Jews in the Philippines

Jews in the Philippines during the Spanish Era:

The history of the Jewish Community in Manila goes back to the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century, when many Jews of Spain, who were forcibly converted to Christianity, observed their Jewish life in secret and found themselves tried, convicted, and expelled for heretical behavior. Known as Marranos or "New Christians," these Crypto-Jews accompanied Spanish adventurers who settled in many Far Eastern ports, Manila included. The "New Christian" brothers, Jorge and Domingo Rodriguez, arrived in the Spanish Philippines in the 1590s. By 1593 both were tried and convicted at an auto-da-fe in Mexico City because the Inquisition did not have an independent tribunal in the Philippines. Spanish Christianized laws would not have permitted the presence of an organized Jewish community.

The first permanent settlement of Jews in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial years began with the arrival of three Levy brothers from Alsace-Lorraine, who were escaping the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. As entrepreneurs, their business ventures over the years included jewelry retail, a general merchandising business, and import trade in gems, pharmaceuticals, and eventually automobiles. The opening of the Suez Canal in March 1869 provided a more direct trading route between Europe and The Philippines, allowing businesses to grow and the number of Jews in The Philippines to increase. The Levy brothers were subsequently joined by Turkish, Syrian, and Egyptian Jews, creating a multi-ethnic Jewish population of about fifty individuals by the end of the Spanish period.

Jews in the Philippines during the American Period:

m_1When the Philippines became an American concern, American Jewish citizens took advantage of this new frontier. The arrival of American military forces to the Philippines brought Jewish servicemen who decided toemain in the islands after their military discharge and become permanent residents. Jewish teachers from the United States also arrived with a contingent of "Thomasites," a delegation of volunteer teachers, who gave public instruction to Filipino children. In addition to education, new markets for import-export businesses attracted young Jewish businessmen, who set up new shops in the Philippines or extended businesses from the U.S. mainland.

Two important names appear in the Jewish community at the turn of the century: Emil Bachrach and Morton I. Netzorg. Emil Bachrach arrived in Manila in 1901 and soon built a sizable commercial empire. Because he is regarded as the first American Jew who permanently settled in the Philippines, the synagogue and cultural hall, which the Bachrach family financed in subsequent decades, bore his name: Temple Emil and Bachrach Hall. Bachrach's economic successes allowed him to be a generous philanthropist, who supported both Jewish and Christian causes. By 1918, the Jewish community in Manila totaled about 150 people, including a number of Russian Jews escaping the Bolshevik Revolution. Manila Jewry included the founder of the Makati Stock Exchange, the conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and other professionals such as physicians and architects. The Frieder brothers, an instrumental family in saving German-Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, arrived in 1921 and expanded their family's state-side cigar business into a lucrative venture in Manila.

By 1936, the Jewish community in the Philippines had a distinctly cosmopolitan makeup with a total population of about 500 persons. The threat to European Jewry by the Nazi government in the 1930s sparked a renewed Jewish consciousness. The small, decentralized and secularly-minded Jewish Community of Manila took heroic steps to save its fellow Jews from sure destruction, only becoming really Jewish-conscious in a deep way when the Nazi threat came out of Europe, and there were thousands of Jews in desperate need of help.

The Philippines Saved the Jews During the Holocaust:

m_2It was during the era of the Philippine Commonwealth, 1935-1946, that Jewish refugees from Europe sought a safe haven in Manila. The migration of Jews escaping Europe between 1935 and 1941 was the last major immigration of Jews to the Philippines.

In 1939, the Philippine Commonwealth Government, as a matter of policy, opened its doors and welcomed Jewish refugees escaping Nazi tyranny in Europe. Ten thousand visas earmarked for travel to the Philippines Islands were made available to thousands of Jews. President Manuel L. Quezon fully understood the crisis that the Jews were facing at that time. And to reinforce this open door policy, President Quezon built a housing community for Jewish refugees in Marikina in 1939 and allotted a farm and large settlement area in Mindanao for Jewish refugees before the outbreak of World War II.

The Filipinos expressed their indignation to the persecution of the Jews. On 17 November 1938, hundreds of Filipinos held a rally in Manila to express their moral outrage and to denounce the Kristallnacht.

These episodes in the journey of Jews to the Philippines to escape the Holocaust were documented and thoroughly discussed in the book entitled "Escape to Manila" by Mr. Frank Ephraim, one of the Jewish refugees and a witness to humanitarian efforts of President Quezon. "Escape to Manila" will preserve for all generations the memories and experiences of the European Jews who sought refuge in the Philippines and in the warm hospitality of the Filipinos during this difficult period in the Jewish history.

m_3These episodes in the journey of Jews to the Philippines to escape the Holocaust were documented and thoroughly discussed in the book entitled "Escape to Manila" by Mr. Frank Ephraim, one of the Jewish refugees and a witness to humanitarian efforts of President Quezon. "Escape to Manila" will preserve for all generations the memories and experiences of the European Jews who sought refuge in the Philippines and in the warm hospitality of the Filipinos during this difficult period in the Jewish history.

Mr. Ephraim's book gave the inspiration and vision to H.E. Ambassador Antonio Modena, who launched a campaign in 2005 for the recognition of the Philippines' humanitarian support for the Jews. Mayor Meir Nitzan of Rishon LeZion, the fourth largest city in Israel, was very receptive to this campaign and, together with the Municipal Council, approved the construction of a Philippine monument at the Rishon LeZion Holocaust Memorial Park to commemorate the generosity of the Filipino people in 1939, when Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon established an Open Door Policy for Jews escaping the Holocaust in Europe.

An Organizing Committee was formed to initiate activities to raise funds for the construction of the monument. In 2007 the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) conducted a national competition for the monument design. A panel of judges chose "Open Doors" by Mr. Jun Yee for the top prize from a field of eight entries coming from top sculptors and architects.

The Committee brought to Rishon LeZion in December 2007 the marble tiles and steel components of "Open Doors" loaded in a 40-footer van and a 20-footer van. The shipment of the monument parts was undertaken with the generous donation/support of the Jewish Association of the Philippines, the Philippine-Israel business Association, the "Manilaners" (Jews who resided in the Philippines in the 1930s and 1940s), the Asian Ladies Association-Israel Chapter, the Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel and other associations and individuals who contributed to the effort to remember for all generations this Philippine episode in the history of the Jews.

In 2009, the Open Doors Monument was finally completed under the guidance and coordination of the Philippine Embassy led by H.E. Ambassador Petronila P. Garcia. On 21 June 2009, the Open Doors monument was unveiled by Hon. Joseph H. Durano, Secretary of Tourism, Hon. Michael Eitan, Member of the Knesset and Minister of Improvement of Government Services, and Hon. Dov Zur, Mayor of Rishon Lezion.

* Pictures:

1. Temple Emil, Taft Avenue, Manila: first Jewish Synagogue in the Philippines

2. Mrs. Ephraim's (Frank's mother) German passport with the large "J" in the upper left is the Nazi designation for Jude. The visa on the right page was altered by the U/S/ consul in Berlin by crossing  out "United States" and writing in "Philippine Islands".

3. President Manuel L. Quezon (center) is welcomed by Alex Frieder (right) and Herbert Frieder (partially visible) upon his arrival for the dedication of Marikina Hall donated by Quezon for the Jewish refugees in April 1941, Marikina,Pphilippines