Israel premier of new film on Philippine sanctuary for Jewish refugees kick-starts celebration of 60th PH-Israel diplomatic relations anniversary

      
 

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Filmmaker Noel Izon (left) with Philippine Ambassador Neal Imperial during the reception before the film screening

 

The Philippine Embassy in Israel, in partnership with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Asia Pacific Institute and in collaboration with multi-awarded filmmaker Mr. Noel Izon, premiers the documentary film "An Open Door: Holocaust Haven in the Philippines" at the Cinematheque Tel Aviv on 25 January 2017.

 

The film documents the inspiring story of how the Philippines, under the leadership of Philippine President Manuel Quezon, provided sanctuary to about 1,300 fleeing European Jews, saving them from the Holocaust. Quezon worked with Jewish networks in Manila in the late 1930s until 1941, providing Jewish refugees with visa and a temporary home in the Far East.

 

About 120 guests, including descendants of the 1,300 European Jews who were able to find refuge in the Philippines, attended the screening. Two surviving "Manilaners" who lived in Manila as beneficiaries of Quezon's policy - Mr. Max Weissler and Ms. Margot Pins Kestenbaum -- were also present together with their families. According to Mr. Izon, the descendants of the 1,300 Manilaners number over 8,000 today.

 

In his speech, the guest of honor, Ambassador Mark Sofer, Deputy Director General for Asia and Pacific Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed out the two horrors of the Holocaust - the carnage and genocide of the Holocaust itself, as well as the silence of the international community and "the slamming of doors to those fleeing the butcheries of the Nazis." And yet, he added that "it was in 1937 that out of the darkness, a beacon of light was shed and it came from a country distant from Europe, whose only thought was that of humanity." President Manuel Quezon showed the world that kindness, courage and human spirit truly exist.

 

Mr. Noel Izon, who is Filipino-American, emphasized that "as long as there is intolerance ... injustice ... racism ... anti-Semitism ... we need to tell [this] story, because we need to show that there is a righteous way to behave". He added that there is a need to keep reminding people, especially now when intolerance has once again reared its ugly head, that "there is a way to maintain a human world".

 

This year marks two very important anniversaries for the acclaimed filmmaker, who shared his personal and relevant connection to the film. An Austrian physician named Otto Zelezny, who arrived in the Philippines in 1938, saved the life of Mr. Izon's father when the latter became deathly ill in 1945. The following year, Mr. Izon was born, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of his birth. Mr. Izon says, he "would not be here if not for the skills of this Holocaust hero doctor" who came to the Philippines because President Quezon opened the country's doors.

 

Another Jew who influenced Mr. Izon's life was Dr. Herbert Zipper, who had been to two concentration camps before he got a visa to the Philippines under President Quezon's open door policy. He became the conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and on a visit to Mr. Izon's school, Dr. Zipper brought the whole orchestra. Mr. Izon, who was in 5th grade at that time, was so fascinated that by the next year, he was playing in a band and which he still does to this day. Mr. Izon fondly said that one Jew (Otto Zelezny) gave him his life, and the other (Dr. Herbert Zipper) gave him his lifelong love for music. He said the film "An Open Door" was in a way a down payment for a debt he cannot ever repay - what is called in Filipino "utang na loob".

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Ambassador Mark Sofer, MFA Deputy Director General, addresses the audience during the brief program before the screening

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Filmmaker Noel Izon, Professor Sharon Delmendo and Professor Bonnie Harris listen to Ms. Margot pins Kestenbaum during the panel discussion

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Film screening guests

 

60th anniversary of PH-Israel diplomatic relations

 

The film showing was the kick-off event for the commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Israel in 2017. The screening also coincided with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January.

 

In a video message, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, Director of AJC Jerusalem, likewise spoke about the extent of dedication to the State of Israel and the brave act shown by President Quezon and the Filipino people. She mentioned that the Philippines was the first Asian country to recognize Israel's right to become an independent state.

 

Ambassador Sofer said that in the last 60 years since the establishment of PH-Israel diplomatic relations, there have been a steady growth of cooperation in various areas. He shared that Israel's efforts to continuously improve relations with the Philippines is always predicated on this humanitarian gesture of a great people who opened its doors to the Jews in the darkest of times, and who recognized the need and necessity for a Jewish state.

 

He noted that ten years after the Philippines welcomed European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, another "Manuel" - President Manuel Roxas - made the Philippines the only country in Asia that voted for UN Resolution 181 on the Partition Plan of Palestine, which paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. He believes it was not an accident as the name Manuel came from "Emmanuel" which in Hebrew means "God is with us". He added that PH showed that God indeed "is with you and us". He thanked the Philippines on behalf of the government and people of the State of Israel.

 

Philippine Ambassador to Israel Neal Imperial described Quezon's open door policy for Jewish refugees as a significant aspect of Philippines-Israel relations that transcends official ties. "Through this excellent historical documentary, we hope to celebrate and generate greater awareness of the enduring friendship between Filipinos and Jews, which even antedates the independence of both countries," Imperial said.

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Ambassador Neal Imperial (left) with Ambassador Mark Sofer, Deputy Director General for Asia and Pacific, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ms. Lee Singer-Snir, Southeast Asia Department, Asia and Pacific Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

 

Lecture on President Manuel Quezon's role

 

A lecture on the role of President Manuel Quezon in this historic narrative followed a day after the screening of "An Open Door".

 

On 26 January 2017, Professor Sharon Delmendo, co-producer of the film and historian/researcher on the Manilaners and President Quezon's role, delivered a lecture at the Philippine Embassy titled "When the Time of Need Came ... a Hand of Welcome: Manuel Quezon, he Challenges of the Commonwealth, and Jewish Refugees in the Philippines, 1937-1940".

 

Guests from the diplomatic corps, the academe, business community, media, and Filipino community as well as Embassy personnel attended the lecture, which was the second part of the kick-off event to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of PH-Israel diplomatic relations.

 

In her lecture, Professor Delmendo elaborated on the challenges faced by Quezon as President of the Philippine Commonwealth, which at that time was legally a US territory, in achieving the goal of helping as many Jews escape the Holocaust and find refuge in the Philippines. He even donated his private property in Marikina that served as a kibbutz for Jewish refugees.

 

In the end, just over 1,300 Jewish refugees were able to reach the Philippines, many of whom left the country after the war. Manilaners interviewed in the film spoke of fond memories of their stay in Manila, as well as the unbreakable bond with their "second home". Some of their descendants have in their own way, paid it forward by coming back to the Philippines to help, such as Danny Pins, the son of Ms. Margot Pins Kestenbaum, who led the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in its disaster relief program for victims of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.

 

Indeed, the Philippines and the Filipino people have, in the words of President Manuel Quezon, "every reason to be glad that when the time of need came" they extended "a hand of welcome" to a people fleeing persecution. END

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Professor Sharon Delmendo delivers a lecture at the Philippine Embassy

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“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 glad to extend to a persecuted people, a hand of welcome.” – Manuel Quezon, President of the Philippine Commonwealth, at the dedication of Marikina Hall, April 23, 1940 (Source: photo and quote lifted from Prof. Delmendo's lecture)