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Memories of Refuge in Manila

Positively Filipino

Margot Cassel first came to the Philippines as a seven-year-old child fleeing from the Holocaust in Europe. Her family was granted asylum under Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon’s “Open Door” policy. Many of the Jewish refugees fled with very little, but Margot remembers having a nanny in Germany who raised her for two years while her mother was in Switzerland receiving medical treatment for tuberculosis. To support his family in their new home, Margot’s father borrowed money to start a business and traveled with his Filipino driver, Jose Dalisay, all over the Philippines, buying and selling goods. Danny Pins, Margot’s son, recounts how he found records showing his grandfather’s loan, which was repaid in full by the enterprising Mr. Cassel who went on to co-own and manage Berg’s Department Store, the premier shopping emporium on Escolta.

Before World War II, President Quezon was able to get the U.S. government to approve 10,000 visas to be granted to Jewish refugees facing persecution in Europe. Sadly, only 1,300 of them had time to use this hard-won privilege, which required considerable lobbying in Washington, D.C. by Paul V. McNutt, the High Commissioner for the Philippines.  Commissioner McNutt faced racial biases in championing Quezon’s Jewish initiative. Some say it caused McNutt the presidency against the popular Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the politics are a sidebar to Margot’s personal stories, which have become part of their family’s cherished memories and offer a window into a time in Philippine history that has only been recently explored.

Manila before the war was called the “Pearl of the Orient,” and Margot recalls her family first living in a boarding house set-up by a Jewish lady from Shanghai, then in a house on Lourdes Street off Harrison Avenue. Several identical houses in Pasay were built by a Filipino-Chinese developer in what had been swampland. These houses were quickly snapped up by other families who formed an immigrant enclave with a café and other small businesses. Margot remembers their families walking to Dewey Boulevard to watch the sunset and playing by the water with her cousin Lotte.  Her visits back to the Philippines in 2015 and 2020 included attempts to locate the houses of her childhood, but the war and decades of urbanization did little to preserve the Pasay of her youth.

Mrs. Margot Pins Kestenbaum standing in front of the PWU historical plaque at its Taft Avenue campus, which she attended as a child.

During her first visit back in February 2015, Margot addressed the students of the Philippine Women’s University and recounted the happy memories she had as an elementary student there when she first came to Manila.  Speaking nothing but German when she arrived, her parents put her first in a Catholic convent school run by German nuns. Happily, she quickly transferred to PWU which was founded in 1919 as a non-sectarian, non-denominational institution. Surrounded by welcoming students and teachers who inspired confidence, Margot says her early education helped shape her character and made her the strong, independent woman she turned out to be.

This brief idyll was shattered three years later in 1941 when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. Margot’s home was commandeered by the Japanese and turned into military barracks. “The houses were all the same sizes, which made them ideal for the military,” she recounted.  Margot remembers that PWU also had to move out of its Taft Avenue campus, but classes continued in a nearby house in the Malate area before they were called back by the indomitable Mrs. Francisca Tirona Benitez, PWU’s president, to return to the campus.  Lessons were supposed to be conducted in line with the Japanese Imperial Army’s policies, but Margot remembers her brave PWU teachers finding ways to circumvent this by imparting distinctly anti-Japanese messages in their curriculum. She and her classmates shared food and increasingly meager supplies as the war continued. Margot’s mother, in anticipation of the coming hard times, had set aside leather shoes in larger and larger sizes. But because her classmates had nothing but wooden clogs to wear during the war, Margot insisted on coming to school in these bakya just as her PWU classmates did.  Stories of Lapu-Lapu and Filipino heroes who repelled foreign invaders were told by her PWU teachers, whom Margot remembers as among the bravest women she ever met.

When asked how her family survived during the war, Margot recounted how early on, her father was taken by the Japanese to Fort Santiago, charged with overpricing goods. Terrified because of Fort Santiago’s reputation as a place of torture, Margot’s mother racked her brains about how to save her husband.  Here the family stories differ about how Mr. Cassel survived. His version was that he sat down with his interrogators and worked out the mathematical errors in their computations proving that he had not been overpricing goods. He said he had already convinced his captors when they heard a woman’s voice outside loudly demanding his freedom. Mrs. Cassel had dug up his old war medals, given when he was wounded as a German soldier in World War I.  She stormed Fort Santiago with the medals insisting that her husband be set free because Germany and Japan were allies. Happily, for both of them, the Japanese released him and he went back to his family with plans he had drawn up during his incarceration containing his vision of how the department store should be set up, which he managed to do after the war.

Liberation brought changes in the young Margot’s life including meeting her future husband during Jewish services held in the Unitarian church since the Jewish Synagogue had been destroyed.  He was a G.I. and inspired her dreams of coming to America.  A recurrence of her mother’s tuberculosis prompted the 16-year-old Margot’s first trip to the United States with her mother to seek medical treatment.  Margot remembers flying on Philippine Airlines to Hawaii and being detained as a stateless citizen by American Immigration authorities.  After proving that they were authorized to travel to the U.S., Margot and her mother made their way to Los Angeles where they were met by an ambulance that took Mrs. Cassel directly to the hospital.  Margot found a pension to live nearby but soon realized it was in a red-light district.  She looked in the telephone directory and called every rabbi she could find listed. They were all away on vacation.  Undeterred, Margot found a jewelry store displaying a Star of David. She went in and explained her plight and the owners found a Jewish family with whom she boarded during her mother’s confinement.  By law, Margot had to attend school in the area she lived in, which was not close to the hospital. So, she went to the local Board of Education to argue the need to be near her mother. Her persistence paid off and she received permission to attend a public high school near the hospital.  Later, Margot attended Barnard College in New York and trained to be a teacher.  She married her G.I. sweetheart and together they started a family and moved to the newly created Jewish nation in Israel where she led a successful career as an educator.

Mrs. Margot Pins Kestenbaum with Lyca Brown, whose grandmother Francisca Tirona Benitez was president of PWU when Margot came to study there as a child

During her 2020 visit to Manila, Margot Cassel Pins Kestenbaum brought along her three children, Danny, Judy and Michelle, and her grandson Adam because she wanted them to know more about the Philippines and her life here. Together, they came to visit PWU and as she wandered around the historic Taft Avenue campus, it brought back happy memories that she shared through stories of the teachers she still remembered and the lessons she carried throughout her lifetime.  She said, “I love the Philippines and its people, who are some of the most resilient people in the world.” Her son Danny, who first came to the Philippines in 2014, was with the Israeli delegation who were among the first to volunteer help after Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda).  He said he was amazed that Filipinos, whose homes and lives were destroyed, could still smile amidst the chaos surrounding them.  Perhaps this was a lesson that he imbibed from his mother, Margot, which she, in turn, learned from her time in the Philippines, memories of which still brought a smile to her face even after eight decades.

Lydia Benitez Brown is Media Director at Philippine Women’s University. lbbrown@pwu.edu.ph

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