Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazi regime sought to eliminate the Jewish community.
Jews were murdered by death squads or transported to extermination camps. Six million of the eleven million European Jews perished.
In the late 1930s to the early 1940s, the Jews in Europe were desperate for escape, but every other country shut their doors to the Jews who were seeking refuge.
In 1936, when reports of the Jewish persecution reached President Manuel Quezon of the Philippines, he vowed to take them in.
The Philippines would have accepted more refugee Jews, if not for the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1941. President Quezon was able to provide visas to 10,000 German and Austrian Jews. Out of that number, some 1,300 made it to the Philippines.
One of them is Margot Cassel Pins Kestenbaum. When Margot Cassel was 7, her parents decided to leave Germany. It was 1938, five years since Adolf Hitler’s rise to power when the walls began closing in on the country’s Jews.
The Cassel family left Germany in early November 1938, missing the devastation of Kristallnacht by just a few days. They arrived in Manila in early December, shortly before Hanukkah.
During their first month in Manila, the family lived in a boarding house located a few blocks from the sea.
Margot says her parents’ confidence and resourcefulness made her feel safe. “Even at moments where you knew there was a good chance that you wouldn’t live” – for example, in the final months of the war, when Manila itself became a battleground – “I did not feel abandoned in any way, and I was not given to panic. I felt protected.”
After a brief period at a German-speaking Catholic school, which Margot and her cousin Lotte were asked to leave when it became clear they weren’t going to convert, the two girls were accepted to the Philippines Women’s University, a private school that went from kindergarten through university. It was, says Pins Kestenbaum, “established by well-off, well-educated women who felt strongly about education,” and she and Lotte attended the English-speaking school on full scholarships.
In 1946, Margot met a young GI named Arnulf “Arnie” Pins. When the rabbinical chaplain scheduled to lead services failed to show up, it was Pins – a German-born émigré whose family had moved to Palestine in 1936, before coming to the United States two years later – who stepped forward to conduct services and read the Torah.
When Pins discovered there was a vibrant Jewish community in Manila, with a large number of children and adolescents, he asked to be reassigned to Manila to serve as a chaplain’s assistant. He began leading a Jewish youth group – and fell in love with one of its members.
Five years after 19-year-old Arnie met the 15-year-old Margot in Manila, the two were married in New York. By then, she was a student at Barnard College and he had just received his master’s in social work at Columbia. Arnie’s dream, however, was to return to Israel, where he had lived briefly as a child – an ambition Margot came to share. (Credits: Excerpts from haaretz.com)
During Margot’s first visit back to Manila in February 2015, as a special guest of the PWU alumni, she recounted the happy memories as a student there when she first came to Manila.
Now close to 90, Margot visited the Philippines twice, first in 2015 as a special guest of the PWU alumni, and just weeks ago on a private trip.
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. (Credit: Excerpts from Ms. Lydia Francisca Benitez-Brown’s article Memories of Manila)
In recognition of Quezon’s moral courage and the consequent deep ties between Israel and the Philippines, Israel instituted an open-door policy with the country, permitting visa-free visitation by Filipino tourists.
In 2009, the Open Doors Monument was erected in the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion, Israel. It honored the role of the Philippine Commonwealth Government under President Manuel L. Quezon in officially offering a safe haven and issuing 10,000 visas to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime.
The monument—a geometric, seven-meter-high sculpture—was designed by Filipino artist Luis “Junyee” Yee Jr. The three open doors, in increasing heights, symbolize the courage and humanitarianism of the Filipino people in providing a haven to 1,200 Jews.
The base of the monument is made of a special slab of marble shipped to Israel from the island of Romblon in the Philippines. The marble bears footprints of Weissler, George Loewenstein (one of the Jews who sought refuge in the Philippines in 1939), and Doryliz Goffer (a 10-year-old Filipino-Israeli born in the Philippines and a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors), representing the continuing friendship between the Philippines and Israel.
The triangular patterns of the open doors represent the triangles of the Philippine flag and the triangles of the star of David in the Israeli flag that were joined to mark the close and friendly relations between the Philippines and Israel as the two nations celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in August 2007.
The light represents the sun for the hope and the hospitality of the Filipino people as they welcomed the Jews during the Holocaust. The doors are painted brown to represent the Filipinos’ Malay race.
Today, the Jewish diaspora in the Philippines remains a vibrant and welcoming community, with the descendants of refugees rescued by Quezon numbering around 8,000, according to a 2017 estimate by the Israeli Embassy
Yesterday, the Philippine Women’s University (PWU) in cooperation with the Embassy of Israel Manila hosted an event in commemoration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day highlighted by a film showing and “Open Doors: Images, Memories & Translations” Exhibit at the Helena Z Benitez Hall that features the artworks of the PWU JASMS Manila Senior High School Arts and Design Track.
During the event, Israeli Ambassador to the Philippines Rafael Harpaz called on the younger generation to continue remembering the millions of Holocaust victims because of the rise in anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, including in some Muslim countries.
“The number of Holocaust survivors is decreasing each day and in a decade or so, there will be few of them to tell the story to the younger generation,” Ambassador Harpaz said in his welcome remarks.
For his part, United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) Country Director Iori Kato reiterated the call of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for everyone to remember “one of the most heinous crimes of our time: the systematic killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust.”
“We pledge we will never forget. We vow to tell their stories and honor them by defending everyone’s right to live with dignity in a just and peaceful world,” Kato said in his keynote address.
The UN official echoed Harpaz’s concern on the rise and resurgence of anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, racism, and prejudice.
“Seventy-five years on, neo-Nazis and white supremacists are resurgent, and there are continued efforts to diminish the Holocaust and deny or downplay the responsibility of perpetrators,” Kato said. (PIA-NCR)