Memories of ‘Liberation’ | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

Memories of ‘Liberation’

/ 12:22 AM February 13, 2015

During a trip to Israel some years back, our group of Filipinos encountered some Filipino caregivers working in a care home inside a kibbutz and primarily looking after survivors of the Holocaust. The caregivers were young and carefree and, meeting them, I understood why Israelis seemed so fond of Filipinos. “They are looking after our elderly,” one Israeli explained, “and they do so with so much love and cheerfulness.”

We can also say that in caring for the Holocaust survivors, these Filipino caregivers were merely continuing the work and mission that the Philippines had extended even before World War II started. At a time of rising hostility against Jews in Germany and in Nazi-controlled Europe, European Jews began searching for other places where they could live, free to pursue their careers, trades and education and practice their religion—rights denied them in an environment of hostility and persecution.


But most other countries closed their doors to the fleeing Jews, if not out of fear of Nazi retaliation, then perhaps out of a nascent anti-Semitism among their leaders or peoples, or simply plain ignorance or indifference.

But Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon had other ideas. He declared an “open door” policy to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, and made available visas to expedite their departure, even as German authorities imposed difficult conditions on those wishing to leave.


Israeli Ambassador Effie Ben Matityau also makes clear that the Jews were fleeing not just Nazi persecution but also “their fellow countrymen, their neighbors, their communities” who turned against them simply because they were Jewish.

As to observations that the Jewish refugees fled the horrors of Nazi Europe only to find themselves in the “fire” of Japanese occupation of the Philippines some years later, Matityau made clear that what should be highlighted is that “the Philippines accepted the refugees with open doors and open hearts” and that they, together with the Filipino people, “shared the horrors of war.”

* * *

The occasion was a press conference in which six Jewish survivors—refugees from Europe or children of refugees—shared the stories of their lives before, during and after the war, and their experience of life in Manila and its outskirts at a time of great risk and hardship, but also of a halcyon “peacetime” that even older Filipinos remember with nostalgia.

Most of the story tellers are alumni of the “American School” (now the International School) and came here for a reunion, although one or two studied in De La Salle and the Philippine Women’s University (PWU). But the reason they gathered here is also to be part of the 70th anniversary of the “Liberation of Manila,” a little-known and little-celebrated milestone, perhaps because the occasion also brings to mind unspeakable horrors of Japanese atrocities and heavy American artillery fire that razed Manila and resulted in an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths in the area south of the Pasig River.

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, who was also present at the press conference, noted that the gathering celebrates “the great generosity and willing spirit of the Filipino people,” and in particular the generosity of President Quezon and that of his “coconspirators” including then US High Commissioner Paul McNutt.

* * *


Kumusta kayo (How are you)?” Gordon Lester prefaced his remarks. Born in March 1946, Lester said he has no recollection of life under the Japanese Occupation, and that while he was growing up, his parents talked little about what brought them from Germany to the Philippines.

But he knows how he came by his shorter, “Americanized” surname. He recalled his mother telling him that Filipinos had great difficulty pronouncing their surname, and since his father’s name was “Adolf,” their Filipino friends sometimes ended up addressing him as “Adolf Hitler.” They changed their name three months before Gordon’s birth.

Their repugnance is entirely understandable. Before his wife succeeded in petitioning for his release, Adolf was interned at Buchenwald, and perhaps it was always with a shudder that the older Lesters remembered what a close call they had. As for his memories of Manila, Lester particularly remembered the “beautiful sunsets at Manila Bay,” which he could view every day as their home was just a short distance from Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard.

The Bay is also quite a strong memory for Margot Cassel Pins, who recalled being told by her cousin Lotte upon her arrival in Manila (she was born in Breslau, now part of Poland) that the place was special “because you can see an ocean.” So they ran a few blocks from Lotte’s home and reached the breakwaters of Manila Bay, collecting sea shells and other flotsam. “It was exciting,” she said of her first view of the Bay.

* * *

Before starting her talk, Margot, who studied at St. Scholastica’s College and then PWU, urged everyone in the room to join her in singing “Bahay Kubo.” She has many fond memories of her school days, classmates and teachers, particularly one teacher who taught, behind closed doors, Philippine history even if the Japanese authorities forbade it.

Margot has a special interest in telling her family’s story of “Liberation,” since she met her husband at that time, he being a GI who was part of the liberation forces. “He helped liberate Manila and he also liberated us from our daughter,” Margot’s father said at the time.

Asked about her wishes for the Philippines, Margot looked fondly at the largely Filipino audience and said she wished for the Philippines’ success. “You have a unique combination,” she noted, “warmth and open-heartedness. You have a great future ahead!”

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TAGS: holocaust, Liberation, Manuel L. Quezon, Philip Goldberg
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