Telling the world
“The world should know what the Philippines is like,” said Celia Tischler Black, who was in the country recently partly to attend the alumni homecoming of the American School (now known as the International School) and also to speak about her experience as the daughter of refugees who fled Germany to find succor from the Nazi persecution of Jews.
Celia, more familiarly known as “Topsy,” spoke of the years during which her family found sanctuary in the Philippines. In fact her grandfather is buried here. It was Topsy (and not Gordon Lester, as I erroneously reported in a previous column) who told the story about Filipinos having a hard time pronouncing her maiden name, and since her father was named “Adolf,” he sometimes ended up being called “Adolf Hitler.”
There were six such “witnesses” at the press conference organized jointly by the Israeli Embassy and the Pilipinas Sandiwa Heritage Foundation. The foundation seeks to promote Philippine culture and history and increase Filipinos’ appreciation of their heritage. And apparently, knowing about the “open door” policy adopted by President Manuel Quezon for European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, saving more than a thousand of them from almost-certain death in the Holocaust, is part of that effort. It’s time we talked about the role we played in world history, and educated our young people about it.
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Indeed, as Mary Brings Farquhar exclaimed, “how wonderful it is to be back home!” Born in Manila in 1943, “in the middle of a huge typhoon in the middle of the Japanese Occupation,” she, with her parents and grandmothers, became a Filipino citizen after World War II. Her father Theodore was a physics professor at the University of Vienna but was dismissed when Austria fell under Nazi control. At first hoping to teach in Australia, he brought his wife and mother on board a ship but was told en route that the position was no longer available. So they decided to disembark in Manila, where Theodore ended up teaching physics at the University of the Philippines while his wife Paula taught physical education at Assumption and St. Theresa’s.
Prefacing his account with the salutation “mga kaibigan (my friends),” Hans Hoeflien opened with an explanation for the scratches on his face. “Stepping out the church last Sunday,” he said, he tripped and fell on the sidewalk and immediately three Filipinos approached him, took him inside the church, and cleaned him up as best as they could. One of the group then volunteered to take him to his hotel, but once inside his room, Hoeflien worried that he might need an antitetanus shot and tests. So he went down to the lobby, told the Filipino manager about his concerns, and at once the manager himself drove him to a nearby hospital and waited until Hoeflien was given his shot and cleared for checkout.
The story, he said, was just illustrative of “the way Filipinos are,” a quality he has appreciated since he and his family arrived here before the war, during his student days at De La Salle, and up to the time he flew to the United States to study at MIT.
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While Topsy was the “baby” of the group, the eldest among them was Ralph Preiss, who arrived in the Philippines with his family in 1939. His father had been a doctor in a village in what is now East Germany. Since there was no immediate replacement for him, the elder Preiss continued ministering to the village folk until the Nazis found a younger replacement. The doctor began looking elsewhere for a placement and began buying medical equipment to set up his own clinic. But when they arrived in Manila, Filipino physicians had succeed in lobbying the government to limit the practice of medicine to Filipinos. Selling the equipment, Dr. Preiss moved to San Pablo, Laguna, and left Ralph to study at De La Salle, boarding with some family friends. After the war, recalled Ralph, his father went into drug distribution, notably of the drug Warfarin, which is used for, among other things, inducing bleeding in rats for which he was cited by the Philippine government after a serious rat infestation.
When fighting grew fierce in Manila and environs, Ralph was pulled out of school and brought to join his family in Laguna. After “Liberation,” Ralph took up engineering at UP Diliman. But his studies were halted when the Quonset hut housing the engineering department was destroyed by a twister—something he witnessed as he alighted from a public bus. Ralph later moved to the United States, enrolled at MIT, and there married and started a family.
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One of the ironies of the refugees’ situation was that, under the Japanese occupation, they faced little persecution. Instead, when asked to show their papers and the Japanese discovered that they held German citizenship, they were called “the good guys,” unlike Americans and other foreigners who were interned at the University of Santo Tomas.
But the street-by-street firefights when “Liberation” began, and the land mines planted in areas like Malate and Ermita, spared no one, friend or foe. The survivors’ stories tell of hiding in foxholes or hastily-built underground shelters, not knowing if the footsteps they were hearing belonged to desperate Japanese soldiers, who were shooting or bayoneting anyone they saw, or friendly troops. One of them remembered a soldier lifting the steel sheet that concealed their foxhole and asking loudly: “Anyone here want a Chesterfield?”
Manila was liberated, but at tremendous cost in life and property damage. Someone wrote recently that the capital has yet to fully recover from the damage it suffered at war’s close. Helping achieve that recovery is something the survivors say they want to do, in gratitude to the nation and people that saved them.
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