Rape of cultural heritage | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Rape of cultural heritage

This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, as well as the end of the brutal Japanese occupation of the Philippines. While most people and textbooks memorialize February 1945 as the “Liberation of Manila” (from the Japanese), many others, like the writer Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil who lost family and friends in those horrible last days, insist that “Liberation” is better remembered as the “Battle for Manila.”

To this day we recall in our minds how the cornered Japanese forces (including Korean recruits) went on an orgy of robbery, rape and murder of noncombatants. They spared no one—seniors, women, children, and the infirm. However, often overshadowed by the loss of life during the war, is something equally important: The loss of our cultural heritage, art, and the primary sources required to piece Philippine history together. Intramuros was destroyed. The old Legislative Building, which housed the National Library and Museum, looked like a wedding cake that had fallen from the banquet table; in the rubble were irreplaceable works of art, books and manuscripts that historians only know today from faded photographs, catalogues, bibliographies and, sometimes, citations in prewar articles or footnotes in books.


We are not alone in mourning the loss of heritage. I remember requesting some rare 18th-century work on the Philippines in the British Library and receiving my slip with the notation that the book could not be located. Undaunted, I requested the same book the next day—and got the same result. So I asked a reference librarian, who went into a back room to check and who returned saying: “Well, Mr. Ocampo, you have to blame the Germans for our inability to serve your request.” I asked why and she explained: “There was a German air raid over London in 1944, and one of the bombs pierced through the British Library and hit a shelf destroying all the books in it, including the one you requested.”

I said: Then why is it still listed in the catalogue if it doesn’t exist anymore? Can’t you at least put a note in the catalogue that clearly states “Destroyed by Germans in 1944” so I will not expect to read it and then be disappointed? The librarian shrugged and repeated: “Well, Mr. Ocampo, you have to blame the Germans for the loss of that book.”


One of these days, with the blessing of National Library Director Antonio Santos and the help of the staff in the rare book section, I will plow through the materials that survived the war and see how much was really lost. Not all, it seems, not all.

The prewar National Library used to be housed in the Legislative Building, to serve, like the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, as a reference for legislation, and to provide a grand setting for scholarship and learning. On Dec. 27, 1944, the Japanese gave the National Library employees 48 hours to leave the building that the invading force wished to occupy. With this tight time frame, 23 National Library employees transferred to the third floor of the nearby Philippine Normal Hall: the Tabacalera collection of Philippine rare books, as well as major historical manuscripts, including those by Jose Rizal and about 600 more written by great Filipinos in history.

The Filipiniana collection had not been fully settled at the Philippine Normal Hall when, on Jan. 15, 1945, the National Library was given one afternoon to vacate the Normal School. So the staff hurriedly moved the important holdings from to vaults in Manila City Hall. In two weeks the Battle for Manila began and kept the city in flames long after the fighting was over. National Library officials were saddened to learn that all the materials moved to Manila City Hall were gone. The vaults were forced open, their contents looted.

Everyone thought all was lost until they found the Philippine Normal Hall intact. There, on March 16, 1945, two boxes overlooked by the janitors in the mad rush to Manila City Hall were found. The boxes contained, among other things, the original manuscripts of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere,” “El Filibusterismo” and “Mi Ultimo Adios.” Also in the boxes were the letters between Rizal and Ferdinand Blumentritt. Contrary to popular belief, about 3,000 volumes were recovered: As much as 80 percent of the rare books that comprised the Tabacalera collection survived, together with parts of the Pardo de Tavera and Zulueta collections.

After the war, H. Otley Beyer reported: The Legislative Building “was the most completely destroyed of any of the larger government structures, and in addition to being blown up by shells and dynamite, the interior was wholly burned out. Total salvage of library property from this building amounted to less than half a truckload. The only objects of great value saved were chiefly in the nature of documents and letters which had been stored in a damaged iron safe [burst open by a shell subsequent to the fire]. These included some original letters by Juan Luna and Eduardo de Lete. The main collection of the National Library and Museum was almost wholly destroyed by the fire which had gutted the entire interior of the building.”

We do not want for groups like Memorare 1945 that commemorate the loss of life in the closing days of the war. But there should also be a group to remind the present generation of the loss of cultural heritage during the Battle for Manila, because it is only in remembering the horrors of war that we can resolve never to repeat it.

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TAGS: Battle for Manila, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, cultural heritage, Japanese Occupation, Liberation of Manila, World War II
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