Editor’s note: On Sept. 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered to the Allies ending World War II. In a war of unimaginable horrors, six million Jewish men, women and children died in Nazi death camps. The documentary film, “Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust,” is the story of men who did not turn away from the humanitarian crisis in Europe. They chose a path of action.
Galvestonian Barbara Sasser and 19 members of her family traveled to Manila for the Filipino premiere of the documentary “Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust,” hosted by President Benigno S. Aquino III.
The film was shown in Malacanan Palace in Manila on Aug. 7.
The documentary tells the story of Sasser’s grandfather, Alex Frieder, who was part of an alliance of eight men who helped 1,300 Jewish men, women and children escape from Nazi-occupied countries and resettle in the Philippines.
“The Philippines opened its doors when no other country would,” said Sasser, who is one of the film’s producers.
In the 1930s, Frieder and his four brothers, Morris, Herbert, Phillip and Henry, were in the cigar business in Cincinnati. They had a manufacturing plant in the Philippines, and the brothers took turns living in Manila to supervise that part of the business.
The brothers were part of a group of ardent poker players, including Manuel Quezon, then-president of the Philippines; Paul McNutt, the U.S. High Commissioner; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a colonel in the U.S. Army and an attaché to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The United States had not yet entered the war, and there were many opportunities for the U.S. to accept Jewish emigrates who were fleeing for their lives.
In most cases, however, the United States did not accept them — even placing draconian limits on immigration.
That’s when the group — two Protestants, one Catholic and five Jewish men — decided to take action together, arranging for incremental immigration with plans to accept thousands of families.
Some help, some do not
Told through first-person accounts with survivors, historians and relatives of the key players, the story examines how people take action to make a difference in difficult times.
“The film asks viewers to question why some countries help and some do not, and why some people act and others stand by silently,” Sasser said.”
In his introduction, President Aquino said that as Filipinos had once extended a helping hand to Jewish brothers and sisters in the face of oppression, they are now receiving the same assistance as they work to overcome the challenges of Haiyan, the devastating typhoon that pummeled the country in 2013.
“It is my sincere hope that all those who watch this documentary, whether in classrooms or homes in the coming years, will continue this virtuous cycle — will continue to make the choice to help their fellow men, whatever the future may bring,” he said.
Premiere in Manila
Three Jewish survivors now living in the United States attended the premiere along with the 26 descendants of Quezon.
Other dignitaries at the showing were the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg; the Israeli deputy of mission, Adam Levine; and the Philippines secretary of education, Armin Luistro.
Executives of the largest companies doing business in the Philippines, including Coca-Cola, were also present.
The day after the premiere, the film was shown by the U.S. Embassy and at de La Salle University to about 100 students and educators.
“My husband and children came on the trip, as did my mother and sister and her family, and many cousins,” Sasser said. “It was rewarding to celebrate this milestone with everyone, because the story belongs to all of us and especially to the people of the Philippines.”
The extended family of cousins has become much closer, she said. Family members are proud of the choices their grandfathers made.
“They were immigrants themselves, men of endless energy and action and they had some resources,” Sasser said.
The Philippines planned to bring in thousands of Jewish immigrants, but the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines brought the rescue efforts to an end.
The film, narrated by Liev Schreiber, has been broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service and shown at the United Nations. It is also being distributed as part of an educational guide with a full curriculum for U.S. schools.
“We want students to see this because it teaches much-needed lessons of moral courage to the next generation,” Sasser said.
Executive directors of the documentary are Russell Hodge and Cynthia Scott.
Sasser said she hopes the film will be broadcast on international television.
“One of the great pleasures I’ve had from working on this film is getting to know the people who have lived this story, who might not be alive but for the efforts of my ancestors,” she said. “It has also given me the opportunity to meet some very interesting people, including Susan Eisenhower and Cardinal (Daniel) DiNardo. It has been quite an adventure.”
Video footage of comments made at the Philippine premiere by executive director Hodge, co-producers Sasser and Peggy Ellis and Aquino will be available soon on the updates page of the film’s website.