GALVESTON — Galvestonian Barbara Sasser was at a family gathering in Cincinnati when she realized Hollywood had nothing on the stories swirling around her of Nazi death camps and courageous rescues.
So she proposed a documentary about how her grandfather and his brothers were part of an unlikely alliance to help more than 1,300 Jews escape the Nazis and immigrate to the Philippines.
“This was as big a rescue effort as Schindler, and the reason everyone knew about Schindler was because of the movie,” Sasser said, referring to the classic “Schindler’s List.”
She approached 3 Roads Communications in 2010, and the filmmakers took up the project. For more than two years, Sasser consulted with them, helping them track down refugees for first-person stories.
The documentary premiered locally on the Houston PBS station Saturday. Sasser is among the family members interviewed for the film and is attending live premieres in New York and San Francisco this spring, participating in panel discussions afterward.
“I hope viewers will take away from this film the remarkable moral courage exhibited by all the key players — (Philippines President Manuel) Quezon, (U.S. High Commissioner McNutt, the Frieder brothers — and I hope that the Philippines will be recognized as a country that accepted Jews when so many other countries did not,” Sasser said.
“I hope that people will realize that ordinary people who are dedicated to a project can be successful. I hope that more people consider this a lesson in the virtues of doing the right thing.”
The stories she helped gather for the documentary are set in the 1930s and 1940s, when the five Frieder brothers — Philip, Alex, Morris, Henry, and Herbert — were Cincinnati businessmen making two-for-a-nickel cigars in pre-World War II Manila.
Alex Frieder was Sasser’s grandfather. He would bring his family, including Sasser’s mother, Alice, to the Philippines, where they would live for two-year rotations while he ran the family business there.
Poker games were played on the back porch of the home, with Manuel Quezon, the charismatic first president of the Philippines; Paul McNutt, U.S. high commissioner and former governor of Indiana (preparing for his own presidential campaign); and a sage U.S. Army colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower. The men plotted a strategy to help Jewish refugees escape Nazi death camps by arranging visas to bring them to Manila, the capital city of the Philippines.
Sasser’s mother was a young teen, watching as her father poured over lists of visa applicants. He and his brothers worked with the Jewish community in Manila to help create new lives for desperate refugees.
“My mother talked about how the refugees would be invited to the house for dinner on the Sabbath, on Friday night,” Sasser said. “She said the table was piled high with fried chicken and orchids from the garden.”
Sasser hopes the documentary will one day lead to a feature film, much like “Schindler’s List,” with a similar message.
“When I look back on my ancestors and the things that they accomplished, it’s a model for how people should treat each other,” she said. “You see something needs to be done, you should do what you can.”