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The Filipino Poker Group That Saved 1,300 Jews

Jews rescued during Holocaust in Manila, Philippines, 1940 (Photo: rescueinthephilippines.com)

Each week, our Advocates and Allies tell stories that are often hard to believe - extraordinary people in unbelievable situations who somehow rescued Jews during the Holocaust. This week's tale is no different. Writing at Tablet, Robert Rockaway and Maya Guez tell how a poker game in Manila led to the rescue of more than 1,300 Jews:

Of all the Far East sanctuaries, only one country deliberately sought to save Jews: the Philippine Commonwealth. The rescue plan evolved from the close friendship and cooperation of a small group of men who regularly met to play poker. Their efforts led to the Philippines saving more than 1,300 German and Austrian Jews from 1938 to 1939.

***

The story begins with the four Frieder brothers, Alex, Phillip, Herbert, and Morris, who owned a two-for-a nickel cigar business. In 1918, the brothers decided to transfer their cigar manufacturing operation to Manila from New York City, to reduce production costs. The brothers then took two-year turns living in Manila and overseeing their plant. They also became active in Manila’s Jewish community of 150 men, women, and children.

When the Shanghai German Jewish refugees disembarked in Manila,  American High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt waived the visa requirements and admitted them. At his urging, Alex and Phillip Frieder organized a Jewish refugee committee to support and help them adjust and settle in. From these refugees, the Frieders heard harrowing accounts of Nazi brutality and atrocities perpetrated against Germany’s Jews. This revelation spurred them to rescue German Jews. To achieve their goal, the Frieders enlisted the help of men they played poker with. These poker buddies included McNutt, Manuel L. Quezon, president of the Philippine Commonwealth, and a young Army colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower, then an aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, field marshal of the Philippines. At the late-night card games, these friends devised a rescue plan to eventually bring as many as 10,000 German Jews to the Philippines.

Although American immigration laws applied to the Philippines, the country had no quota system. A financial guarantee from a resident sufficed to obtain an entry visa. If the Jewish refugee who arrived in the Philippines was able to find employment, he met an important provision of U.S. immigration policy: that he not become a burden on the state. McNutt, the Frieder brothers, and Quezon became the active movers of the plan; Eisenhower played no ongoing role in the rescue but served as the group’s liaison to the U.S. Army, which oversaw the Philippines.

Paul V. McNutt, a Roosevelt appointee, had been a professor of law, governor of Indiana (1935-1937), and a prominent figure in the Democratic Party. A decent and humane individual, McNutt learned about the Nazi atrocities from Jacob Weiss, a close Jewish ally in Indiana’s Democratic Party, and from reports he received from Jewish groups. McNutt had long disdained racial hatred and anti-Semitism, and respected Jews, as he said, “for their toughness, resiliency, and success.” He often spoke out and condemned the German government and Hitler, and supported the Zionist goal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. McNutt realized that any long-term effort to permit large numbers of Jews to enter the Philippines had to be methodical, carefully planned, and in accord with United States immigration statutes...

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