Exclusive Interview: A Holocaust survivor’s escape to Manila

PINOY Newsmagazine/Philippine News
March 2005

By Ted Regencia

Chicago, IL — Unbeknownst to many Filipinos and the world, the Philippines played a small but noteworthy role in saving over a thousand Jews from Adolf Hitler’s death camps in Europe, in the years leading to World War II.

Despite the distance, religious and political barries, the Philippines rose to the occasion and showed its humanity by providing sanctuary to an oppressed people from Europe.

That important but obscure part of history, tucked away for decades by fading memories, could have been completely forgotten if not for a young eyewitness who lived to tell the tale. His name is Frank Ephraim of Chevy Chase Maryland. He is the author of the book, Escape to Manila.

“I always wanted to tell the story how we survived, and relate to the whole world how the Filipinos welcomed us with open arms,” the 73-year old Ephraim said in an exclusive interview.

From Germany to Manila

It was 1939, the Nazis were at the height of its power in Germany and anti-Jewish sentiment was in full swing in Europe.

Ephraim recalled how as a young boy he was verbally abused and taunted by fellow Germans in the streets of Berlin, where he was born. At that time, the schools were segregated and he and his fellow Jewish schoolchildren were isolated by the government.

Sensing early enough, that the intense bigotry was making a dangerous turn, Ephraim’s parents decided it was time to escape from their homeland and seek safer haven elsewhere.

The Ephraims, however, had limited option. Most of the world was turning its back on Jewish refugees. Even the United States government, in one instance, turned away a boat full of Jewish refugees, who had to return to Europe and eventually die in the hands of Hitler’s army.

The Epharims were one of the few who escaped and survived. Ephraim’s grandmother and uncle languished in Hitler’s death camp in Poland. By the end of World War II, six million or about 72 percent of the Jewish population in Europe were exterminated.

How the Ephraims ended up in Manila was almost an unlikely story.

The Frieder brothers

By stroke of circumstance, four American brothers of Jewish origin were running a cigar factory in the Philippines. Heeding the call to duty, Philip, Alex, Morris and Herbert Frieder of Cincinnati, Ohio worked quietly to help the refugees.

The Frieders established a Jewish Refugee Committee, and with the help of their friends, including the US High Commissioner of the Philippines Paul V. McNutt and President Manuel Luis Quezon, they secured passports and visas for mostly German and Austrian Jews.

The Ephraim couple and their son, Frank were one of the lucky few to receive their visas. Their journey to the unknown began in earnest.

The evasive trip took the Ephraims from Berlin to Genoa, Italy where they boarded the ship Victoria. According to Frank, the ship was also filled with Jewish refugees headed for Shanghai in China, which took around 17,000 refugees. From Italy, the boat sailed to China, and continued its trip to Manila, arriving their on March 16, 1939.

“The Frieder brothers were just ordinary Jewish businessmen, but they went out of their way to save lives,” Ephraim was quoted as saying in published interviews. “No one made them do it. They just did what they thought was right.”

Documents dug by researches would later reveal that the Frieders had hope to bring as many as 10,000 refugees in Manila. But World War II intervened with their plans.

Life in Manila

It took some time for the Ephraims and other Jewish families to get settled in Manila. Eventually they blended in thanks in large part to the locals who embraced their presence.

Ephraim fondly recalled his childhood in Manila, his trips to the wet market, the jeepney rides and afternoons playing with friends by Manila Bay, along Roxas Boulevard.

For a few years, Ephraim studied at De La Salle University, while his father and mother worked as a salesman and secretary respectively.

Ephraim also said that they “freely worshipped” at their synagogue in the Malate district of Manila, where they also lived.

Japanese invasion

Then another nightmare took place when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. The Ephraims witnessed another horrific event in history, including the destruction of Manila at the conclusion of World War II.

But like the Nazi campaign in Europe, the Ephraims also survived the Japanese ordeal.

By telling his story, Ephraim said, he wants to honor the Frieder brothers, Commissioner McNutt, President Quezon and the Filipino people, for their “valiant efforts” in saving them. He also wanted to remind the world, not to repeat the terrible and painful part of history.

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