Dick Frieder lived most of his life not knowing what his father did during World War II.
It turned out he did something remarkable:
He saved lives.
The Frieder family saga is a little-known tale of how five businessman brothers from Ohio, making two-for-a-nickel cigars in Manila, helped 1,300 Jews escape from the Nazis and immigrate to the Philippines in the 1930s.
The plan took shape around a floating card game, where the players included some of the most powerful figures in the Philippine government and the local American authority — including an Army colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower.
They schemed to save people at a time when most nations cared little for the fate of the Jews, who would die by the millions in German concentration camps.
On Wednesday, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia will screen “Rescue in the Philippines,” a documentary that its makers describe as a cross between “Argo” and “Casablanca,” down to the men dressed in white linen suits. The event marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, which begins Sunday evening.
Dick Frieder will speak after the film along with his brother Sam, the former chairman of Einstein Healthcare Network.
The brothers grew up in the Philadelphia region, in the area where their father, Herbert, joined their uncles in rebuilding the cigar business after the war.
Like other descendants, Dick and Sam knew nothing of their family’s wartime exploits until 2003, when former refugee Frank Ephraim published the book “Escape to Manila,” revealing the plan that saved hundreds of Jews.
“If they had stayed in Berlin, they’d be dead,” said Dick Frieder, 80, who lives in Jupiter, Fla. “We are very proud of the accomplishments of the five brothers. … It was something that had to be done, and they did it.”
The 1935 passage of the Nuremberg Laws provided a legal framework for persecution, revoking the citizenship of German Jews who saw their homes, businesses and savings seized.
Afterward, 6,000 miles away in Manila, a group of friends held smoky, cigar-fueled discussions over a poker table, planning a play for the highest stakes.
Dealing the cards was Manuel L. Quezon, president of the semi-independent Commonwealth of the Philippines, a man who had grown up poor and ever afterward championed the underdog. The U.S. high commissioner to the Philippines, Paul V. McNutt, was there, dispatched to the distant post largely because President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to rid himself of a political rival.
Eisenhower was a friend of Quezon’s, and had an office in the presidential palace. He was known as a good man for planning big, complex operations — a talent that would reach an apex in the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Coordinating the effort were the Frieder brothers — Morris, Herbert, Philip, Henry and Alex — who had come to the Philippines to be near the growers and makers of their cigars. Each worked a rotating, two-year stint in the country.
The brothers were Jews, Quezon a Catholic, McNutt a Methodist. But as the poker game traveled, to the presidential yacht, the lobby of the Manila Hotel, and the Frieder family’s back porch, the men honed their plan.
“None of them had anything to gain from helping,” said Cynthia Scott, CEO and executive producer at 3 Roads Communications, which made the film.
While much of the world turned its back to Jews trying to flee the Nazis, Quezon felt otherwise. He was ready to accept thousands of Jews, with one provision: They needed a skill to support themselves.
A short list of acceptable occupations, including doctor, nurse, auto mechanic, engineer, and cigar-maker, meant many desperate people were turned down.
If a refugee made it to the docks without a job, whichever Frieder brother was on duty would say, “Oh, you’re a cigar-maker. You have a job in our factory,” said Russell Hodge, president and executive producer of 3 Roads Communications.
While one brother worked in the Philippines, the others helped from the United States, raising money and working connections.
Because the Philippines was a commonwealth — it gained complete independence in 1946 — its officials had some leeway in interpreting U.S. immigration laws. And Quezon, as president, could issue visas on his own.
The State Department didn’t like the former U.S. colony’s accepting Jews at a time when it was actively trying to keep immigrants out of the rest of the United States. McNutt worked his part of the rescue plan, keeping State Department officials at bay to forestall an official ban on Jewish immigration.
“What the Frieders created was an opportunity to escape, but also an opportunity to live,” one refugee, Dr. Yashar Hirshaut, says in the film.
Only the arrival of World War II in America halted the effort.
Hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they attacked American bases in the Philippines. The island defenses fell in April.
The American Jews there were quickly imprisoned by the Japanese. The Jewish refugees, though, were allowed to remain free; they held German or Austrian passports. The Japanese thought they were allies.
Quezon, who evacuated to Corregidor when the Japanese invaded, died in 1944 in the U.S., where he had established a government-in-exile. After the war ended, a few Jews stayed in the Philippines but most came to America.
McNutt took up a law practice in New York. Eisenhower, of course, went on to be elected president.
“They did it because it was the right thing to do,” said Sam Frieder, 77, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa. “My dad and others, if anything, they felt badly they didn’t get more people out.”
The war left the brothers’ Manila cigar factory in ruins. They re-started the business in Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and at its peak in the early 1950s it was making about 100 million cigars a year, according to Cigar Aficionado magazine. The brothers sold the business to U.S. Tobacco in 1978.
“I grew up with these wonderful stories of life in Manila and Eisenhower playing cards at the house, but no one had any idea of the rescue until this book came out,” said Peggy Ellis, the eldest granddaughter of Morris Frieder and a consultant on the film.
She has a theory on why the brothers kept silent. For one, after the war they needed to focus on rebuilding their company. Second, they didn’t see themselves as having done anything extraordinary.
“It resonates today,” she said. “It resonates as the story of the rescue, but also of how unspeakable evil dares good men to defeat it.”