MY friend Ma. Isabel ”Maribel” Ongpin wrote a beautiful column last week entitled “Jewish memories of WWII Philippines” (MT, Feb.13, 2015). She gave an insightful context of her article with the commemoration of the 70th year of the Battle of Manila, the World War II destruction and the pyrrhic liberation of the City of Manila.
If I may add, the 70th year of the Liberation of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Europe as featured in CNN two weeks ago. During WWII, Hitler’s Nazi Third Reich exterminated some six million Jews all over Europe in Germany, Austria, Poland and other nearby countries known as the horrific Holocaust.
Maribel Ongpin also mentioned “the importance of remembering is now being celebrated for its role of in identifying us to ourselves and others.” She added: “An understanding of the past makes the present much clearer and prepares us to meet the future armed with what we need to make it better.”
The press conference or forum last week was the Sharing of Stories of the children of Jewish refugees who fled to the Philippines and escaped Hitler’s Holocaust. They narrated the stories on how their families survived certain deaths had their parents remained in Germany and Austria. The six speakers, who are now in their late 60s to early 80s, were either born and/or raised in Manila.
It must be repeated for everyone to know that the Philippines was the only country in the world that accepted the Jewish people, who were being persecuted in the late 1930s and later annihilated by the millions in the early 1940s. The “enlightened nations” in Europe and North America did not accept the Jews – not the United States of America, not neutral Switzerland and not even the Catholic Vatican (Holy See)!
President Manuel L. Quezon (MLQ) allotted some 10,000 visas for the Jewish people in Europe. However, only some 1,300 Jews made it to the Philippines because Hitler’s Nazi Germany closed its borders and those countries it had already annexed like Austria and Poland.
Gratitude to the Philippines, Filipinos
After the war, the United States opened its doors to immigrants that included the Jews. (It actually started earlier in January 1944.) Thus, there were opportunities for the Jews in the Philippines to move to America. However, many of them opted to stay in their new tropical home where they were welcomed with hospitality by the Filipinos.
Celia “Topsy” Tischler Black, one of the children of the Jewish refugees, shared the story that her father, Adolf Tischler, was notified in 1947 that he could migrate to the States. However, Mr. Tischler refused and said his home will be the Philippines for what they had done for the Jewish people.
Topsy Tischler revealed that her parents stayed in the Philippines for 40 years (1939-1979) before joining her in the United States where she had studied for college and raised a family.
It happened a year after her first homecoming in 1978 when she returned with her husband and baby daughter. Her second homecoming was 37 years later this year in 2015 for their Alumni Reunion of the American School in Manila.
Another Jewish family that chose to remain in Manila was that of Mary Brings Farquhar whose parents were from Vienna, Austria. Mary Brings said that her parents “loved the country and people and saw no need to leave.” More than staying in the Philippines while others left for the United States or Palestine (now Israel) after the liberation, Mary and her parents became naturalized Filipino citizens in 1948.
As Filipino citizens, the Brings family could now buy property in the Philippines. Professor Brings bought a lot in Santa Mesa, Manila and later moved in their newly-built home in 1955. Her parents stayed in their house until her mother passed away in 2001. Mary left for the US in 1961 to study and later emigrated there. Both Mary’s parents and two grandmothers are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Manila.
Mary’s parents were highly-respected educators in Manila. Her father, Theodor Brings, was a Physics Professor of the University of Vienna who later taught Physics in UP, FEU and the Ateneo. Her mother Paula Brings taught Physical Education (PE) at Assumption College and Saint. Theresa. As Maribel Ongpin wrote in her column: “Mrs Brings will be remembered by Assumption Alumane as the long time P.E. teacher.”
The Jewish parents of the other speakers like Gordon Lester, Ralph Preiss, Hans Hoeflein and Margot Cassel Pins also stayed in the Philippines even if they had gone to the United States for their studies in college. The decision to remain in our country simply shows their deep gratitude and appreciation for what the Filipinos have done for them in their greatest hour of need.
What struck me the most with the children of the Jewish survivors is that they consider themselves as “Filipinos” and call the Philippines as their “homeland.” This is something unexpected from them since they have been away for some 50 years and have visited our country only a few times in between.
Among all of them, perhaps the most Filipino is Topsy Tischler Black who told me that she has remained a Filipino in her ways all these years in America. Her own children do not understand why she has not become “Americanized” in spite of living there for almost half-a-century now. Topsy told me that before her departure, she wrote her three children a six-page letter explaining why she is a Filipina travelling back to her homeland.
“I am back again to the land of my birth and the home of my people. I consider myself as a Filipino in spite of the color of my skin, eyes and hair. The Tagalog words I once uttered many, many years ago have started to come back since I arrived,” she said in the forum. Topsy said she would like to return for good and retire here in the Philippines.
Like Topsy who is “very happy to be back home,” Mary Brings exclaimed during her talk: “how wonderful it is to be back home.” The same is true with Gordon “Gordie” Lester, who was enjoying the Filipino food and fruits that he missed like the langka and lanzones. After all these years, Gordie still has his Filipino taste for the sinigang na bangus (cooked with ripe guava broth) and the tilapia.
In their Alumni Reunion of the American School, there were non-Jews who also said they are “Filipinos.” Valerie Clarkin Scatcherd, who studied in American School and Maryknoll, still eats chicken adobo and sinigang in Canada after leaving Manila 50 years ago. Her father was the president of Pepsi-Cola in the Philippines.
During our lunch at Barbara’s restaurant in Intramuros, Valerie ordered adobo because she said “I am a Filipino!” Later, I asked her to have our photographs taken. When I told her that we were having our photos taken because she told me she is a “Filipino, “ the statuesque lady added: “Ako kaibigan mo at kababayan!” (“I am your friend and compatriot.”) I was pleasantly surprised.
Two other alumni of the American School who consider themselves “Filipinos” and the Philippines as their “homeland” are close friends Charles Jones and Skip Haven, who also both studied in Brent School in Baguio. They said that when they went to the US, they spoke English with a Filipino or Tagalog accent! Last week, they could still speak the same way they did 50 years ago in Manila.