Poker pals in Philippines took gamble, saved 1,200 Jews

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Mary Farquhar’s earliest memory is of flame.

Specifically, the flames of war in the last months of World War II, when Japanese forces battled the Americans in a fight to reclaim Manila, Farquhar’s city of refuge. She was a toddler at the time, the daughter of Austrian Jews given safe harbor in the Philippines, where she was born in 1943.

In 1940, refugees in the Philippines gather in Manila at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Alex Frieder.

Hers was one of hundreds of European Jewish families — 1,200 Jews in all — taken in by the Pacific island nation between 1938 and 1941, saved from the Nazis by an unlikely alliance of Americans and Filipinos determined to do the right thing.

Among those benign conspirators were the five Frieder brothers, Jewish Americans who manufactured two-for-a-nickel cigars in the Philippines; the country’s visionary Catholic president Manuel Quezon; U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt, who issued scores of visas; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, a few years before he became supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe.

It’s a little-known story of hope, overshadowed by those of Oskar Schindler and the Jews of Shanghai. Yet it is no less dramatic or emblematic of courage.

In 1938, Philippines President Manuel L. Quezon and U.S. diplomat Paul McNutt

A new one-hour documentary, “Rescue in the Philippines,” seeks to set the record straight on this forgotten bit of Holocaust history. The film will air on PBS stations around the country beginning this week and will also premiere in San Francisco with a pair of free screenings on April 7 at the New People Cinema.

Farquhar appears in the film, retelling the story — now part of family lore — of how as a baby she wouldn’t stop crying when her parents went into hiding during the battle for Manila in 1945.

“I remember as a child playing in the ruins after the war,” said Farquhar from her San Francisco home. “My parents went from place to place, hiding out. My grandmother would cook on stones over an open fire. She made apple strudel out of native squash.”

Most of her memories of the Philippines are happy. She lived there through her high school years, and though she has called California home for decades, she still loves the country that took in her family.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was an Army colonel when he got involved in the campaign to rescue Jews.

The documentary was the brainchild of Barbara Sasser, a granddaughter of Alex Frieder, who along with his four brothers helped engineer the bold rescue. She says the idea took shape after a 2005 reunion in Cincinnati of surviving Jewish refugees and descendants of the Frieder brothers.

“That brought it to the forefront of my mind,” Sasser recalled. “[My father and great-uncles] saved as many as Schindler, and the only reason people know about that was a movie. I thought this story deserved as much attention as that, and I said somebody should make a movie about this.”

That somebody turned out to be her. Sasser served as a consultant on the film, which was made by 3 Roads Communications, a Maryland-based production company. Among other tasks, Sasser provided hours of home movies filmed by the Frieders in Manila during the tranquil prewar days in the 1930s.

As Sasser likes to say, it all started with cigars and a poker game.

Natives of Cincinnati, the Frieders went into the cigar business, opening a factory in Manila. Each brother took turns serving two-year stints on-site in Manila. All became devoted to the nation, which at the time was emerging from centuries of colonial rule.

The Frieder brothers (from left): Morris, Herbert, Phillip, Henry and Alex

Among their closest friends and fellow poker players were Eisenhower, then an Army colonel, and Quezon, the country’s charismatic president.

Though of different faiths and cultural backgrounds, the team worked together to extricate Jews from Germany and Austria, issue visas and bring them to Manila. It wasn’t easy. The noose had already started to tighten around the Jews of Europe, and the State Department wasn’t keen on the rescue effort.

All refugees would have to possess skills they could apply in the Philippines, and none could depend on any form of government welfare.

Sam Frieder (seated, center) with refugees at a Jewish community meeting in 1940

The Frieders raised tens of thousands of dollars to cover the costs; as refugees made their way to Manila, they found a hospitable environment. “It proved people of different backgrounds and nationalities can work together for the good of humanity,” Sasser said. “They all believed in the same thing. They were all friends and they respected each other.”

As they thrived, plans moved forward to rescue up to 30,000 Jews, all with Quezon’s blessing. Unfortunately, the winds of war intervened, and the Philippines endured the brunt of the Japanese invasion. Manila was reduced to ruins, including the Frieders’ cigar factory.

Quezon died in exile in 1944, before the end of the war and before he could bring more Jews to freedom. He did say before his death, “The people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad that when the time of need came, their country was willing to extend a hand of welcome.”

Mary Farquhar

Sasser said that when she was a girl in Cincinnati, her grandfather rarely talked about the Frieder brothers’ heroics. “He was a jolly guy. My memories of him are of observing Passover in his condo. He played a lot of poker and smoked a lot of cigars. But what happened in the Philippines was not a common topic. These were regular businessmen who found themselves in a situation where they could be of help, and they did what they could. It turned out to be more than what most people could do.”

Farquhar’s parents chose to settle permanently in the Philippines, where her father was a physics professor at the University of the Philippines and Far Eastern University. Farquhar attended the American School and in 1961 moved to California to attend college. She stayed in the Bay Area and became a teacher of Spanish and German, first at San Francisco’s George Washington High School and then at Lowell High School.

She has enjoyed a full and happy life in America, but she knows she owes it all to that plucky band of machers who mapped out an epic rescue over a poker table.

“It shows the capacity for human beings to do what they know in their hearts is right,” she said. “There’s quite a lesson to be learned from that.”

“Rescue in the Philippines,” 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Monday, April 8 on KQED World; 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 9 on KRCB-TV Channel 22 (Santa Rosa); Wednesday, April 10 on KVIE-TV Channel 6 (Sacramento); 6 p.m. May 5 on KQED-TV Channel 9 (Bay Area). The film screens at 5 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post Street, S.F. RSVP to [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.