The Philippines: A haven for Jewish refugees, 1937 to 1941?

The Philippines: A haven for Jewish refugees, 1937 to 1941?

It is a little-known history that the Philippines was a haven for 1,200 Jews fleeing Nazism. Their admission from 1934 to 1941 was the result of two interrelated projects: first, the acquisition of visas for selected refugees under a special immigration plan; second, the ‘Mindanao Plan’.

Asia was not an unusual destination for Jewish refugees, with many emigrating to Shanghai which required no visas for admission to the International Settlement. The Philippines became an ideal choice in addition to Shanghai; it served as a gateway to enter the United States (US) since it was an American Commonwealth (1935-1946). Acquiring Philippine visas, however, required an affidavit of support or financial guarantee. This was the case, for example, for Juergen Goldhagen and his mother who left Germany in 1937. Thanks to the help of a family friend, they acquired visas for the Philippines where Juergen’s father previously migrated in 1935 after losing his job being Jewish. They arrived on 8 December 1937, and Goldhagen who was a child refugee then, assimilated into Philippine life, learning English and attending school with Filipinos.

A small Jewish community had already began to grow in Manila since the 1900s, when the Philippine became an American colony. They provided immediate support for new refugee arrivals. Members of the community included several prominent American Jewish businessmen; among these were the Frieder brothers from Ohio, cigar manufacturers in the Philippines. They led the community and mobilised them to help German Jews (including those from Shanghai fleeing the Japanese occupation) emigrate to the Philippines.

A special immigration plan

The Frieders were close friends of Philippine President Manuel Quezon (1935-1944) and American High Commissioner Paul McNutt, who was the US President’s representative in the Philippine Commonwealth. A plan to admit German Jews under a special immigration programme was approved; Quezon and McNutt agreed, provided that the Jewish community assumed responsibility for the refugees and guaranteed that they would not be a public charge. In 1937, the Jewish Refugee Committee (JRC) was established. American Jewish organisations – the Joint Distribution Committee and Refugee Economic Corporation – funded the JRC to maximise the number of refugees that could be admitted.

Adhering to immigration law, the programme was thus selective – only refugees who fit ‘desirable’ professions that benefitted the Philippines, such as doctors and physicians, were placed on the approved list and received visas. German Jews, like Frank Ephraim, arrived in 1938 through this programme. He became a scholar later and recalled his own experience of moving to Manila:

Manila? Yes, that was our destination. We were able to get entry visas when a distant relative in Manila helped put together the financial guaranties required by the US immigration law that applied to the Philippines.

Since these refugee admission plans were implemented in 1937, plans to admit Jewish refugees to the Philippines were already in place prior to any official international efforts such as the Evian Conference (1938). Such rescue efforts show the creativity of various institutions working with minimal resources available to them. By December 1941, there were about 1,000 Jews already in the Philippines. The Philippine Government, McNutt and the Jewish community facilitated their admission at a time when most countries refused them.

The ‘Mindanao Plan’

In 1939, the office of President Quezon received a letter from a Viennese Jew named Sigmund Tauber, who sought entry to the Philippines for his family. He wrote:

a Viennese Jew begs for himself and his family (consisting of 10 persons) for the permission of entering [the Philippines].

… In Vienna we are cutters and sewers for [body linen] for ladies and gentlemen; yet we know to do the agricultural work too, because we had once a small farm and were [breeding] fowls.

I suppose that the fate of the German Jews is not unknown to you. Excellence, (we must emigrate), and so I am convinced you will fulfil my request.

We have no money in the foreign country but we will take with us as many agricultural implements as we … are allowed by the office of our country. …

Tauber and many other Jews sent letters to the Philippines, applying to enter under a special immigration programme that proposed a Jewish agricultural settlement on the southern island of Mindanao. The ‘Mindanao Plan’ was conceived after the Evian Conference, led by American President Franklin Roosevelt. The Conference sought a solution to the ‘Jewish refugee problem’, which included proposals for establishing agricultural settlements in underdeveloped regions. These plans extended to the Philippines. In 1939, Quezon agreed to resettle 10,000 refugees in Mindanao over ten years under certain conditions, including that refugees took naturalisation papers and that they would not become public charges.  It was the only such plan to be seriously considered in Asia (though a similar resettlement plan was proposed by the Dominican Republic).

The Mindanao Plan was another attempt to bring in more Jews to the Philippines, but as farmers instead of physicians. It was a large-scale resettlement project that required agricultural skills. Again, the JRC sought to admit those with such skills, ensuring that any resettlement colony was self-sufficient. In 1939, Quezon welcomed a team of American agricultural settlement experts to scout for ideal lands, irking some Filipinos who believed Philippine lands should be for Filipinos. After three years of negotiations about land-ownership, however, no progress was made; the Plan ultimately failed. Though humanitarian in nature, the ‘Mindanao Plan’ was endorsed amidst Philippine political and economic aims which delayed any developments. No refugee stepped foot in Mindanao.

On 8 December 1941, the Japanese Army attacked the Philippines and Jewish immigration stopped. Refugees, like Ephraim and Goldhagen, had fled Nazism and the war in Europe only to live through another until 1945. Having (expired) German passports, the Japanese did not intern them, unlike those with Allied nationalities in the Philippines. By the end of the war, those refugees who survived migrated to the US.

Despite the failure of any large-scale project, the success of the immigration programme can be measured by the 1,200 refugees who were admitted into the Philippines. Unfortunately, Sigmund Tauber was not among these refugees. His letter was left unanswered, possibly because he did not fit into the desired categories needed for the ‘Mindanao Plan’. He was deported from Vienna to Terezin then moved to Auschwitz where he was murdered. Though the JRC worked to bring in these thousands of refugees, its capacity was limited by state interests and funds. Outside the ‘Mindanao Plan’, the Philippines became a haven for Jews when many countries rejected them. After independence in 1946, various Philippine Presidents continued to admit different groups of refugees after the war, albeit selectively as well.

Further Reading

Ephraim, F. (2006). The Mindanao plan: political obstacles to Jewish refugee settlement. Holocaust and Genocide Studies20(3), 410-436.

Goldstein, J. (2015). Jewish Identities in East and Southeast Asia: Singapore, Manila, Taipei, Harbin, Shanghai, Rangoon, and Surabaya (Vol. 6). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Harris, B. M. (2009). From Zbaszyn to Manila: The Holocaust Odyssey of Joseph Cysner and the Philippine Rescue of Refugee Jews. University of California, Santa Barbara.

Kotlowski, D. J. (2009). Breaching the Paper Walls: Paul V. McNutt and Jewish Refugees to the Philippines, 1938–1939. Diplomatic History33(5), 865-896.

Image: From Author's Collection. Ephraim, F., & Karnow, S. (2003). Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror. University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from    

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