Poker pals in Philippines took gamble, saved 1,200 Jewsby dan pine, j. staff
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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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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