On Global Filipinos: How a PHL president welcomed Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust

Noel ‘Sonny’ Izon is the director and producer of ‘An Open Door: Holocaust Haven in the Philippines.’

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

On January 27, the United Nations remembered the 75th year of the liberation of Auschwitz during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Among the activities was a short screening of the award-winning documentary “An Open Door: Holocaust Haven in the Philippines.”

Director and producer Noel “Sonny” Izon’s work and research of 10 years shed light on the little-known fact that at a horrific time when European Jews were being persecuted in Nazi Germany, the Philippines gave shelter to Jewish refugees.  “An Open Door” reveals how President Manuel L. Quezon saved 1,305 European Jews from Hitler’s pogroms in 1938 until December 7, 1941 when the USA and its territory, the Philippines, entered World War II.

Growing up in the Philippines right after the country’s liberation from the Japanese,  Izon remembered stories from his father about an Austrian physician,  Dr. Otto Zelezny, who treated him in 1945 when he had a virulent form of malaria and saved him from what would have been a fatal illness. His father, Esmeraldo Izon, was the Associate Editor and political cartoonist of the long-running Philippines Free Press.

It was only decades later that he realized the good doctor who saved his father from an early grave was part of the 1,305 European Jews who were welcomed into the Philippines while the rest of the Western World remained indifferent. 

In 1938, delegates from 32 countries, hundreds of journalists, and relief organizations from around the world, met in Evian, a French resort to “address the growing Jewish refugee crisis in Hitler’s German Reich.” But after 10 days of deliberation, they were unable to agree on how to save Germany’s persecuted Jews through “orchestrated resettlement” that President Franklin Roosevelt had requested. History tells us that approximately six million Jews died from the systematic genocide known as the Holocaust.

Families of European Jews found a home in the Philippines at the beginning of World War II.

Meanwhile, out in the Pacific, the Philippines was the beacon of light of that darkest era of the 20th Century.

Against the instruction of the U.S. Department of State, and defying the “Final Solution” of Hitler’s plan to murder the Jews in Europe to build his Aryan Race, Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, with the assistance of U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt, authorized the entry of 1,305 Jews fleeing Europe.

Izon came to the United States to study in 1967 when he was 21 years old, intending to return after his graduate studies. But fate intervened and he married his university sweetheart Kathryn after they graduated and settled down in the Washington D.C. area. They have two daughters, Laura Annette, a partner in a law firm in Sacramento; and Juliet Kathryn, a journalist in New York.

Manuel L. Quezon: He served as president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines from 1935 to 1944.

After a stint working for a local television station, he started to make documentaries of little-known facets of Philippine-American history. In 2005, he completed “An Untold Triumph” which documented how 7,000 Filipino Americans born in the USA joined the U.S. army for the liberation of the Philippines during World War II. Public Broadcasting System sponsored the film which aired nationwide in May 2005 on prime time reaching nearly three million households.  It would be rebroadcast 15 more times over the next four years.

In 2006, he completed “Sandaan,” the story of the first 100 years of Filipinos in America for the Smithsonian Institution. It premiered to an SRO crowd in October of that year at the Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium.

In 2008, he met Manolo Quezon III, grandson of the president of the Commonwealth, when he learned about Quezon’s heroic decision to rescue Jewish refugees from Europe’s conflagration. Izon began his odyssey and travelled to Europe, Philippines and several cities in the USA to interview the survivors of that period some of whom were children when they arrived in the Philippines. The film won Best Picture at the White Nights Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, Best of Festival at the Brussels International Film Festival, and Best Picture at the Java International Humanitarian Film Awards.

Everyone talked about how welcoming the Filipinos were. For many of them, Marikina — where President Quezon’s farm land was located and which he donated so the refugees would not be a burden to the country — would always be their first home. They were not imprisoned when the Japanese invaded the Philippines because they were considered Germans, and Germany was an ally of Japan in World War II.

Izon visited Israel in 2016 and went to see the Open Doors Monument at the Rishon LeZion Holocaust Park erected to honor President Quezon’s rescue of the Jewish asylum seekers.  He was so touched by Israel’s gesture of gratitude that he decided it should begin the title of his documentary.

In addition, the Israel government has given free entry to any Filipino without requiring a visa. Thanks to Izon, the rest of us can be inspired that in the worst of times, we Filipinos showed the world what Love of Neighbor truly means.

© The FilAm 2020

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