Like many nations living under the dark night of World War 2, the Philippines played a complicated role. We were allies to the United States, but also a Commonwealth, our independence not fully fledged. Our position in the Pacific Theater was passive, as we watched the Americans and the Japanese duke it out on battleships and fighter planes. Still, small and developing nation that we were and still are, we were a safe haven for many—specifically the thousands of Jews who fled the Nazi occupation and sought refuge on our shores.
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We were certainly not the first and only country that welcomed the Jews during this critical period in history, but we did, and it's not something often discussed in your average history class. Manuel L. Quezon's open door policy was what made this possible, and his narrative is the focal point of the documentary Quezon's Game, an iWant original. But what about the personal experiences of the Jews who fled to us? Quezon's Game then became a jump-off point for a new iWant documentary, The Last Manilaners, which tells the stories of the last living Jews living on our soil, and their firsthand accounts of the tides that swept them from war to the pearl of the orient.
Directed by Nico Hernandez, the four-part docu focuses on three key witnesses to this underdiscussed chapter of our history: Margot Pins Kestenbaum, Lotte Hershfield, and Max Weissler. It is a miracle Hernandez and his team, along with the help of Lee Blumenthal, executive director of the Jewish Association of the Philippines, were able to track these three people down—diasporas are scattered by nature, after all, and it's not very often we get to hear stories from those who personally experienced the last world war.
To engage with the stories of Kestenbaum, Hershfield, and Weissler is a twofold experience. Through their anecdotes and memories, we get something of a refresher of World War 2. While this great armed conflict is known to all of us on a macro scale, the finer details are often known to committed academics, or are otherwise lost. But through these three individuals we hear about how the Nazi occupation first took shape, with anti-Jew propaganda showing up in public places. The Last Manilaners also tells of Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass,” a violent riot carried out by Nazi paramilitants against the Jews in 1938. It is so easy to look at the second world war with distance and detachment, but these anecdotes are given new life in the documentary, reminding its viewers of the urgency and brutality of war.
What's especially interesting about The Last Manilaners though is learning about how the Jewish experience intersected with and engaged with Philippine culture. At one point, Margot recalls her family members teasing her, saying that she'd be going to a country where elephants and tigers walked the streets. In that memory is a snapshot of how Europe viewed the third world at the time. Weissler in particular is a fascinating subject. Fluently switching between English and fluent Tagalog, he identifies as a "kanto boy," and recalls how his mom and dad, who ran a bake shop for a living, learned to use the ingredient of cassava. Kestenbaum and Hershfield fondly recalled the newness of being able to live near the water, and living life where wooden bakyas. A point of pride: these three Jews all have in common having experienced the generosity of Filipinos—of schoolchildren sharing food even though they all had little, and teaching them how to use mosquito nets. "Para sa amin, [The Last Manilaners] ay isang regalo para sa mga Filipino," says Hernandez, noting the common notion that Filipinos are known for their hospitality. "It's a gift to the Filipino country. When you watch it, talagang mafe-feel mo, ang sarap maging Filipino."
The release of The Last Manilaners is timely and relevant for many reasons. The docu series began streaming on January 27, International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. Not only that, this valuable, educational series is coming to us at a politically tense time, in which a new world war seems to be on the horizon, genocide is commonplace, and refugees seek solace in those who have compassion to spare. From The Last Manilaners, we would do well to extract the compassion extended to Kestenbaum, Hershfield, and Weissler, and meet this critical point in history with their courage.
The Last Manilaners streams exclusively on iWant.