By Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
Below is the transcript of my interview with Galveston resident Dr. Barbara Sasser, the granddaughter of Alex Frieder. Prior to the release of “Quezon’s Game,” a one-hour documentary, “Rescue in the Philippines,” directed by Russell C. Hodge and Cynthia-Scott Johnson was produced by 3 Roads Communications and Frieder Films. Narrated by Liev Schreiber, the film further illuminates the story of how the five Frieder brothers together with the president of the Philippines, Paul McNutt and Army Colonel Dwight Eisenhower aided in the rescue mission of over 1,300 Jews. The documentary, which aired on PBS stations across the country, is available to watch on Amazon Prime or through the website at: https://www.rescueinthephilippines.com.
Susan Kandell Wilkofsky: Good morning Barbara. I am thrilled to speak with you this morning.
Barbara Sasser: Me too. I’m happy to have the opportunity to participate in this.
SKW: I write for the Texas Jewish Post and I see that you live in Texas, is that right?
BS: I do. I live in Galveston.
SKW: So are you a subscriber of the Post?
BS: I’m happy to start, send me a link!
SKW: I thought the film (“Quezon’s Game”) was absolutely fascinating. What a story! I’m also a Jewish film festival programmer and I’m amazed at the stories that are out there, still waiting to be shared. This is certainly one of them. So, you are the granddaughter of Alex Frieder who was one of the central figures portrayed in “Quezon’s Game.” And your mother, was she born there?
BS: She was born in the Philippines. Yes, she was.
SKW: Did she enjoy life in the tropics?
BS: Well, it was an interesting childhood for her in particular, She’s the youngest of three girls. The family is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. There were five brothers but only two were in “Quezon’s Game.” The reason the family was in the Philippines was because they were in the cigar business. They distributed cigars in the United States through Cincinnati and New York. None of the brothers wanted to live in the tropics full time so they alternated every two years. Mom was born during one of her father’s two year stays. They went back and forth to Cincinnati every two years until she was 14.
When she was 13 or 14 the refugees began arriving. So she was actually there to see this whole plan come to fruition and understand what was happening.
SKW: So let’s go back a little bit. When did you first learn about your family’s involvement in the plan to rescue Jews? Is this something that your family spoke of often?
BS: The knowledge that my mother was born in the Philippines and grew up there was common knowledge. You could clearly see its influence throughout our house in her choice of decoration; how she furnished the house. But the story of the refugees was not spoken of often. And in fact, it wasn’t part of family lore as we say. But it was brought back to the front page around 2004, when the book Escape to Manila was published by one of the boys that left Germany and went to Philippines as a child. He grew up in the United States after spending time in the Philippines. After the war, most of the refugees came to the United States. He settled in Washington, D.C. and became a docent for the Holocaust Museum in DC. He would tell his fellow docents, “Yes, I went to the Philippines during the Holocaust,” and they laughed. Not one of the more common places you would think. He spoke to all of his co-refugees and put a book together which was published and it was quite a big deal.
SKW: That’s remarkable!
BS: In Cincinnati there was a gathering of 90 members of the Frieder family. and representatives from the Philippine diplomatic corps. I don’t know if we had the ambassador from the Philippines come to Cincinnati, but certainly higher ups in their embassy staff. Unbelievably, one of Quezon’s granddaughters, actually his only granddaughter, lives in Columbus, Ohio and she attended. And we had local Filipinos as well. We also had a representative from McNutt’s family (Paul McNutt, High Commissioner to the Philippines). So it was a weekend’s worth of activities, where we all got to know each other and share stories. Many of the refugees also came to that event. So that put the story front and center and kind of took off from there.
SKW: In 2013 you produced the documentary “Rescue in the Philippines.” Why now a feature length film?
BS: Well, OK, we should clear that up. I produced the documentary which I started working on in 2010. It took a while to germinate and put my efforts toward it. But once I did, I went full force and got it made in a couple of years. It was distributed on public television stations around the country and it’s been shown in a lot of impressive places; the U.N., the Holocaust Museum and at the presidential palace in the Philippines with the president in attendance. That was a highlight!
SKW: That’s impressive!
BS: I did not produce “Quezon’s Game.” I made the documentary “Rescue in the Philippines,” and “Quezon’s Game” is a fictionalized version of that story that was made by Filipinos in the Philippines. They certainly had seen “Rescue in the Philippines” and had done their own research. And there’s a temple in the Philippines that has documentation of the story. So they were Filipino filmmakers, and they had the backing of the government-backed cultural film development, people in the Philippines, and the largest television station in the Philippines – the three of them got together and produced “Quezon’s Game.” They did talk to me, and they solicited some suggestions here and there. I’m just pleased that it’s doing so well both in the Philippines and that they were able to get a national release in the United States which means that more people will learn about this story.
BS: One of our major goals in doing our film was, A) to get the history out, and B) to hopefully have the Philippines recognized by Yad Vashem and other Holocaust-related organizations as a rescuing nation. We would also like to have Quezon recognized as Righteous Among Nations. So if this film helps with that, that’ll be wonderful!
SKW: Where can we see “Rescue in the Philippines”?
BS: It’s on our website: https://www.rescueinthephilippines.com where you can get a link. It’s also on Amazon Prime.
SKW: Perfect. After seeing “Quezon’s Game” I’m sure others would like to see your documentary as well.
BS: Just search for “Rescue in the Philippines.”
SKW: I wish I had seen it before I spoke to you, but at least I will get a chance to see it later. So let’s switch back to the story. I wasn’t clear about this one concept however. Normally, money would be the deal-breaker for transporting the refugees, but that seemed to be no problem. The exit visas and governmental papers were the tricky part of the equation. Where did the funding come from?
BS: Funding came primarily from the Jewish community in the Philippines. There were a number of wealthy Jewish businessmen who had been there prior to the Holocaust.
SKW: Really? I wasn’t aware of that – but there are Jews everywhere!
We both laugh.
BS: Yes. Jews arrived in the Philippines in, maybe, the late 1800s. There were a number of Iraqi Jews and French (Alsatian) Jews that went to the Philippines for commerce and they stayed there and made a life there. For that matter, the Frieders arrived not in the late 1800s, but in the early 1920s, and they were there because of the Filipino cigars. And so there was a Jewish community. The first actual temple was built in 1924. My grandfather had a role in building that, although it’s called Temple Emil after a different Jewish businessman, Emil Bachrach. And then a number of those Jews stayed after World War II and there continued to be a Jewish presence in business after the war. So that’s where I think most of the money came from, but in addition they wrote to and received money from the Joint Distribution Committee in New York. They (JDC) support projects like that – helping to resettle Jews all over the world. And they had a subcommittee of the main board called the Refugee Economic Cooperation, and that was charged primarily with finding jobs and economic opportunity for Jews wherever they were going in the world. And there was a large project planned, not in Manila, but on the island of Mindanao. It was a whole different island in the Philippines, and there was a plan to resettle 10,000 and even more Jews on Mindanao. That was in the works. The land had been bought. The refugees had been chosen. The development, road and what crops and what animals were going to be raised was all planned out. But by late 1940, early ’41, it all fell apart because of Pearl Harbor. So the number of Jews that were able to be rescued were around1300, but there was a plan in place for many, many, many more.
SKW: I thought it was amazing that Quezon said exactly what Oskar Schindler said, “I could have done more.”
BS: If it was up to him, it would have been more.
SKW: Do you think that once he realized he was so ill, this became an important element of his legacy? He already had legislated great reforms in his country.
BS: Quezon is one of my heroes. I mean, he exhibited the highest moral character I think of all the players in the story. And he did some wonderful things! And he was a humanitarian for sure. I think it was important to him to save as many Jews as he could. He thought it was the right thing to do. We have a quote from him in our film that says he considered himself a good Catholic, and the most unreligious thing he could think of would be to think badly of the people that brought them their Savior. Now, that’s the real quote. And you have to remember that “Quezon’s Game” is a fictionalized version.
SKW: I’m sure they weren’t privy to all those conversations that went on during poker games.
BS: Right! He had friendships with Jews. He had a Jewish physician. He had a Jewish businessman as a best friend. His son was best friends with one of the boys from Germany, who lived upstairs from his family’s restaurant. This boy got picked up every Saturday morning by limousine and taken to Malacañang Palace to spend the weekend with Quezon’s son.
SKW: He actually talked the talk and walked the walk.
BS: And it is true in the film. It talks about land that was Quezon’s that he donated. It wasn’t all the land that he had, but it was a lot of land that he donated to the Jews to build a community so that they could be farmers like the model for Palestine. And that was his own personal land that he gave to the Jews.
SKW: Do any of the refugees – their descendants – still live there?
BS: Yes, there are some descendants of refugees still in the Philippines. They’re mostly Jews who married Filipinos and stayed there. I don’t personally know any of them. Most of their forefathers didn’t go to the Philippines because they wanted to go to the Philippines, right? It was a place that because of my grandfather and Paul McNutt and Quezon, the Philippines were willing to let them in. My grandfather placed ads in the German newspapers, as it is shown in “Quezon’s Game.” They put German ads in the papers that said the Philippines were accepting Jews – and people wrote in droves, many more than could be accepted.
SKW: So how were the selections made? I would imagine they wanted one or two of every profession, like Noah’s ark. A doctor, a baker, etc.
BS: A little bit. A little bit. Quezon, the Frieders, and the Jewish community came up with lists of jobs that were either lacking in the Philippines or they needed more of. And those job positions got priority. One job position that was listed was a rabbi – single and over 40 years old.
SKW: That was fundamental!
BS: So they did recruit a rabbi, for sure. The film fictionalizes the decision making process a bit. Quezon was not personally invested in choosing them. There was a Jewish committee that went through the dossiers and picked names, and then it was cleared by Quezon, or by Quezon’s office, and then sent to the State Department for approval. Paul McNutt did work very hard to get those visas approved. And he got them!
SKW: McNutt was obviously instrumental in the process.
BS: The State Department didn’t like it, but the Philippines was a colony and it wasn’t the continental United States. So they didn’t press down too hard, but McNutt certainly did buck the State Department. And without him, it wouldn’t have happened. He left in ’39 to go back to the United States and run for president. The high commissioner that succeeded him was not as dedicated to the program as McNutt, and it started to fall apart. Each one of those players – Quezon, McNutt, and the Frieders were all crucial to making this process happen and those relationships were built over those poker games.
SKW: Truly a high-stakes poker game! Eisenhower played an important role – as sort of an intermediary.
BS: Right. We talk about Eisenhower in our film, as they did in their film. And Eisenhower was a very good person. What I know about Eisenhower, is….he’s another hero. We know historically that the Frieders offered him a job in ’39 when he was going to leave the Philippines and go back to the United States. They offered him a job to manage the larger refugee influx that was planned for the island of Mindanao.
SKW: Obviously he turned it down. He went on to bigger and better things.
BS: Right. Exactly!
SKW: So it must be a wonderful feeling to know that your ancestors had a part in saving so many lives.
BS: It’s an unbelievable feeling. It is, and it’s big shoes to fill.
SKW: So you’re doing your part, bringing the story to people who would not know about it otherwise, and hopefully set the stage for others.
SKW: Well, I really appreciate your time today, Barbara. This was fascinating and I hope the film does well. We will do everything we can to get the word out.
BS: Well, thank you very much. I want as many people as possible to see “Quezon’s Game.”
SKW: And I think many will want to see “Rescue in the Philippines” as well.
The website again is?
BS: rescueinthephilippines.com. As long as you spell the word, Philippines correct, you’re good!
SKW: I will double-check that for sure.
We both laugh.