Frederick Documentarians Recount Seldom-Told Story From the Path to World War II that Saved More Than 1,000 Lives From the Holocaust
On the eve of World War II, a small group of men sought refuge from the tropical heat of the Philippines by routinely organizing a poker game in the Manila Hotel, one of the few buildings in the country that boasted air conditioning. But these weren’t ordinary men and their ostensibly friendly game of cards actually involved the highest of stakes.
Seated at the table were U.S. Army Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a noted card shark who would become Allied commander during the war and later president of the United States; Philippine President Manuel Quezon; U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt; and one of the Frieder brothers, five Jewish businessmen from Cincinnati who took turns living in Manila to oversee the family cigar business. Yes, this wasn’t your neighborhood poker game.
Somewhere, amid the cigar smoke, between the raises and folds, and over McNutt’s monogrammed mother-ofpearl poker chips, the players assembled a daring and intricate international plan of rescue and resettlement that required their special talents in saving 1,300 Jews from certain death in Nazi concentration camps.
The story of the plan hatched over poker is being told in a new documentary called Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust, produced by Frederick’s 3 Roads Communications. The one-hour film—which its producers describe as Argo meets Casa Blanca—features archival footage and photographs, and interviews that include Holocaust survivors rescued by the operation. It began airing on PBS stations nationwide during the past month.
“We thought this was a perfect example of people who stepped up and did the right thing, even when it wasn’t in their best interest to do so,” says Russ Hodge, president and executive producer of 3 Roads. His wife, Cynthia Scott, chief executive officer of 3 Roads, explains, “It’s about people who did the right thing—actually taking action instead of just talking about it.”
Hodge and Scott didn’t know about the Philippines story until 2005, when a longtime friend introduced them to Frank Ephraim, who wrote the book Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, which told the story about the pre-war plan to rescue the Jews. “I said at the time, ‘Wow, that would make a great documentary’,” Hodge recalls.
The book not only revealed an oftoverlooked chapter of history, it stirred interest in the matter among survivors and their families. And while many children and grandchildren of the Frieders had heard the tales about the plan through the years, they weren’t certain where history ended and folklore began. “They grew up with some of these stories, but they never really knew about [the entire operation] until the book came out,” Scott says.
Despite the renewed interest, by the time 3 Roads began production of the documentary in 2011, something fascinating was revealed: For many of the survivors, their filmed interviews with the producers was the first time they had ever talked about their incredible journey from Nazi Germany to the Philippines and eventually the United States. “They didn’t like to talk about it,” Scott says. “They felt like nobody wanted to hear about it.”
For Hodge, conducting the interviews was a challenge at first, having to coax the survivors to unlock a memory that covered the spectrum of emotions. But once they opened up, it became a cathartic exercise. “A lot of them said after [the interview] that it was like a therapy session,” he says. “It was the first time many of them spoke about this for 70 years.”
The men who put together the plan in Manila formed an unlikely alliance, coming from different backgrounds and serving different interests. But they had a common enjoyment of poker, and they shared something else: a concern that the growing Nazi influence in Europe in the late 1930s was persecuting and endangering Jews.
So they put together a plan that was complex and as difficult as drawing a straight flush: The Frieder brothers would recruit German Jews to work in their cigar factory; McNutt, the former governor of Indiana, would use his political savvy to slash the red tape required for the refugees to receive work visas; Quezon would provide the critical support of the Philippine government; and Eisenhower would use his mastery in organization and strategy—that he would display during the war—to make many of the pieces work together.
And the plan required each man to navigate his own political and cultural minefield, often risking their own careers in the process— be it the political static and regulations to get the visas, raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the operation, and even overcoming anti-Semitic sentiments in the United States and elsewhere. “What’s nice about this is they were all men of character,” Hodge says.
While the plan was successful in saving 1,300 lives, President Quezon had a more ambitious goal of resettling tens of thousands more Jews, possibly as many as a million, in his country. But the operation was truncated by the war, as the Japanese army invaded the Philippines in late 1941, forcing out the Americans, including the Frieders. The subsequent three years of occupation resulted in brutal treatment by the Japanese, an especially cruel fate for the refugees who escaped the horrors of Europe. “We had gone from the frying pan into the fire,” Lotte Hershfield, a German refugee, says in the documentary.
Still, Hodge sees a great lesson in the story—that people of courage and wisdom can overcome perceived differences to help others, even over a game of poker. And in a world that still struggles with intolerance and injustice, that lesson remains profound.
“We still think it has a ton of relevance in today’s world,” he says.