On the eve of the Holocaust, the Philippines under the leadership of then President Manuel L. Quezon opened the country’s doors to around 1,300 European Jews. This story is explored in the documentary film “An Open Door” by award winning filmmaker Noel Izon. Along with Professor Bonnie Harris, Holocaust historian and the film’s associate producer, Izon discussed the significance of this event in a webinar hosted by the University of the Philippines Alumni Association of Wisconsin (UPAA-W) on October 18, 2021.
“It is my hope, & indeed my expectation, that 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 glad to extend to a persecuted people, a hand of welcome.”Manuel Quezon, President of the Philippine Commonwealth, April 23, 1940
The webinar started with the streaming of the 16-minute version of the documentary followed by a panel discussion with Izon, Harris and special guests Eric Rauscher and Jack Simke. Rauscher and Simke are both descendants of survivors rescued in the Philippines. Rauscher talked about unseen film footage he has recently acquired of the Jewish migration from Europe to the Philippines while Simke revealed how he still holds a Philippine passport in tribute to the strong bond he feels towards the Philippines and its people.
Many attendees later commented on the powerful story of the film and the survivors. Izon himself has a personal connection with the story. His father who was gravely ill with malaria in 1945 was saved by Dr. Otto Zelesny, who along with his brother came to the Philippines in the 1930s. If not for Zelesny, Izon, his children and grandchildren would not have been born.
Both Izon and Harris answered questions and explored both the past and present significance of the story including what life was like for Jews in the Philippines and what lasting influences they left in the country. Jews assimilated well into daily Filipino life and they left influences in both arts and religion. World War II and the devastation of Manila did lead most Jews to immigrate later to the United States. According to Izon, President Quezon believed that asylum is a human rights issue – a belief that echoes much relevance in the world’s present-day refugee crisis.
UPAA-W is extremely honored to have been able to get Izon and Harris for this event. Izon is an award-winning filmmaker who brings little known stories to light. Prior to “An Open Door”, his film “An Untold Triumph” aired on PBS stations in prime time to millions of households across the country. Harris is a Holocaust scholar whose PhD research was partly used for the film. Harris also recently released a new book entitled “Philippine Sanctuary: A Holocaust Odyssey”. One attendee won a signed copy of the book and all attendees were given a special discount code.
The event was hosted by Creamheld Pepito, UPAA-W board member and chair of the Value Our Heritage (VOH) Committee. VOH is an annual event sponsored by UPAA-W to help educate the community on Filipino culture and heritage. Amid Covid pandemic, VOH went virtual for the first time with the help of various UPAA-W members including Fe Visaya, Ike Pahm, Rowena Punzalan and other UPAA-W members who promoted the event via email, phone calls and social media. The organization hopes that it will be able to show the full version of the film in the near future.