“Philippine Sanctuary: A Holocaust Odyssey” by Bonnie M Harris

Jews Manila

The story of the Jewish refugees in Asia during World War II almost always centers on Shanghai. Plenty of books, movies, and plays tell how twenty thousand German and Eastern European Jews found their way to Shanghai when most of the world had closed their borders to Jews. But there was another place in Asia that also took in Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Poland in the late 1930s: the Philippines.

In the late 1930s, the Philippines was in the process of gaining independence from the United States, and a transition plan was devised in 1934 to gradually give the Philippines more autonomy until it was to gain full independence in 1946. Of course, no one could have known that the Philippines would be plagued by war in the intervening years. But by 1939, the US was allowing more and more autonomy in the Philippines, which set the stage for rescuing Jewish refugees who had been rendered stateless by Hitler’s policies.

Historian Bonnie M Harris tells the story of the Jewish refugees in Manila in her new book, Philippine Sanctuary, and uncovers a Jewish history in the Philippines that started centuries before World War II.


Philippine Sanctuary: A Holocaust Odyssey, Bonnie M Harris (University of Wisconsin Press, January 2020)
Philippine Sanctuary: A Holocaust Odyssey, Bonnie M Harris (University of Wisconsin Press, January 2020)

Jews in the Philippines date back to its colonization by the Spanish in the sixteenth century when crypto-Jews, who found life difficult and dangerous in their Iberian homeland, sought safety abroad. By crypto-Jews, Harris is referring to Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in 1492, yet continued to practice Judaism in secret, all the while dogged by the Inquisition. Many would become the explorers and merchants that populated almost every port in the newly discovered territories during the Age of Exploration, including the Philippines. Its first openly Jewish community would not establish itself until the United States had taken over the islands after the Spanish-American War and created an East Asian outpost for its military as well as its businesses.

Harris writes that the Jewish community in Manila started helping Jews flee Nazi Germany as early as 1933, when Hitler came to power.


At that time the Philippine government  was engaged in a complete overhaul of its immigration practices and would not complete the ratification process of their new immigration laws until 1940.


Harris learnt about the Jewish community in the Philippines and their rescue of 1300 refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe when, while she was working as a historian at the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego, a woman donated her late husband’s papers. Decades early, a young cantor from Hamburg named Joseph Cysner and his mother arrived in Manila from a no man’s land in Poland, just over the German border. Harris became entranced by the papers and began what was to turn into fifteen years of researching the journey of German and Eastern European Jews to Manila.

Published by the University of Wisconsin Press, her book is dense, and filled with backstory about the rise of the Nazis, Kristallnacht, and Polenaktion, or Polish Action, the policy that expelled Jews of Polish ancestry from Germany. But she includes much newly published information about the Jewish community in the Philippines—and the Jewish refugees there—that her book serves as an invaluable resource for someone researching the War and Jewish communities in Asia.

As for Harris, she concludes that:


Writing Joseph’s story and that of the Philippine rescue of refugee Jews from the Holocaust became my life’s purpose to bear witness and to help the world to never forget.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.