Asian Jewish Life – Jewish Refugee Rescue in the Philippines The Cantor Joseph Cysner Story (Part 1 of 2) – Issue 13

Jewish Refugee Rescue in the Philippines
The Cantor Joseph Cysner Story
(Part 1 of 2)
by Bonnie M. Harris

(Click here for part 2.- in AJL’s Issue 15)

Though I have never met him, I feel as if I know more about Cantor Joseph Cysner than any other person alive – perhaps even more than his children. I spent the better part of a decade researching this remarkable Holocaust survivor story. While documenting and penning his incredible tale, I often times felt the human at the center of the story was getting lost. Writing this article has helped me to find him again.
Fish Flags - Blue SkyJewish Refugee Rescue in the Philippines -1
Cysner inside Emil, Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego

Joseph Cysner, born in 1912 in Bamberg, was the 7th and lastchild of Jewish parents from Eastern Europe. Regardless of thefact that he was born, raised, and educated in Germany, hewas still classified as a Polish Jew under Nazi Germany’s raciallaws. He left Bamberg in 1929 to attend the Jewish TheologicalSeminary in Würzburg and graduated in 1933. Joseph beganhis career as a Cantor in Germany the same year that Hitlerwas appointed Chancellor. AsJoseph labored in the Jewishcommunities of Hannover andHildesheim between 1933 and1937, he witnessed the risingflood of antisemitic legislationmarginalizing the political,economic, and social positionsof Jews in Germany. Nazi anti-Jewish measures in Germanyaccelerated with the enactmentof the Nuremberg Laws in 1935,in which German Jews lost theircitizenship rights. Joseph’solder brothers all emigrated in the early 1930s, one went tothe United States and two others went to Palestine. His sistersboth married and moved to Berlin. In 1937, Joseph received alifetime contract as Cantor at the Verband Reform Synagoguein Hamburg, the same year his father died. Joseph shoulderedthe financial responsibility for his widowed mother for the restof his life. He never saw his brothers that went to Palestineagain, nor his sister Charlotte and her family, who all perishedin Auschwitz.

The critical year of Joseph’s story is 1938. Poland passedlegislation aimed at its Jewish citizens living abroad that virtuallyrescinded citizenship for all persons holding Polish passportswho have lived outside of Poland for 5 years or longer. Theseseries of new statutes essentially made nearly 60,000 PolishJews living in Germany, and the newly annexed territories ofAustria and the Sudetenland, stateless. This enraged Hitler, whodemanded that Poland rescind the decrees. The Anschluss ofAustria and annexation of Czech territories earlier in 1938 hadsent thousands of Jews to consul offices trying to flee back toPoland, which Poland frantically tried to halt as a tidal wave of Polish Jews attempted to return. Hitler decided to trumpPoland’s play, and on October 26, 1938 he ordered the arrestsof all Polish Jews still residing in Germany and Austria in orderto transport them en masse to the Polish border in the firstmassive deportation of denounced Jews by Nazi Germany.An estimated 17,000 Jews in Germany and Austria – men,women, children, elderly, cripple, whatever – were arrested onOctober 27, held overnight in centers, jails, parks, or other largefacilities, trucked to train depots, locked into passenger cars,and transported to the Polish border on October 28th and 29thof 1938. Imagine trains from all over Greater Germany packedwith thousands of frightened and disoriented people all headedin one direction – East.

Joseph was one of nearly 900 Jews deported that night fromHamburg. His mother, still in Bamberg, was spared. CantorCysner wrote a memoir of theevent and the terrible sceneof chaos, suffering, and terrorat the border when masses ofJews were driven by bayonetedGerman soldiers across theborder and Polish border guardsfired rifles into the air to stopthem. It was pandemonium.

These stateless Jews weresheltered all along the German-Polish border in makeshift tentcamps until many were sent onto Warsaw. Joseph and about 8,000 others were detained ata Polish border town called Zbaszyn. His memoir tells of hisexperiences during the 6 months he was held there. An importantfact of history should be noted – part of that transport of Jewsthat were taken to Zbaszyn included Jews from Hannover,where Joseph had once lived and worked. The Grynszpanfamily from Hannover also ended up in Zbaszyn. The refugeesat Zbaszyn were able to send out telegrams and the Grynszpanfamily sent some to their son, Herschel, who was at school inParis, telling him about their terrible expulsion from their home.In his despair, Herschel went to the German Embassy in Parisand shot and killed a consular official, Ernst vom Rath. This acttriggered Kristallnacht, the infamous night of broken glass onNovember 9, 1938. After hearing about Kristallnacht while beingheld at Zbaszyn, Joseph knew he and all the other refugees atZbaszyn would never again live in Germany.

Refugees in Manilla
Refugees in Manila
Temple Emil, Manila, April 1940
Temple Emil, Manila, April 1940
Emil, Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego
Temple Emil, Manila, April 1940 - Emil, Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego
Temple Emil, Manila, April 1940
Emil, Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego

While interned at Zbaszyn, Joseph received a telegram from hisfriend and colleague, Rabbi Josef Schwartz, who had immigratedto Manila from Hildesheim in September 1938. Schwartz hadconvinced the leaders of the Jewish Community in Manila that the growing diverse ethnic community of Jewish refugeesneeded a Cantor to help unify it and when he sent the telegram toJoseph, he did not know that Joseph was no longer in Hamburg.But the telegram, through good German bureaucracy, foundJoseph in Zbaszyn. Joseph answered yes to the job offer andwas able to leave Zbaszyn in April 1939, arriving in Manila in May1939. Joseph was met by other refugee Jews who had escapedEurope through the efforts of Philippine officials, PhilippinePresident Manuel Luis Quezón y Molina and High CommissionerPaul V. McNutt, and a rescue committee led by wealthy Americanmerchant Jews in Manila. Over the course of 3 to 4 years, 1300refugee Jews from Europe found a safe haven from Nazi tyrannyin the Far Eastern paradise of Manila.

Depending when in the time frame of the pre-WWII era in whichrefugees left, there were two different major routes that providedtransport for refugee Jews from various points of departure inEurope to ports in southern and eastern Asia. From the early1930s to the mid-1940s, the first route, by sea, carried fleeingrefugees from ports mostly in Italy on to Alexandria, Egyptand then through the Suez Canal to ports-of-call in Bombay,Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, Shanghai, and Kobe andYokohama, Japan. Other vessels that left from seaports innorthern Europe, such as Bremen or Hamburg, usually sailedaround the Cape of Good Hope, extending the already fourweek voyage time to east Asia by another six weeks. 1 Shipscould be booked six months in advance and carry as many asone thousand Jewish refugees per voyage. The other majorroute of transportation to the Far East was the land route acrossRussia and Siberia via the Trans-Siberian Railway and ChineseEastern Railroad that had once brought Russian Jews to Asiatwo decades earlier.

Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecutions began arrivingin Asian ports as early as 1933, following Hitler’s ascent topower. Some refugees en route to the open city of Shanghaijumped ship in Manila, seeking asylum in an American overseascolony rather than an Asian one. The number of refugeesseeking asylum in Asian ports corresponded to the waves ofincreased antisemitic violence in the Third Reich under Nazism.In Joseph’s flight to the Philippines, he shared quarters on shipwith many refugees bound for Shanghai. In one year’s time, theJewish refugee numbers in Shanghai went from 1,500 near theend of 1938 to nearly 17,000 by the end of 1939. Stripped oftheir assets and property, these refugee Jews augmented thealready destitute population of Hongkew with their similarlyimpoverished numbers. Large-scale relief plans implementedby the existing Jewish communities of Shanghai collected fundsand provided affordable lodging and food distribution centers.Much needed aid also began to arrive from foreign offices ofthe American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, commonlyknown as the Joint or the JDC, and from the American HebrewImmigration Aid Society (HIAS). 2 But as time advanced and asmore and more refugee locations around the world competed forfunds from the JDC, HIAS and other Jewish relief organizationsof the world, it became more difficult to fill the needs of thethousands of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and by extension,to other Asian ports as well, Manila included.

Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany arrived in the Philippinesas early as 1933, but they were few in numbers and theirescape almost entirely undocumented. However, the firstsignificant influx of European refugee Jews to arrive in Maniladid not come directly from Europe, but rather from the Jewishrefugee community in Shanghai. With the renewal of hostilitiesbetween the Japanese and Chinese in 1937, which resultedin the occupation of Peking by Japanese forces, the fourmillion inhabitants of Shanghai faced the dangers of war inan occupied territory and various civilian communities soughtescape from Shanghai’s battle grounds. Germany’s shift ofalliance from China to Japan at this time alarmed German Jewsin Shanghai, who feared German pressure on Japan to adoptNazi discriminatory policies against Shanghai’s German Jewishpopulation. The Manila Jewish community shared that fear andorganized the Jewish Refugee Committee of Manila (JRC) withthe intention of rescuing German members of the ShanghaiJewish community. When the Sino-Japanese War broke out onJuly 7, 1937, the JRC received a telegram seeking assistancefor Shanghai’s refugee Jews. The small Jewish communityin Manila immediately raised $8,000, but the money was not needed as the wealthier Sephardic Jews of Shanghai steppedup and cared for the needs of the Shanghai refugees on theirown. The JRC in Manila decided to hold the funds in escrow forfuture needs, which came almost immediately.

One month later the German government sent a ship toShanghai to evacuate all German nationals from the war zoneto Manila. In the evacuation, they also took aboard about 30German Jewish refugee families. The Jewish community inMania took charge of the refugee Jewish families at the requestof the German Consul in the Philippines. 3 This spontaneousrescue of German refugee Jews from Shanghai became theimpetus for the devised rescue plans that followed, bringingJoseph and 1,300 like him to a safe haven in the Pacific. 4

Refugee rescuers in the Philippines operated selection andsponsorship programs unlike any Jewish rescue operationsexecuted anywhere else in the world during these years. Theplans involved a collaboration of efforts from political dignitariesand businessmen in the Philippines, relief organizations inboth the United States and in Germany, and even governmentofficials in the often antisemitic-leaning U.S. State Department.While some programs proved most successful, others werethwarted, and ultimately, the few who were saved underwentfurther depravations under the invading Japanese. Joseph’sstory helps bring to light the efforts of the many to rescue thefew, or in Joseph’s case, the one.

The rescue of the German Jews from Shanghai came to theattention of the Refugee Economic Corporation (REC), anaffiliate of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee(JDC) headquartered in New York City. 5 Incorporated in 1934,the REC, originally called the Refugee Rehabilitation Committee,6 specialized in funding Jewish settlements in countries thatagreed to take in refugee Jews. 7 Exactly how the plan to initiaterescue in the Philippines was conceived has become shroudedin legend over the last seventy years. Stories credit PresidentQuezon for initiating the offer, others claim High CommissionerMcNutt devised the plan, and still others place members ofthe JRC at a poker table with General Eisenhower, PresidentQuezon, and High Commissioner McNutt, where these gamblingbuddies hashed out a rescue plan while indulging in fine cigarsrolled by S. Frieder & Sons Manufacturing. But according tothe documentary record, once information spread to the RECthat the Philippines could be a safe haven for further Jewishimmigration, the notable correspondence between the realinitiators began: Charles Liebman and Bruno Schachner of theREC in New York; Paul V. McNutt, the U.S. High Commissionerfor the Philippine Islands; Philip Frieder and his brothers, ofthe successful Jewish merchant family in the Philippines anddirectors of the Jewish Refugee Committee in Manila; ManualLuis Quezon y Molina, President of the Commonwealth nation of the Philippines; and J. C. Hyman of the New York-basedAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

According to correspondence between Liebman and McNutt inMay and June of 1938, the REC initiated contact with McNuttthrough mutual acquaintances with two brothers, Julius andJacob Weiss, the former an associate with the REC and thelatter an Indiana State Senator and personal friend of McNutt.8 McNutt’s May 19, 1938 letter to Julius Weiss, brother of hisfriend and colleague Jacob Weiss, is the earliest official recorddiscussing rescue in the Philippines in which McNutt refers backto a promise he made to Jacob’s brother that he, McNutt, woulddiscuss a rescue program with leaders in Manila, confirmingthat he did and plans were in the works. 9

Jacob Weiss had sent a letter to McNutt in the Philippinesperhaps as early as December 1937 on behalf of the REC,inquiring if it were possible to allow 100 German Jewish familiesa haven in the archipelago. McNutt replied that he would be inthe USA in just a few weeks and that they could talk about itthen. McNutt arrived in Washington D.C. on February 23, 1938and did not return to the Philippines until April 1938. Duringthat time, McNutt and Weiss attended a reception together andtalked for about 10 minutes, making arrangements to talk againover breakfast in about 2 days’ time. McNutt indicated thathe had several meetings to attend in the meantime with Pres.Roosevelt and the Secretary of State, to name a few. Whenthey met up again, McNutt indicated to Weiss that “it was allarranged,” and that visas for refugee Jews would be approvedand issued by him without U.S. State Department interference– “When I get back to Manila I’m going to arrange for theproper reception of these refugees.” 10 Communications thenrapidly ensued between the Weiss brothers, Paul V. McNutt andCharles Liebman of the REC in New York City.

The REC advanced funds in conjunction with the JDC to meetstipulations voiced by McNutt that the refugees not becomepublic charges. The importance of McNutt’s role in the selectionplan, and the sponsorship that came later, cannot be overstated.Without his initiation of the dialog between the PhilippineGovernment, the U.S. State Department, the Jewish Communityin Manila, and the American Jewish relief organizations, it isdoubtful the plans would have ever germinated. McNutt’swillingness to work with the many agencies involved in theserescue efforts was key to the success of the programs.

Suffice it to say, that when the Philippines was occupied bythe Japanese in January 1942, all civilian aliens, who held apassport from a country at war with Japan or Germany, werearrested and interned for 3 years at Santo Tomas University,which had become a civilian prison over night. The irony isthat the American and British Jews who were the benefactorsof the Jewish refugees were now interned and the majority ofthe refugee Jews who were German and Austrians were not.But Joseph had a Polish passport and he too was arrested andinterned at Santo Tomas. He survived Nazi arrest, expulsion,imprisonment and escape only to encounter the same things atthe hands of the Japanese.

Exactly what were these programs and how did they operate?The case study of Joseph’s rescue is a good example. Thesequestions and others will be explored in the second part tothis article.

(Click here for part 2.- in AJL’s Issue 15)

Cysner with children before the occupation.
Cysner with children before the occupation.
Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego


To learn more about Dr. Harris’ extensive research on the Jews in the Philippines, please visit her site at
  1. David Kranzler, Japanese, Nazis, & Jews, (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1988) 86-88.
  2. Yaacov Liberman, My China: Jewish Life in the Orient, 1900-1950, (New York: Gefen Publishing House, Ltd., 1998), 118.
  3. “Memorandum of Conversation Between Mr. Hyman and Morris Frieder of Cincinnati, Ohio on November 28th [1938] at 3:30 P.M,” American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York, JDC Collection 33/44, File #784.
  4. Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 22. Frank Ephraim, a survivor of the Jewish refugee Community in Manila, presented a complete database of all the Jewish refugees who came to the Philippines to the JewishGen Family Geneology website, in which he identified 1301 names.
  5. Yehuda Bauer, My Brother’s Keeper: A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974), 157.
  6. Ibid., 145.
  7. Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds. Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James McDonald 1932-1935 (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), 798-799.
  8. For details about the background of the Weiss brothers, see Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 27-28.
  9. Paul V. McNutt to Julius Weiss, May 19, 1938, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, JDC Collection 33/44, File #784.
  10. “How Paul V. McNutt Aided the Refugees”, undated newspaper article, Indiana University Bloomington, Lilly Library Manuscript Collection, McNutt Mss., Box 10.

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Temple Emil, Manila, April 1940
Emil, Photo credit: Jewish Historical Society of San Diego