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How a doctor inspired a film about the Philippines' WWII effort to help Jews during the Holocaust

Noel Izon's documentary traces the story of some of the approximately 1,300 refugees who found a haven in the Philippines in the 1930s and '40s.
by Lakshmi Gandhi /
Lotte Cassell Hershfield (facing the front) arrived in Manila with her family from Breslau in 1938 and stayed in Manila till 1946.
Lotte Cassell Hershfield (facing to the left) arrived in Manila with her family from Breslau in 1938 and stayed in Manila till 1946.

Filmmaker Noel Izon remembers regularly hearing stories about his father’s friend Otto Zelezny throughout his childhood in the Philippines.

Zelezny and his brother came to the country in the 1930s, Izon said. It was only later that he realized they had come to the Asian nation as refugees.

“We didn’t really know about Jews, all I knew was that there was a European man in my father’s life,” Izon said.

The bond between the two families strengthened in 1945, Izon said, when his father fell gravely ill with malaria the year before Izon was born. “Otto was a surgeon and saved his life,” he explained. “And because of that he saved my life.”

It was a conversation with one of former Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon’s grandsons years later that inspired Izon to start researching the Jewish families that found refuge on the islands during World War II.

In 1939, the Philippines opened its doors to Jewish refugees, with 10,000 visas approved for travel to the then commonwealth of the U.S., according to the Philippine Embassy in Israel. Quezon reinforced the policy, creating a housing and farming community for the refugees before the U.S. entry into World War II.

That research went into Izon’s documentary, “An Open Door: Holocaust Haven in the Philippines.” The current version of the film was released in November 2017, and Izon is currently working on a longer cut for broadcast TV.

Noel "Sonny" Izon pictured with Aurora Quezon Avancena, President Quezon's last surviving daughter.
Noel "Sonny" Izon pictured with Aurora Quezon Avancena, President Quezon's last surviving daughter.Courtesy of Noel Izon

“President Quezon, he was president in 1935. He had this policy of opening the Philippines up to the world,” said Izon. “He believed that asylum was a human rights issue.”

"An Open Door" is part of a World War II trilogy of documentaries that he has made over the years. The 2013 film “Choc’late Soldiers From the USA” was about African-American soldiers in Britain during the war and was preceded by 2002’s “An Untold Triumph: America’s Filipino Soldiers.”

The Philippines was subject to U.S. immigration laws then. They were the ones issuing the visas.

The Philippines was subject to U.S. immigration laws then. They were the ones issuing the visas.

Because the Philippines was a commonwealth of the United States during World War II, Izon looked into records kept by the U.S. State Department during the war. “The Philippines was subject to U.S. immigration laws then,” Izon explained. “They were the ones issuing the visas.”

Izon said he discovered that Quezon worked closely with the U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt to admit refugees into the region. McNutt’s recordkeeping proved invaluable to Izon as he worked to identify refugee families who made it to the Philippines. According to Izon, records show that about 1,300 Jewish refugees arrived in the then commonwealth.

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“They worked hand-in-glove to get the maximum the numbers of refugees into the Philippines and made a list of people who were approved,” he said.

Izon said that he interviewed about 32 refugees or descendants of refugees to document their stories for the documentary. “We had filmed in Manila and Germany and Israel and of course all over the U.S,” he said. Many families headed to the United States after the war ended, Izon noted.

The film has screened at several film festivals, and Izon is meeting with potential distributors to reach a larger audience. The Israeli and Philippine Embassies in Washington and the U.S.-Philippines Society are working together to host a screening of the film at the National Holocaust Museum in 2018, but a date has not yet been set, according to Izon.

Helen Beck, a Jewish refugee, married in Manila during the Japanese occupation.
Among the interviewees in the film was Helen Beck, who married in Manila during the Japanese occupation.Courtesy of Noel Izon

He noted that many people watching today could draw parallels between the events of World War II and the current refugee crises in countries like Syria.

“I think the biggest thing is that we are always tested,” said Izon. “The issues of refugees and immigration are about how we treat people and the film asks the question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

But in addition to asking those big questions, Izon believes the film also serves as a thank you to the man who helped save his father so many decades ago.

“This was a fellow who was always a cypher in my life,” he said. “I have not met any of Otto’s descendants. I never got the chance to meet him or thank him for my life.”

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