Return to Witnesses
It was in March 1945 that my first Seder in freedom occurred.The first in many years, the first after the start of the furyof war, the frightening escape from the Nazis, the day-to dayfears of life under Japanese occupation. Looking back, thisoccupation was benign compared to the horrors of the Nazis, butwhat loss of freedom is benign? What security lies in notknowing if there will be a tomorrow.
The Jewish colony in Manila was a mixture of German Jews who hailed largely from Breslau and Frankfurt, a variety of other European Jews from Eastern Europe mainly, a number of Sephards from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and us.
Us, we were five Belgian Jews who escaped from Antwerp, fledthrough France, Spain and Portugal to arrive in the UnitedStates only to be told that we were not allowed to remain.Believing that the Philippine Islands were safe haven, wecrossed the Pacific on a tramp Norwegian steamer, whose captainwarned us regularly that there were German submarines in thearea. We arrived in Manila in May 1941, to await our “quotanumber” . In December 1941 , the war became a world war, as onDecember 8 (our time) the Japanese entered the war with avengeance.
We were my father Abraham then in his late 30’s my mother Gusta10 years younger, I was 9, my brothers Leon 7 and Eric almost6. We were in an adventure, but a very scary one. The languagewas strange and new, the climate hot and humid. We slept undertents of netting to avoid being totally devoured by mosquitoes.Of strange animals and insects there was no dearth.The food especially after the beginning of the occupation, consistedmainly of rice and fish. For variety we had fish and rice.
For a while it was safe, perhaps for my parents, but for me itwas dailyanxiety sometimes bordering on terror, Children my agewho spoke English and no French, played a game they calledfootball which did not resemble the game I knew in Belgium . Tryas I might I found myself am outcast from the English speakingAmerican children and from the German speaking Jewish children.They felt and said I was different.. and they were right.
We spent the years under Japanese occupation with increasingdeprivation. Food became ever scarcer The occupying army moremenacing and the hope of repatriation as neutrals nevermaterialized. As Belgian citizens we were not kept long in theconcentration casmp we were clearly treated as enemy aliens.There was not, that I can remember, any overt anti Semitism bythe Japanese despite urgings by the Nazi colony who were also inManila. In other stories I will expand on these events.
.My brothers and I were enrolled in a school run by Catholicbrothers who did little to staunch the anti Semitism of the nonJewish students. I remember being taunted about being a “Christkiller” I didn’t even know who “Christ” was. The Jewishstudents, and there were more than a few of us. were forced tobe present during catechism class, and few opportunities weremissed to offer us the chance of conversion.
There was a synagogue in Manila, Temple Emil founded someyears earlier and housed in a yellow Moorish style building. Ithad a sanctuary, library classrooms and many of the things onewould find in a synagogue in other parts of the world. We had arabbi Joseph and a cantor, the wonderful chazzan Joseph Cysnerwho was a bachelor German refugee and lived with his mother. Hewas also our melamed and , even during, or rather between airraids, I remember taking two street cars to learn Chumash, hearmusic and talk to Mr. Cysner. The lesson I recall mostclearly was an introduction to Rashi, his comment on the Genesis story where Joseph was thrown in the well and the well was empty.
I digress, the details will be filled in. Now I want towrite about Passover in 1945. We were liberated by theAmericans in late January. That is the Japanese were out, butso was running water, electricity , garbage collection, foodand any amenities. The city was almost entirely destroyed. Whathad been referred to as the “Pearl of the Orient” was rubbleand the not so subtle smell of decaying bodies. By grace ofG-d, the ultimate dayan emet, the part of the city we lived inwas spared. (Al tirah avdi Yaakov…was not yet in myvocabulary but a year later the phrase appeared in my BarMitzvah Haphtorah !.)
Pesach was approaching. Our synagogue was a pile of rubble,our community weak, separated and lacking leadership. Orperhaps all were so weakened that leadership could not beexercised. Among the Americans were two Rabbis. One tall and theother shorter and more heavy set. One rabbi was I believenamed rabbi Gordon, the other I don’t remember. They wore armyuniforms and on their collars silver replicas of the tablets,Jews in uniform, on OUR side. I remember that among the firstGI’s to liberate us was one wearing a mezuzah on a chain aroundhis neck. Jews were on the winning side !! soldiers were not tobe feared.
So in March we were informed that there was to be a Seder,maybe two I don’t remember for ALL the Jews, soldiers, sailorsand civilians to be run by the US army. But where? Few buildings remained that were suitable. However, the race track which was called —–Park was available. Not only was UncleSam going to give us a Seder, but he also made arrangements, inthe midst of a war to have a jeep sent to 46-48 Panaderos where we lived to bring us on a rocky , bumpy and dangerousride to a Seder. As I remember, all Jewish civilians who hadsurvived were invited, picked up and returned courtesy of ourUncle. For years during the Seder the phrase ” with a mightyhand…” is said I remember the springless jeeps that carried usto the .Seder of liberation in 1945.
I don’t remember many details of that evening. I do rememberthe first real Matzoh. and staying up past midnight. I rememberblack out precautions still in effect, and armed soldiers guarding the proceedings. I remember marveling at the novelty ofbeing cared for rather than mistreated by soldiers. I remembera sense of caring by the Jewish GIs and how surprised many ofthem were that there were Jewish civilians in Manila. I stillhave the memory of a unique experience but the details aresubmerged. Submerged in over a half century of life.
The mah nishtanah, I believe was sung by one of my classmates. Somehow I think it was Franz Ephraim, who sang beautifully and was bar-mitzva’d the year before. How theservice was conducted and what and how we ate, I can’t recall.I doubt however that anyone since the Exodus had so sweet aPesach. As I write this there are tears clouding my vision,they taste salty so this is my part of the Seder.. the saltwater.
The ride home that night was long and probably dangerous. It was dark, the roads were filled with shell-holes and enemy snipers were still in the city. We made it back, carrying some Matzoh and perhaps other goodies. Most of all I carried back a memory which I want to leave as a legacy. Teach each generation as if YOU had been to the exodus. I have.
Since that Seder, I have passed through my own Mitzraim, Soon Iwill conduct another Seder with loved ones and friends. It isnot the same as the first one I conducted, when I first putthese words on paper. Gan Eden has been enriched as we have lostfamily over the years, May Ha kodesh boruch hu, who has sparedme from the flames of the Holocaust, accepted my Teshuvah, andgiven me life accept my thanks and attempts to bring Seder tomy life.
First draft 4/7/89
Copyright 1997 Jacques Lipetz. All Rights Reserved.