The Jews among us

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Monday, April 25, 2011


I NEVER expected to find two tombstones at the Burgos Public Cemetery that had the Star of David etched on them. Jews in Negros? The discovery caused bewilderment as well as curiosity.

On a simple tombstone was written: Hans Broniatowski born June 8, 1914 in Laurahutte, Germany; died July 6, 1940.

Just behind it was a tiny similarly-shaped tombstone inclined to the east as opposed to Hans' north-facing one had the inscription: to my little son John Simke July 16, 1944 September 15, 1944.

Little John's first name looked like an "Ernest" but was badly defaced by the elements. A little sleuthing over the internet yielded that Ernest John Simke was Hans Broniatowski's nephew.

The infant's mother Rita Broniatowski was Hans' sister. Yet she was born in Siemianowitz, Poland and died in Manila in 1957. I later found out that Laurahutte and Siemanowitz were merged communes just very near Germany.

Online data on Hans had a dissimilar but close dates. He was supposedly born on August 6, 1914 and died in June 7, 1940. Are these Hanses one and the same? Are my conclusions correct as to consanguinity of the deceased? Was Ernest John Simke the son of Ernest Simke, Israel's honorary Consul-General in Manila? A photo of Ernest and Rita's wedding proved my hunch right. Simke came to the Philippines from China in 1920 and managed the La Estrella del Norte branch in Bacolod.

The Simkes were one of the Jewish families in the Philippines who chose to remain in the country and take on Filipino citizenship. Here's an account by a certain Paula Brings: I had taken Filipino citizenship before the war and, when I presented my Filipino passport to the Japanese authorities in Bacalod [sic] after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, the officer took a long look at me, looked down at my passport, shook his head, sucked in his breath and said: ˜You put chicken in oven, out should come chicken, not fish."

The Jewish people are a hardy, resilient lot. They have a sad history of suppression (e.g. Maccabean Revolt), dispersion or the Diaspora, and the infamous persecution during the Nazi Period. From 7th century Spain where Judaism was prohibited, Jews became unpopular for their activities. This was mixed with jealousy over their wealth. The feudal system in Western Europe forced the Jews to engage in finance and moneylending as sources of livelihood for they were excluded by the system contact with the soil. Moneylending was not approved by the Church. The first Marranos or secret jews Jorge and Domingo Rodriguez arrived in Spanish Philippines, they reportedly being residents in the 1590's.

In The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596), the central figure Shylock was the object of ridicule and animosity, yet I found myself rooting for him. His classic Shakespearean monologue ("Hath not a Jew eyes...") so astonishingly spewed out by Al Pacino in the movie version showed the intense longing to be accepted into normal society that one can't help but have pity, compassion, and sympathy for Shylock's plight. A complete segregation of Jews and Christians was first established in Venice in 1517 by Pope Paul IV. Jews were required to wear the mark of humiliation in the form of a hat of distinctive red or yellow color.

Did you know that aside from the Turkish Empire, Poland was a great center of Jewish life from the 16th century? Because the Jews' rights and commercial privileges were safeguarded, a good number of Jews from Germany immigrated there. These Jews a.k.a Ashkenazim brought with them their Judaeo-German dialect or Yiddish as we know it.

In the Philippines, there are presently about 250 Jews. Salcedo Village has the one and only synagogue in the country, the Beth Yaacov Synagogue. The first one, Temple Emil named after Emil Bachrach a successful American-Jew of Russian descent who arrived in Manila in 1901 and the first to settle there permanently, was destroyed during the Japanese era. In a yet later search, Temple Emil was were Ernest Simke and Rita Broniatowski were married in 1941. Some famous Jews include the Levy brothers who fled Alsace-Lorraine with a stash of diamonds. They founded the La Estrella del Norte in Iloilo and later expanded to Manila.

A. N. Hashim, a Syrian-Jewish trader, helped Dr. Jose Rizal escape from Dapitan. He also established the Manila Grand Opera House. Leopold Kahn also from Alsace became President and GM of La Estrella, and French Honorary Consul-General to the Philippines. In a paper by Jonathan Goldstein Shaping Zionist Identity: The Jews of Manila as a Case Study, "by 1920, Manila Jewry included the founder of the Makati Stock Exchange, physicians, architects, the conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra. The Philippines became the only Asian nation to vote for Israeli independence and also the first to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel."

It is heartening to note that President Manuel Quezon had sent a message to Philippine Congress to admit 10,000 German-Jewish professionals. He also recommended a Philippine$300 million subsidy to assist them to settle in Mindanao. His heart must have softened after being given some information from Jack Rosenthal, Quezon's American-Jewish friend. Although Quezon’s recommendation did not see light, as many as 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler were admitted. Our president himself "donated 7 1/2 acres of country estate in Marikina for a working farm."

The anti-semitic stance that have pervaded for the longest time (which Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ struck the wrong chords) will hopefully die down. Christ died for all of us - saint and sinner, man and woman, young and old, Christian, Muslim, and Jew.

"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction." Shylock, The Merchant of Venice.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on April 25, 2011.

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