Temple Emil in Manila, ca. 1940
Temple Emil in Manila,
ca. 1940

Cantor Joseph Cysner:
From Zbaszyn to Manila --
The Creation of an American Holocaust Haven

by Bonnie Harris, public historian
(Bonnie's personal website with Holocaust memory section; Bonnie's UCSB page)

graduate research seminar paper for Hist 233ab
all reproductions and citations require permission of the author or Prof. Marcuse
February 2005/Modified Oct. 26, 2018


Note Oct. 26, 2018: Dr. Harris's book about Cantor Cysner and the Phillipine rescue plan is currently under review for publication, and the potential publisher requested that we take down the full version of this page. Below is only the introduction. Readers may find some of Dr. Harris's other publications of interest:

Table of Contents
[note 10/26/2018: all links dead except introduction]
Link to section below              page numbers refer to pdf version (83 pages)
U.S. Immigration Policies and the Refugee Question
From German Jew to Polish Refugee
Zbaszyn Survivor
History of Jews in the Philippines
U.S. / Philippine Institutions
An American Holocaust Haven
Mindanao Resettlement Proposal
Japanese Occupation
Life Under Siege
BIBLIOGRAPHY (separate file) (includes section of secondary sources )

Introduction [back to top]

Cantor Cysner in Manila, 1941 As archivist for the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego (JHSSD), I accession new collections into our repository on a frequent basis.  In May 2003, as I began processing the collection of Cantor Joseph Cysner, a Holocaust survivor whose personal papers had been donated to the JHSSD by his widow, Sylvia Cysner, a unique story within the field of Holocaust studies emerged. The collection comprises two boxes of documents from Germany, Poland, the Philippines, San Francisco and San Diego.[1] Some of the most important items come from Cantor Cysner's experiences in the Polish border camp of Zbaszyn, c. 1938-1939, and the Santo Tomas Civilian Detention Camp in Manila, c. 1942-1945. How did one man experience both German and Japanese internment? And more important, how did he survive them both and live to tell about it?

Zbaszyn is a Polish town in the Poznan province that lies near the German border-town of Neu Benchen. Between November 1938 and August 1939, Zbaszyn was the site of a camp for displaced Jews from Germany. The Germans estimate that between 15,000 and 17,000 Jews were forcibly expelled and dumped at the Polish border between October 27 and 31, 1938. Cysner's Zbaszyn documents include a fifteen page hand written German memoir detailing his deportation and confinement experiences in Poland, along with an English version of the memoir, type written by Cantor Cysner at a later time.  This small journal exists as a rare personal testimonial amid a modest group of writings from other Zbaszyn survivors.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel, houses 175 extracts from contents of letters sent out from Zbaszyn internees to friends and relatives that recount expulsion experiences.[2]   My investigation into Cysner's documents uncovered a unique story of his incarceration and deliverance from both German and Japanese war-time prisons. Born to polish parents in Bamberg Germany in 1912, Joseph Cysner found himself, along with other Jewish aliens, deported by the Nazis to Poland in October 1938 and confined in the border town of Zbaszyn. Destined for eventual internment in a Polish ghetto or a Nazi concentration camp, Cantor Cysner was delivered from an uncertain fate when a telegram from the Philippines reached him in Zbaszyn and requested his services as cantor for the Jewish Community of Manila in the Philippines. This timely rescue incited my research interest into the circumstances that allowed Cantor Cysner to escape the European Holocaust and find a haven in the Far Eastern American commonwealth community of Manila, the only commonwealth nation under American jurisdiction during World War II.[3]

My initial research revealed that very little scholarship has been done on the efforts of the American-led Jewish Community of Manila to create a haven for Holocaust refugees. The Philippine Commonwealth status marked a decade of political transition intended to move the archipelago from a dependent American territory into a self-governing democratic republic. As its imperial power, the U.S. government empowered the Philippines with a degree of constitutional self rule to prepare it for independence in 1946. Therefore the Philippines were able to control their own immigration policies and were exempt from the quota restrictions on immigration into the U.S.[4]   In the early 1930s, while the Philippines still functioned as a territory, the Jewish Community of Manila, numbering about 350 persons, was comprised of Jews from more than 15 countries of the world, nations primarily in Europe, North America, and the Middle East. While their religious observance was weak, their ethnic identity remained strong.[5]   Because overt anti-Semitism directed at the Jewish community from either the Filipinos or others in Manila simply did not exist, the assimilated nature of societal interaction that the Jewish community enjoyed supplanted the need for a religious connection. However, their Jewish identity came to the forefront of their lives with the onslaught of Jewish persecution in Europe and the spread of Nazi power in the 1930s.[6]

The largest influx of Jewish immigrants to the Philippines, over 1000 refugees, came during the Commonwealth years of 1935 to the end of 1941, at which time the Philippines became a Japanese occupied territory during WWII. The Jewish Refugee Committee of Manila (JRC) was constituted in 1937 to initially aid the German-Jewish refugees from Shanghai, who needed to flee when the Japanese overran China in the Sino-Japanese War. Unique immigration policies of Shanghai allowed an unchecked admittance of refugees without visas, resulting in nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees arriving in near poverty and eventually living in ghetto conditions.[7] When the Shanghai migration failed to materialize into any great numbers, the monies and efforts of the committee turned to the German-Jewish refugees of Europe instead. After the first wave of refugee immigrants began arriving in September 1938, Cantor Cysner emigrated from Poland and arrived in Manila in April 1939, and in turn brought his mother over in June 1940.   

With the swelling of the Jewish refugee population in Manila, the community took on a distinctly religious lifestyle, certainly aided by the more pious immigrants such as Cantor Cysner. This renewal of Jewish observance flourished until the Japanese occupied the islands in the early months of 1942 and interned many members of the Jewish community as civilian enemy aliens, including Cantor Cysner. His miracle of deliverance in Europe became one of confinement in the Far East. However, not all Jews were interned, only those whose passports identified them as citizens of enemy nations at war with Germany and Japan. Thus, the German Jews and some Austrian Jews did not face imprisonment. Through efforts led by Rabbi Schwarz, who was a German Jew, food and supplies were continually collected and provided for those in the camp.  Emergency circumstances could be cited to obtain special consideration and exemption from incarceration. Such was the experience of Cantor Cysner, whose aged mother, supported by the Jewish community, pleaded for Cantor Cysner's freedom so that he could care for her outside the camp and resume his services at the synagogue. Confinement ended with deliverance yet again for Cantor Cysner as his eight months of detainment ended in October 1942.

Since most of the European Jewish refugees in Manila came from Germany, the Japanese did not initially recognize German Jews as enemy aliens, which allowed Rabbi Schwarz and other non-interned German Jews of the community to supply relief aid to those interned members of their community who bore passports from nations at war with Japan. However, pro-Nazi sympathizers, within both the German community of Manila and the Japanese military hierarchy, sought to implement policies to either intern or deport all Jews in Manila, including the German Jews. Active political involvement by the most influential members of the Jewish community prevented the implementation of this plan.  Cantor Cysner's additional appointment as music instructor at the Catholic De La Salle College prior to the outbreak of the war brought him into contact with many influential families of the Philippines, and these contacts helped to enforce the valuable contribution of the Jewish community to Manila's cultural and educational life.

When the Japanese were driven from the Philippines by the American forces in 1945, the destruction of Manila rivaled the destruction of Warsaw,[8] and other European cities devastated by bomb warfare. The city once known as the "Pearl of the Orient" was reduced to a pile of rubble.[9]   The decimation of Manila depleted the Jewish community, as the vast majority of its citizens immigrated to the United States after their liberation, as did Cantor Cysner in 1946. He became a valued servant to the Jewish communities of San Francisco and then San Diego, until his untimely death due to coronary arrest in 1961 at the age of 48. This paper seeks to document his remarkable story of survival and service against the harsh background of war, from Polish citizen and Zbaszyn survivor to Manila cleric and Japanese prisoner to post-war immigrant and American cantor. His story of confinement and deliverance is encompassed within the larger picture of how one small Jewish community in the Far East created an American Holocaust Haven, in spite of restrictive U.S. immigration laws and repressive Japanese policies.

[back to top]






An American Holocaust Haven [back to top]


Mindanao Resettlement Proposal [back to top]


Japanese Occupation [back to top]


Life Under Siege [back to top]


Repatriation [back to top]


Epilog [back to top]

Endnotes [back to top] (see also the bibliography)


research paper by Bonnie Harris, February 6, 2005; converted and uploaded Feb. 10, 2005, formatting updated 12/11/07
All sections after the introduction removed at the request of a publisher on Oct. 26, 2018
see also the bibliography
back to top, to Prof. Marcuse's Hist 233ab course page, Marcuse's homepage

contact: marcuse@history.ucsb.edu