Wrapping up his three-day visit to Israel, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday paid tribute to his country’s efforts to save Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
Wearing an untucked white shirt, he laid a wreath at the “Open Doors” Monument in Rishon Lezion’s Holocaust Memorial Park and briefly chatted with Max Weissler, one of the 1,300 Jews who escaped to the Philippines.
Duterte, whose visit to Israel has been controversial due to some of his statements and especially his violent crackdown on the drug trade in his country, did not deliver remarks during the five-minute long ceremony.
His daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is Jewish, accompanied her father at the ceremony.
Rishon Lezion Mayor Dov Zur was also present at the event, which concluded Duterte’s public itinerary to Israel. On Thursday morning, he flew to Jordan.
In 1939, when most of the world closed its doors to European Jews, the Philippines’ then-president Manuel L. Quezon allowed the issuance of 10,000 visas to persecuted Jews. Due to the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese invasion, only some 1,300 Jews actually reached safety in Philippines.
Weissler, 88, was born in Upper Silesia (today Poland). His father had left Nazi Germany in 1939 and made his way to the Philippines. He himself joined two years later, reaching Manila over Russia and Japan.
“My parents were poor. We lived through the Japanese occupation,” Weissler, now 88, told The Times of Israel. After marrying his Jerusalem-born wife Esther in Japan in 1961, the couple moved to Israel.
Weissler is one of three survivors whose footprints are etched in front of the “Open Doors” monument in Rishon Lezion.
Weissler, who today lives in Hod Hasharon, refused to discuss the controversial nature of Duterte’s rule. “Look, I left the Philippines about 50 years ago. I did not know him at that time,” he said.
“I speak Filipino. I have a caretaker that takes care of me, and he’s a Filipino,” he added. “We have nothing to criticize the Philippines for.”
The Open Doors monument was designed by Filipino artist Luis ‘Junyee’ Yee, Jr. and inaugurated in 2009. Its three doors “symbolize the humanitarian deeds and the courage of Filipinos in welcoming the Jews under the open door policy in 1939,” Duterte’s office said Wednesday in a statement.
“These open doors have triangular patterns that represent the triangles of the Philippine flag. Beneath the monument is the Star of David to mark the close and friendly relations between the Philippines and Israel.”
While warmly received by Israeli leaders, some Israelis were unhappy about the Duterte’s visit to Israel, the first-ever by a Filipino president. On Tuesday, dozens of protestors demonstrated against the hardliner while he was meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, lamenting the brutal crackdown on drug users and dealers in the Philippines.
In 2016, Duterte had said that he would “be happy to slaughter” millions of drug users in his country, comparing himself to Adolf Hitler who killed millions of Jews.
He later apologized for having mentioned Jews, but not for his endorsement of mass killings of those in the drugs trade.
On Monday, during a visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum called Hitler “an insane leader,” saying that he could never “fathom the spectacle of a human being going on a killing spree, murdering old men, women, men and children.”
Duterte’s own government has acknowledged 5,000 deaths and 50,000 arrests in his war on the drug trade; human rights groups put the figures far higher, and say most of those dead are the urban poor.