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Cigar Saviors: the Frieder Brothers

Mar 7, 2005 | By Bruce Goldman
Cigar Saviors: the Frieder Brothers
It was November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass." Siegfried Strausser and his father, Isadore, had just been arrested by the Gestapo. While the elder Strausser was released after ten days, Siegfried was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, where he might have stayed indefinitely if not for the fact that his occupation provided him a way out.

Strausser was a cigarmaker, an expert from Schweinfurt, Germany. Three months before, he and his wife, Klara, had learned about a refugee immigration program being organized in the Philippines, in large part, by four American brothers named Frieder who owned a cigar factory in Manila. To qualify for the program, an applicant had to be in engaged in one of 14 approved occupations, one of which was cigar making. Strausser was eventually granted a visa, and on February 2, 1939, he left Germany for Manila, where he went to work for the Frieders' Helena Cigar Factory (his wife and father would follow later).

The Straussers were among some 1,200 German and Austrian Jews who managed to flee the Nazis and immigrate to the Philippines -- then a U.S. commonwealth -- under the auspices of the program coordinated by the Frieder brothers and the Jewish Refugee Committee they headed in Manila. While not widely known, the Frieders' efforts in the late '30s and early '40s helped save as many Jews from the Nazis as were saved by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, whose story is famously recounted in the 1993 film Schindler's List. The brothers' resourcefulness came during a time when most of the world's nations, including the United States, were turning a blind eye toward the plight of the Jews, millions of whom would later perish in concentration camps.

The Frieders' rescue work is meticulously documented in the 2003 book Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, which was written by Frank Ephraim, one of the refugees. Ironically, some of the Jews who found safety in the Philippines later perished during the ferocious Battle of Manila, which ended 60 years ago last week.

Ephraim and a number of other survivors, as well as dozens of Frieder descendants, gathered last month in Cincinnati to honor the efforts of the brothers -- Philip, Alex, Morris and Herbert -- six decades to the day that Temple Emil in Manila was destroyed by the Japanese. It was the brothers' connections with Philippine and U.S. officials, as well as their tireless labor -- both in America and in the East Asian nation -- that allowed them to raise money, secure affidavits, passports and transit visas, and find jobs and homes for the refugees in Manila.

"Everybody knew the Jews were being terribly persecuted in Europe," Alice Weston, one of Alex Frieder's daughters, said in an interview. "My father just happened to be the right person at the right time to make it possible for them to get out."

Who was this family that helped provide a haven to Jews at a time when most countries were closing their doors to them?

First and foremost, they were cigar men. Their company, S. Frieder & Sons, was founded by the brothers' father, Samuel, around 1910 as a retail business in New York City. A few years later, the family bought a distributorship in Cincinnati. Looking to expand the business, Samuel and his two oldest sons, Philip and Alex, went to the Philippines about 1918, where they bought cigars and sold them back in the United States. Soon, however, they discovered that it was cheaper to make the cigars themselves, so they established a manufacturing facility in Manila, called the Helena Cigar Factory. The four brothers took two-year turns living in Manila and heading the business there.

The factory produced as many as 250 million cigars a year, according to Herbert's son Sam Frieder, the current president of S. Frieder subsidiary DES Tobacco Corp., which operates five retail stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The cigars, consisting of brands called Tiona and El Toro, were sold in the States at the not uncommon price of two-for-a-nickel.

Herbert Frieder, right, and his staff inspect cigars at the Helena Cigar Factory in Manila in 1940. (Photo Courtesy Edna Lichtig)
To make the cigars, the Frieders employed hundreds of women. The workers, Weston recalled, would sit in a long line on the floor against the wall while they made the bunches by hand. The bunches were then brought to machines, which were used to attach the wrappers.

The cigars were made entirely with Philippine tobacco, and simply getting the tobacco to the factory was arduous. The brothers would travel north to the Cagayen Valley, which Weston said was a difficult destination to reach. "There were no good bridges. They had to get a bamboo raft and ford a stream," she said. A few men would come along to help negotiate with the farmers, she noted. In the late '30s, Strausser frequently traveled to the plantations to serve as a quality control expert during the purchasing process.

In addition to Strausser, at least one other refugee cigar worker was brought to the Philippines as a result of the Frieders' rescue efforts. David Rosenblatt, whom Ephraim said he knew, was an expert in cigar making, but he was also an accomplished cook and later, after the war, served the Jewish community in Manila as a volunteer providing relief services.

The seeds for the Jewish exodus to the Philippines had been planted in 1937, when a group of 28 Jews who had earlier fled Germany for Shanghai were evacuated by the Germans to Manila after fighting in Shanghai had escalated between Chinese and Japanese troops. The newly formed Jewish Refugee Committee in Manila, headed by Philip Frieder, helped the new arrivals get settled.

"[The Frieder brothers] were in a so-called strategic position there," said Ephraim, referring to the family's leadership in the Manila Jewish community. "[The arrivals of the Jews from Shanghai] gave them the idea: Why can't we bring in more Jews? Things were getting progressively worse in Germany, and they were aware of that. That got them motivated, and they wanted to help."

Fortunately, the brothers had contacts in high places. Alex Frieder had played poker with the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower; Paul McNutt, the U.S. High Commissioner of the Philippines; and Manuel Quezon, the Philippine president. In early 1938, McNutt conferred with Philip, telling him he would allow Jews to immigrate to the Philippines if the Jewish community in Manila would guarantee their financial support. Frieder and the refugee committee agreed, at which point the list of acceptable occupations was devised, which included physicians, engineers, technical specialists and a rabbi, among others. By late October 1938, the first group of refugees, more than a hundred, had been approved to receive visas to enter the Philippines.

Around the same time, Alex Frieder was returning to Manila to take his brother's place as head of the cigar factory and director of the Jewish Refugee Committee. He did whatever he could to assist refugees, even if sometimes they didn't meet all the committee's requirements. On one such occasion, according to Ephraim, Frieder interceded on behalf of a German Jew named Egon Juliusberger and his son Ernst who had made their way to Manila, but were not on the refugee committee's "approved" list because the father's coal supply business was not one of the officially recognized occupations. Nevertheless, the cigarmaker instructed one of his aides to take them to see McNutt, who decided to make an exception and grant visas to the Juliusbergers, presumably because they had brought sufficient funds to support themselves. Ernst was later imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese after they took control of the Philippines, but survived and eventually served with the U.S. Army.

Meanwhile, Philip continued his efforts back in the States. In June 1939, he met with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in an attempt to raise more money for the rescue work.

While 1,200 Jews were able to take advantage of the Manila refugee program, which effectively ended in early 1941 as travel restrictions and other obstacles posed by the ongoing war in Europe became too difficult to overcome, another proposal, floated in December 1938, might have brought an additional 10,000 Jews to the Philippines. Dubbed the Mindanao Plan and supported by President Quezon, it would have permitted 1,000 Jews a year to be admitted to agricultural lands on Mindanao, the southernmost Philippine island, for 10 years. Besides representing the Jewish Refugee Committee in the plan's discussions, the Frieder brothers worked behind the scenes, contacting an owner of a ranch that had been identified as a possible settlement site, and a sales contract was agreed upon. But opposition by local Philippine officials eventually doomed the project.

In June 1941, Herbert Frieder, who had been running the Manila factory since 1939, returned to America and Philip replaced him in Manila. But in November, with the Japanese threat looming closer, Philip was forced to depart, bringing along the company's final shipment of cigars, and the plant soon closed. It was destroyed in the war.

Back in America, the Frieders used tobacco from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida and Central America to make such brands as Habanello and Garcia. They eventually established their headquarters in Philadelphia, and in the late '40s, they produced cigars in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, then a hotbed for cigar manufacturing. Alex's son-in-law Edwin Lichtig Jr., who had entered the family business in the late 1930s in the Philippines, oversaw the Wilkes-Barre operation. At its peak, in the early 1950s, S. Frieder & Sons produced about 100 million cigars annually.

Because the company was small, it found it hard to compete with some of the bigger factories in the area, such as those run by General Cigar and Consolidated Cigar. "We didn't have the same economies of scale as the larger companies," recalled Sam Frieder, who joined S. Frieder in 1957 as a salesman. "We didn't have the infrastructure and capital to compete with the big guys."

In the late '50s and '60s, the company "found its niche" in manufacturing private-label cigars for large retailers, Frieder said. The company formed a retail division, DES Tobacco, in 1974, and sold cigars inside Sears Roebuck stores. In 1978, the company sold its manufacturing business to U.S. Tobacco.