Mayer, Beatrice Susskind
Breslau, Germany; Cebu City, Dumaguete, Manila, Philippines
Beatrice Susskind Mayer was born Beate Susskind in Breslau, Germany on May 30, 1935 to Joachim (Jack) and Frieda Susskind.
“Before Hitler, Jews were very assimilated in Germany and were part of the general society. That all changed for my parents. My mother was a buyer at Teitz Department Stores until somebody imitated her handwriting and wrote some very nasty derogatory notes about Hitler. So, they really couldn’t stay. When they looked for where to go, they couldn’t find any place that was open to Jews, except for the Philippines, and that may have been through the American Consulate.”
In 1938, Beatrice and her parents fled Germany by boat from Marseilles, France, with another couple who had been Frieda’s colleagues at work, Erna and Saul Cassel and their daughter Margot. They lived together when they arrived in the Philippines.
Beatrice was told by her parents that when they came to the Philippines, they did not speak the language. Her father became a stock boy at a department store. Her mother worked at the Manila Hotel in their hat department. “Hats were very much in fashion then – even in the tropics, with 100-degree temperature.”
When Joachim got a job with the Visayan Electric Supply Company, they moved to the island of Cebu, and then to many different islands, as he progressed along in the company. “We were Caucasians and probably the only Caucasians on the islands. We were in very remote places. The Jewish issue never came up. And we were treated very well.”
“However, the war started when I was six. We were incarcerated several times, because to the Japanese, the “J” on the passport signified one thing. It showed that we were not genuine Germans. When we were in Cebu City, we were incarcerated because we were Germans, but then they released us on December 19, 1941, when they found out there was a difference between German-Jews and Germans.”
“We fled to the mountains, where our main transportation was horses. I remember my father learning how to milk a cow and then building a stall because the cow kept kicking him. They weren’t farmers, but that’s basically what they had to become. We were self-sufficient, and we had to raise everything that we ate. There were eleven Jewish people. And then the Japanese found out that we were hiding there, and they sent a whole regiment to pick us up, and then incarcerated us for a while. I don’t know for how long.”
“Then we were brought from one island to the other. They put us on this little ship and were going to return us to Cebu, which is what we wanted, but we never got there. We ended up in Dumaguete on Negros Oriental, and that’s where we were the entire war until the liberation in 1945…. We moved into the home of an American professor from Silliman University who had fled. My father started reading all the accounting books there, and the next thing I knew he was going to teach accounting. My mother made candies and knit socks. That was their living.”
“There was a tremendous shortage of food and everything and no medical supplies. My mother had gotten sick and they were going to do surgery; and my dad was collecting aspirins that they were going to use as anesthesia. But the war ended, thank God, before they could do this.”
“I did not go to school the nine months that we were in the mountains. During the war, if I went, it was sporadic because we were constantly moved. I’m not even sure if some of the schools were even open…. There was no Jewish community in Dumaguete; there were three of us – my mother, my father, and I, in this town…. My father was religious and lay tefillin every morning until his death. We made up our own holidays from our calendar; sometime in September had to be a Jewish holiday, and then ten days later we had to have Yom Kippur, and then in the spring there was of course, Passover.”
“My mother said that all she waited for was for somebody to land and give her bread and some butter. The other thing she hoped was that at least one Jewish solider would come; and we got the all-Jewish regiment from Chicago or New York…. On one of the islands, they asked my parents if they had relatives in the United States and my mother said that she had a cousin in Chicago – a Fred Rosenstein; and this young solider said, ‘Gee that’s my parents’ best friend.’ So that’s how we established contact; small world…. But we had to stay for at least six more years. My mother was on the German quota, but my father was on the Polish quota and there was a long waiting list to get to the United States.”
“After the war, my parents went back to Cebu and opened a restaurant. My dad went to his former boss’s house, which hadn’t burnt down, as many had, and he got them to give him some dishes. Their restaurant, the Jewish Community House, was the restaurant to which the American soldiers were allowed to go; the other ones were off limits due to their sanitary conditions. When the army left, there was no point for us to stay there anymore, so we moved to Manila.”
“After the war, it was not a bad life. We were well-accepted by the Filipinos. We were in Manila for six years. I went to the American school and there were maybe five or six Jewish families still left. Most of the Jews had gone to either Australia, Israel, or the United States. I think Australia was at that time a developing country and I think a lot of them went there because the requirements were not as stringent as coming to the United States…. They had a temple in Manila – Temple Emil that was bombed out during the war, then rebuilt…. Our shul was very, very unique. It had Sephardic Jews. It had Orthodox Jews. It had Reformed Jews. My parents were very active in the synagogue. When the rabbi left, my dad took over many of the rabbinical duties…. My Jewish education came from a very religious Sephardic teacher. She stopped teaching me when I once brought my transportation money on a Shabbos to her house…. In memory of my uncle, my parents established the Chevra Kadisha and they both washed the dead.” Maintaining their Jewishness, “was the most important thing really. This whole thing happened because we were Jews. I believe that Hitler really needed a scapegoat in order to succeed and the Jews were always thought of as being them and that’s what happened.”
“It’s a different experience than what most people had. It was an experience that only a thousand Jews had out of millions. And then they closed the Philippines. They did not let anybody else in. Originally the President of the Philippines wanted to bring over many thousands or millions of Jews because they had an unpopulated island. What they wanted to do was settle them; but it never got that far because the State Department put a cap on it. Some people said it was because they felt that the Jews in the Philippines would use it as a back door to the United States. And some of the Filipino people felt that Jews are really merchants, not farmers, and they would end up in competition. I think my aunt and my uncle were probably one of the last ones in. I think they closed immigration probably in 1939 or 1940.”
Frieda was one of four children and Joachim was one of seven. They all perished in the Holocaust, except one brother, Bernhard Susskind, who also came to the Philippines in 1938 with his wife Martha and 4-year-old daughter Eva. “Before the war, they would come and see us and spend their vacation time with us. Then during the war, there was no communication at all. We didn’t know whether they were alive or not.” Bernhard was killed by the Japanese during the fighting in Manila in 1945. Martha and Eva went to Delaware in 1948 and Eva later married another Holocaust survivor from Germany, Fred Ashner.
Beatrice’s parents never heard what happened to their other siblings or to Joachim’s parents, but they did learn what happened to Frieda’s parents – Julius Rosenstein (b. June, 1876) and Minna Rosenstein (b. February 2, 1879). They went from Amsterdam and were taken to Westerbork and from there they were deported to Sobibor in Poland, on May 18, 1943, where they were exterminated.
A book, “The Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror” by Frank Ephraim (University of Illinois Press, 2003), and a documentary by Frieder Films, “Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust,” recount the Jewish experience. However, Beatrice is telling her family’s story for the first time. “I can’t even tell you why. It suddenly became important because these books were written and then we had some reunions. Generally, we put that in our past. Looking back now, it’s like someone else’s story.”
Beatrice has a message to share. “This is what I tell my kids. We are survivors – we are here – and no matter what the circumstances are you must go on. And that’s my legacy. My legacy are my kids.” She adds: “I probably never thought of myself as the same survivor as the people who had gone to the camps in Germany; it wasn’t the same experience. And our experience in the Philippines was entirely different than those people who went to Manila and stayed there during the war. We were in a city where they had never seen foreigners. These were not big cities. These were not urban centers. It was rather primitive during the war and we lived in like a nipa hut. So, it was entirely different.”
In 1951, Beatrice and her parents went to San Francisco, where she attended high school and “was far behind. I was much older than the others, but they gave me some exams and the American School in the Philippines was very good.” They then moved to Chicago, where they had relatives; she went to the University of Chicago and became a teacher.
Beatrice married Jack Mayer and they had two children and five granddaughters. “It still feels unbelievable that all of this happened and that we survived.”
Date of Interview: October 29, 2015
Length of Interview: 31:54 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Kevin Walsh