UC MAGS Distinguished Thesis Nominee: Rebecca Wessels
Rebecca's Thesis Research Reveals the Role Five Brothers from Cincinnati Played in Rescuing Jews during the Holocaust
Rebecca Wessels’ master’s thesis sheds light on unsung heroes from Cincinnati: the Frieders, five Jewish brothers who helped roughly 1,200 European Jews immigrate to the Philippines from 1937 to 1941. Prior to World War II, the Frieder brothers established a cigar factory in Manila, with the brothers taking turns to represent the family in the Philippines. Considered leaders in the Philippines’ small Jewish community—and known to wealthy and well-connected—they were asked to assist with an initial wave of Jewish refugees in 1937. The successful settlement of these refugees paved the way for the U.S. State Department to support systematic immigration of refugees to the Philippines (at the time, a U.S. commonwealth). The Frieder family played a critical role in the immigration process for the Jewish refugees, as they were the ones reviewing visa applications and making the recommendations to the State Department as to who should be issued visa.
Rebecca’s thesis, A Haven in the Pacific: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines, 1937-1941, necessitated that she examine bushels of original documents. While the story of the Philippines granting refuge to Jews has not been ignored, the existing scholarship on the subject focuses on U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt and Filipino President Manuel Quezon, giving little or no attention to the Frieders. Rebecca reviewed files upon files of personal and governmental archived materials in order to piece together the critical role the Frieder brothers played to rescue Jews desperate to flee Europe. In fact, Rebecca’s painstaking research was one of the main reasons why her thesis was selected as the University of Cincinnati nomination to the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools Distinguished Thesis Award competition. Rebecca’s thesis will be judged against theses from other Midwestern schools, with the region-wide winners announced in April.
Prior to entering UC’s master’s in history program, Rebecca had no knowledge of the Frieder brothers. The topic “sort of fell into my lap,” she says. As a master’s student, Rebecca worked at the Cincinnati-based Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education. Her supervisor, Sarah Weiss, suggested the topic to her; not only did the center hold personal material donated by the Frieders, but they were involved with a documentary project called “Rescue in the Philippines.” (The documentary debuted April 2013 and is now available to watch online for a small fee.) The topic intrigued Rebecca: “I didn’t know what I was going to find. I just knew that it was like a little-known Schindler story. No one knew about the Philippines as being this place for Jewish refugees.”
What she found was a lot of paperwork. For her research, Rebecca traveled to Washington D.C. to visit the National Archives and to New York to access materials held by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Community, who was also involved in the rescue effort. A great deal of files constituted governmental documentation of the visa process, as well as a lot of discussion between committees in the Philippines and the U.S. over money. However, many letters from Jews requesting visa for the Philippines were also archived. “I would see letters of people pleading in broken English, with stories of being in a concentration camp and being released and needing to get out of Germany,” she says. “The best things I saw, though, were when I would read the letters and then I would see in documents that these Jews made it to the Philippines.”
Rebecca graduated in Spring 2013. Through the program Teach for America, she now teaches math to seniors at Holmes High School in Covington, KY. Rebecca’s long term goal is to teach social studies. Yet, while math might not be her preferred subject to teach, working at Homes High School has been a gratifying experience for Rebecca. “I love these kids,” she says. “I have great relationships with them. The best thing is getting to know them as people.”