Swastikas and the Rising Sun: A Rock Hill woman’s childhood journey from Germany to the Philippines

dworthington@heraldonline.comApril 6, 2013 

Tired, scared and hungry, the Miodowski family – George, Martha and daughter Ursula – listened to the sounds of World War II closing in on them.

Bombs fell, scattering shrapnel. Artillery shells whistled in the sky and rained death. Manila, in the Philippines, was burning around them. The Japanese vowed the Americans would find a dead city. More than 100,000 civilians died in the fighting of February and March of 1945.

Japanese and American soldiers fought block-to-block, house-to-house and even hand-to-hand. Some of the fiercest fighting was at the Rizal Stadium where New York Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once played. The soldiers fought row to row.

The Miodowskis saw soldiers on the street, heard distant voices.

After surviving three years of Japanese occupation, 10-year-old Ursula said, “This is it.”

They prepared to die.

The voices were not Japanese. They belonged to American soldiers.

They told the Miodowskis they could not hold the area at night. “Come behind our lines to be safe,” Ursula remembers. “It was a generosity that is so American.”

Ursula picked up her dog, Senta, a small hand bag that hung around her neck with two clean pair of underwear, and her doll, Peter. She started walking to the American lines.

For Ursula and Peter, it was just the latest steps in a long, incredible journey that brought them to Rock Hill 30 years ago.

Their wartime journey is featured in the documentary “Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge From the Holocaust” being shown on PBS stations across the country, including on SCETV.

Ursula got Peter – she pronounces her name “Peta” – as a gift as a young child growing up in Nazi-controlled Germany. The four-year-old Ursula held Peter tight as they fled the Jewish-hating regime for Holland in 1939. Her father was Jewish, her mother German.

From Holland, the Miodowskis and Peter took a freighter to Manila, via the Suez canal, with stops in Singapore and Shanghai – a journey of more than 11,000 nautical miles. Peter slept with her every night.

Surviving the war, Ursula carried Peter to Hawaii, and to Long Beach, Calif., New York City and, to Rock Hill, where she raised two children, Curtis and Diane, and sold real estate.

Ursula Miodowski Progl still cherishes Peter and the clothes her mother made for the doll. Each Christmas her mom made Peter new clothes, and “Peter was ready again for everybody to love,” she said.

The Miodowskis’ incredible journey has gone largely gone untold, until now.

“It’s like coming out,” Ursula Progl said Friday. Only two of her closest friends in Rock Hill know about her saga, and they don’t know the whole story.

Progl is telling the story because, thanks to the documentary, she finally knows the whole story herself.

She knew of her family’s experience, but it was only recently she learned that the Miodowskis were three of the estimated 1,300 European Jews who legally immigrated to the Philippines in the last great Jewish escape before World War II raged.

It is a story of a Cincinnati Jewish family – the Freiders – who sold millions of Philippine-made cigars annually at the price of two for a nickle. They saw a problem and they acted.

It is the story of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, who opened his fledging country’s borders to Jewish immigrants when most of the world closed theirs. Quezon was Catholic.

It is the story of U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt, who oversaw American interests in the Philippines. While on its way to independence, the Philippines were still under U.S. rule. McNutt, a Protestant with ambitions to be the U.S. president, put his moral convictions ahead of political ambitions to help the Jewish immigrants.

It is the story of a young colonel, Dwight Eisenhower, who was the aide to Gen. Douglas McArthur. Eisenhower, the future general, president and father of America’s interstate highway system, was invited into the group for two reasons. He was a logistical genius, able to move people and equipment.

Eisenhower also loved poker. So did McNutt, and Quezon and the five Frieder brothers. Many of the key meetings were held while playing poker in the air-conditioned lobby of the Hotel Manila or the presidential yacht.

The story had gone largely untold until the Frieder family convinced 3 Roads Communications of Frederick, Md., to produce the documentary, “Rescue in the Philippines Refuge from the Holocaust.”

Progl learned the whole story because she and her mother were among the more than 30 refugees interviewed for the documentary. Martha Miodowski, 103 and living in Rock Hill at the time she was interviewed in September of 2011,, died several days after her memories were recorded. Her father died in 1979.

The documentary is now making its debut around the country and on public television.

“I didn’t know who had saved my life,” Progl said Friday, her voice rising with emotion.

“It was an interfaith action, one without committee meetings, one without a mission statement. This is a shining example of humanity.”

It was, she said, an example of Christ’s teaching to “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

No fear

The Miodowski story would have ended quickly had Martha Miodowski not been a woman of strong courage and conviction.

Her mother, Progl said, “knew no fear and bowed to no one.”

They lived in a time when the Nazis were rampant with their anti-Semitic campaign. The Nuremberg laws stripped Jews of German citizenship in 1935. On Nov. 9 and Nov. 10 of 1938, Nazis destroyed Jewish homes, shops, schools and synagogues during nights of destruction called “kristallnacht,” or crystal night for the number of streets littered with broken glass.

Shortly thereafter, George Miodowski was arrested and sent to Sachsenhauser concentration camp north of Berlin.

As Progl recalls, the family was already working on immigrating. Her father had seen an ad that said people with skills in the tobacco industry were needed in the Philippines. The Miodowski family had made cigars for years before the Nazis confiscated their factory, Progl said. Proof of employment was needed to immigrate.

With immigration papers almost in hand, Martha Miodowski went to Berlin and took a taxi to the concentration camp, about 20 miles north of the city. She and the taxi driver passed one sentry. The second sentry made them stop, Progl said.

“You don’t say ‘no’ to my mother,” Progl said.

Martha Miodowski said she wanted to see the commandant. Progl speculates the guard let her pass because Martha was an attractive German woman.

Miodowski told the commandant she had come for her husband. She was told she could have her marriage annulled, but that her child would be likely be thrown in a concentration camp too.

Martha Miodowski must have been very persuasive because at the camp’s next roll call, they shouted George’s number.

“He didn’t move,” Progl said. Calling attention to oneself was the last thing people in the concentration camps wanted.

Her mother pointed out her husband, Progl said, and the two left.

They later tried to trick the Nazis, hoping to take valuable silver and jewelry with them. The SS soldiers watched them as they packed. They scooped up clothing and put it in canvas satchels. The valuables had been mixed with the clothing.

When the Miodowskis got their satchels back, they had been cut open, the valuables taken.

They went to relatives in Holland and then boarded a freighter for the Far East, not knowing that they would soon be in peril again.

The Pearl and penniless

They arrived in Manila, nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient, to find a beautiful city that bore the influences of its colonial rulers, especially the Americans. The widest street in town was Dewey Boulevard, named for U.S. Adm. George Dewey, who had defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898.

The synagogue was on Taft Avenue, named for William Howard Taft, who was the first governor general of the islands.

They arrived penniless, but found a Jewish community willing to help. The immigration would swell the number of Jews in Manila to about 2,500 by 1941.

They first stayed in a communal house before finding their own place. George worked for the Freiders before taking a job as a night watchman at a warehouse. Martha became a seamstress for Mrs. Levy, an American whose husband imported fabric. Mrs. Levy taught Martha English.

Ursula did the things children do. She played games and got into trouble, especially when she climbed trees. “I got spanked when I fell,” she remembers. She ran along the rice paddy paths until she realized there were snakes.

The Freiders, Quezon, McNutt and Eisenhower continued their work to bring more Jews to the Philippines. Working with refuge committees, McNutt identified potential immigrants and helped secure Visas from a reluctant U.S. State Department. Quezon envisioned his country accepting as many as a million Jewish immigrants.

The efforts ended Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A day later they bombed the Philippines. On Dec. 22, they invaded the Philippines and on Dec. 26 Manila was declared an open city. Soon the Japanese occupied the Philippine capital.

The Japanese interned Americans, British and persons of other Allied nations. The Miodowskis went to a Japanese headquarters and showed officers their German passport complete with swastikas. Her parents kept repeating “Deutsche, Deutsche” and the Japanese eventually decided “we were OK, they bought it,” Progl said.

Martha Miodowski must of had an inkling of what would come. She told her daughter not to wear any of the clothing she had made for her. “Don’t wear them until the war is over and the Americans are back,” Progl remembers. The clothing burned during the war.

School soon changed for the young Ursula. She remembers the nuns were instructed to teach the students Japanese and each day started with her bowing to the rising sun in the East.

Foreigners also had to bow to Japanese officers. “My mother never bowed,” Progl said.

The Japanese were strict and punishment was swift, she remembers. “There was no tolerance for not listening and they instilled fear in you.” Yet, she and her fellow students responded with passive resistance; “we made sure we would not learn Japanese.”

Martha Miodowski showed the same courage she had shown before the German commandant. When told she couldn’t visit an ailing Mrs. Levy in a hospital, she snuck up the back stairs to see the friend who gave Martha her first job in the Philippines.

As the war wore on, she did what she could to feed her family, trading clothes for food. When there was nothing to trade, they ate the ducks they had trained to walk through their home.

Liberation by the Americans did not solve all their problems.

They started the process to immigrate to the United States. Martha worked at the Red Cross as a seamstress and they had some money sent by relatives in America. The relatives also opened bank accounts for them; nobody could immigrate without proof of financial stability, Progl said.

Progl said she may have boasted too much that they were going to America because one night people she described as “soldiers” descended on their home and ransacked it, stealing the money.

They also took Martha’s wristwatch but Ursula begged them to give it back. They did.

Eventually her fellow Red Cross employees and possibly relatives in American raised the money and they immigrated.

On the documentary, Martha made a simple observation.

“Life in the Philippines was no picnic, we all survived,” she said.

They left the Philippines on a freighter bound for the United States. They first stopped in Hawaii and then reached Long Beach, Calif.

As they came into the California port, ending their long journey, Martha turned to her daughter and gave her the wrist watch.

Ursula Miodowski Progl remembers what happened next clearly, as if a line between where she came from and where she was going. She put the watch on and leaned over the rail. It slipped off her wrist and fell into the water.

“I can still see it falling in slow motion.”

Time stopped and a new journey in a new land for Martha and Ursula began.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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