The First Jews in the Philippines

The First Jews in the Philippines

by Levy Abad

Adolphe Levy and Brothers

After fifteen years of research into the founders of the Manila store La Estrella Del Norte, I finally found pictures of two of the three siblings, Adolphe Levy and Raphael Levy. I still have to find one of Charles Levy. It was a relative, Joelle Lasserre, who shared the pictures that she found in her research on the French side of Adolphe’s family.

Adolphe Levy (1849–1888), the founder of La Estrella del Norte, together with his brothers, had been faceless throughout Philippine history despite their contribution to the then fledgling trade business in the Philippines starting in 1870s. I have communicated with the different branches of the Levy family in the Philippines, but no one could provide pictures. Several visits to the Philippine archives in 2000 to 2004 then online research and lastly, scouring Supreme Court decisions for clues, proved futile.

The Birth of La Estrella Del Norte

Adolphe, Charles and Raphael Levy were from Alsace, France. They left the country due to the impact of the Franco–Prussian War, traveled to the United States, and eventually moved to the Philippines where they started a business. They organized La Estrella Del Norte (The Star of the North) and later added “Levy Hermanos” to the company’s name. “The first business that they established was in Iloilo where they sold religious medals, statues, gold chains, gilt eyeglass frames, perfumes and later they expanded their trading business. Charles Levy opened what became the main office at Escolta, the old central business street in Manila. La Estrella del Norte began to diversify” (Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila, From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, 12). Adolphe Levy led the business in its early years. Unfortunately, he succumbed to illness in 1888 at the age of 39. With the death of Adolphe, Charles Weil, a relative, took over management, together with Charles Levy and Raphael. The company introduced the first bicycle, in 1894 the first phonograph, and in 1899 the moving picture machine. In 1904, they brought the first automobile ever seen in Philippine society.” (Lou Gopal, La Estrella Del Norte, Manila Nostalgia, Facebook).

Contributions of the Levy Brothers

The business that Adolphe Levy and his brothers built catered to the taste of the aristocracy of the country. In a way, the Levy brothers laid down the foundation of the business presence of the Jewish community in the country beginning in the 1870’s. According to a friend musician who attends a synagogue in Manila, Aryeh Meir Ben Avraham and online sources, the office of La Estrella del Norte was even “used for high holiday services until the first synagogue was built in 1919” (Lou Gopal, Manila Nostalgia, Facebook). This synagogue will be known as Temple Emil. The book of Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, tells of the story of how the Philippines welcomed German and Austrian Jews (numbering around 1200) that escaped the Holocaust or what is referred to nowadays by the Jewish community as the Shoah or Catastrophe. Frank Ephraim noted, “The Levy brothers befriended Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines. They were even supportive of his views” (p.12). This happened when Adolphe was still alive.

From the time Adolphe Levy and his brothers arrived in the Philippines in the 1870’s up to 1888 when he passed away, and onto the 1960’s, Adolphe’s legacy lived on through his siblings who continued the business. Their business provided jobs that established goodwill especially with those who were running the government. I do believe that this goodwill created the atmosphere of being a welcoming country to the Jews who escaped Germany to Manila. When the last of the Levy brothers left the Philippines, there were already a lot of Jewish investments, and the relationships built over the years came in handy in the effort to save their distressed brothers and sisters escaping the Shoah.

Descendants of Adolphe Levy

Some members of the family left the Philippines for the United States and others returned to France. The descendants of Adolphe Levy, the oldest of the three and known to be the founder of La Estrella Del Norte, are still in the Philippines. His early death will deprive him of the pride of seeing his achievements grow, leaving not only an imprint on the field of business but also on his descendants. He had a son with Benita Enriquez named Francisco Enriquez Levy (1883-1944). It will be Francisco, who was orphaned at the age of four, from whom a branch of the Levy of the Philippines will originate. Francisco is the grandfather of the famous Philippine movie star Susan Roces or Jesusa Levy Sonora” (interview with Moises Levy, 2007 Toronto, Ontario included in Levy Family History Manuscript 1870-2010, researched by Levy Abad) and wife of the late Fernando Poe, also a famous movie star, who ran for President in 2004. To date, after 147 years, there are hundreds of descendants of Adolphe Levy in the Philippines and others are residing abroad.

Legacy

The reason for including the family background is to honour Adolphe Levy and his brothers Charles and Raphael for their contribution in building the Jewish community in the Philippines during the time when there was no community yet but only the Levy families from Marckolsheim and Mutzig of Alsace..(Source: Joelle Nordmann Lasserre). Frank Ephraim mentioned in his book that “The Levy brothers tended to quietly support the Filipino quest for sovereignty, hoping it would bring about more religious freedom” (Escape to Manila, From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, 12). The Levy brothers were low-profile, so much so that even if they owned businesses, it is difficult to find pictures of them.

From the time of Adolphe Levy and his brothers in the 1870’s up to the time that there was a relative number of Jews to form a community until the 1960s, their engagement in numerous businesses made an impact and yielded positive results in lobbying during the war years and may have been instrumental in the decision of President Manuel L. Quezon to admit 1200 Jewish refugees. All this positive outcome can be traced back to the time of tireless building of goodwill.

The Research Continues

Part of the story of Adolphe Levy is that he had a daughter named Mercedes Levy (1888-1967) born on March 1,1888, (five years younger than Francisco) with Irma Heymann Levy. Irma died in 1893 at the age of 30, leaving Mercedes totally orphaned.The descendants of Mercedes will be the source of the picture of Adolphe. Years and years, the family of Adolphe in the Philippines wandered and yearned for the day that they will have his picture. Lo and behold, finally, Adolphe comes back to life in the memory of his children in the Philippine diaspora.

I would like to end this article with a quote from Eitz Chayim Hi: “Hashivenu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem” (Return us to you, God, so that we shall return, renew our days as of old).

(Some parts of this article were originally published in the Winnipeg Jewish Review, Levy Abad: From Kristallnacht to La Estrella Del Norte, November 9, 2015)