“We had our own holocaust here,” it grievously intoned. The story that followed–on the front page of the Los Angeles Times where I worked for 23 years–told the tragic tale of what happened in Manila as U.S. and Filipino forces fought to liberate it from Japan in 1945.
“Many were massacred in atrocities by Japanese troops,” former colleague Bob Drogin wrote, “but many also were pulverized by U.S. artillery barrages. Countless others were maimed, impoverished and traumatized.”
The final count: 1,000 Americans, 16,000 Japanese soldiers, and at least 100,000 unarmed Filipino civilians—10% of the population—dead in the streets. “Much of the graceful city was turned to rubble,” the Times continued. “Large parts of its rich cultural heritage—archives of the Spanish colonial era, records from the Philippine revolution, birth and death certificates, ornate churches, grand libraries and treasured art—were obliterated. Only Warsaw suffered more among Allied capitals in the war.”
While all this was previously well known, the newspaper reported, it has largely been forgotten. But now an international group of historians, history buffs, and writers aims to change all that. “People need to see what happened,” one Filipino author told the Times. “People need to know.”
I’ve long been a student of World War II. As a child, I often sat at my father’s knee gulping down his stories of life as a merchant seaman who, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, made regular stops in Manila. Another port was Shanghai, China, where he met my mother, a German Jew who barely escaped the Nazis, only to be detained by the equally brutal Japanese. During my own trips to Manila, I have visited the vast American Cemetery interring more than 17,000 soldiers, driven along the road in Bataan on which thousands died during the notorious Death March of 1942, and peered into the ominous stone dungeon of Intramuros where Filipino prisoners were left to starve.
More recently, however, I’ve shifted my attention to Europe, spurred by an email from a relative. “I have some interesting family information that I would like to share,” it began.
What she told me changed my world. First, my Jewish grandfather, who died in the Holocaust along with most of his family, had a secret daughter no one knew about until now. Second, some of her descendants—my half-cousins—will soon gather in Germany to dedicate a memorial in their (and my) dead family’s name. Which is why, by the time you read this, I’ll probably be on a plane.
The story is way too complicated to unravel here and, anyway, I’m still learning the details. It involves a grandfather possibly shot to death on the bloody streets of Poland, his wife and son gassed in a concentration camp, the secret daughter hiding out to avoid persecution, another daughter hidden in the home of a German major, and an uncle who became a Communist activist, condemned political prisoner, prominent journalist and, ultimately, top advisor to 1960s German chancellor Willy Brandt. Not to mention, of course, my mother, who spent nearly a decade as a refugee in China. It will probably take some time to write it all down. For now, though, let me just say this: history is a bitch. One that must be tamed and made our own. One that, ultimately, must be wrestled to the ground.
Wish me luck; it looks like I’ve got some big bouts ahead.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, essayist, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.