By Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
When I mention the name Oskar Schindler, you instantly think of the man immortalized by Steven Spielberg in “Schindler’s List.” But when I speak of Filipino President Manuel L. Quezon, all I get are blank stares. That’s about to change.
Although the story has been primarily forgotten, “Quezon’s Game” is the true account of what transpired when good and righteous men and women stood up for what was right. When many countries (including the U.S.) turned a deaf ear to the plight of the Jews seeking to flee Nazi Germany, the president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines Manuel L. Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing) was listening.
At the Malacañang Palace in Manila, a world away from the political upheaval in Europe, four men were playing poker and smoking up a storm. The group consisted of the Filipino president; U.S. Army Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower (David Bianco), who at the time was chief aide to General Douglas MacArthur; U.S. High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt (James Paolelli); and Jewish businessman Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion). Frieder (a cigar manufacturer originally from Cincinnati) urged his friends to facilitate a rescue of persecuted Jews and provide a sanctuary for them in the Philippines. An ambitious plan was devised which proposed saving 10,000+ Jewish families and resettling them on Mindanao, a sparsely populated island in the Philippines. There were vocal critics of the proposal (both in the U.S. and the Philippines), in addition to the numerous obstacles: securing visas, exit permits and travel clearances. But despite the enormous hurdles that needed to be addressed, and hampered by health issues, Quezon persevered. Eventually, more than 1,300 Jews were rescued. In an emotionally charged scene, Quezon’s wife, Aurora (Rachel Alejandro), and daughter, Baby (Kate Alejandrino), welcome the refugees upon arrival. Unfortunately, the operation was terminated when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941. Three years later, while watching newsreels about the war, Quezon turns to his wife and laments, “Could I have done more?” This is a very similar sentiment echoed by Oskar Schindler.
According to the press notes, “Quezon’s Game,” which was directed by British national (and current Filipino resident) Matthew Rosen in his directorial feature film debut along with his Filipino wife, Lorena “Lori” Rosen (who co-produced the film), heard the little-known story of the film from members of the Jewish Association of the Philippines. They knew immediately that this exceptional story needed to be communicated to a wider audience.
Commented Rosen, “I am a Jew who grew up in England and have experienced bigotry, but after 37 years in the Philippines, to this day, I have never come across prejudice, dislike or distrust because I am white or Jewish. … This was truly a passion project for me. The story behind ‘Quezon’s Game’ remains a reflection of the Filipino people today, a warm and welcoming culture.”
He continues, “In a time of war, when the rest of the world was in despair and apathetic, the Filipino people — who were suffering their own hardships — shed a light on justice and morality to lead others. Quezon fought a lonely battle for what was right up until his untimely death. The message of this amazing story, which was largely forgotten, is more important than ever in today’s growing climate of intolerance — and my wife, Lori, and I wanted to tell it. It’s my ‘thank you’ to the Philippines.”
Listen for two songs which are featured in the film, composed by concentration camp prisoners. They are titled, “Why Does the White Man Sit in the Front of the Bus?” by Karel Švenk and “Wino,” a tango by Z. Stryjecki, performed by Madrid’s In Memoriam Orchestra. Švenk was interned at Theresienstadt and his musical compositions were smuggled out of Terezín by George Horner, a member of Švenk’s band. Permission was granted to use the music by the Terezín Music Foundation (TMF), a nonprofit entity dedicated to honoring the musical legacy of the artists imprisoned at the camp.
Švenk was eventually sent to Auschwitz and later died on a subsequent transport to Mauthausen. Little is known about the writer of the tango, who also perished in the Holocaust. His or her manuscripts — now housed in a Polish museum — were found with just a first name initial and last name.
If I have one criticism of the film, it is with the overall hue — a sepia tone that’s cast over the film. It bestows a very old-fashioned pallor. Perhaps this was the intention of the filmmaker? Some heavy-handed dialogue, coupled with the overly generous display of cigar smoke, distract a bissel. But since this is a fictionalized version of the story and we weren’t there, who is to say that it’s not an accurate depiction of the times? None of this should deter you from seeing this inspiring film. It’s such a timely message, especially when just days ago, Jan. 27, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. If you stay for the credits (and I suggest you do), you’ll have a chance to read more about the special bonds between Israeli and the country that cast the deciding U.N. vote in favor of Israeli statehood.
Through the generosity of the film’s production company, ABS-CBN Film Productions, a Texas audience was treated to a sneak peek before the local opening of the film. The evening was attended by members of 3 Stars Jewish Cinema, local Filipino community leaders, the press and the Houston-based heads of the Community Management and Business Development team.