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Gaming history

An ironic footnote to the story of how the Philippines came to shelter more than a thousand Jews just before the outbreak of World War II was told during a visit some years back of the children of these Jewish refugees.

To put it mildly, it must have disheartened the new arrivals when, just a few years after their arrival, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines and brought with them the same brand of oppression and ruthlessness that the refugees had escaped. They must have agonized that after undergoing an arduous journey from Germany and Austria through the trans-Siberian railway and then a sea voyage to Manila, here they were facing yet another threat of renewed persecution from an Axis partner.

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But, to their surprise, they faced no such peril. Instead, they recalled, the Japanese treated them with respect since they were still considered citizens of Germany, Japan’s partner (along with Italy) in the pursuit of global fascist domination.

How did the European Jews end up in the country in the first place? The story is told in the film “Quezon’s Game,” still showing in a dwindling number of cinemas (so watch it now!), a remarkable project in that it dares to tackle “heavy” themes of humanism, colonial rule and racism in an era of action-driven, CGI-laden blockbusters.

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The “game” in the film is how the late President Manuel Quezon (with American and Jewish allies) manipulated political interests and public opinion to overcome the American colonial government’s objections to let Jewish refugees into its shores. The Philippines being “just” a Commonwealth then, American authorities may have felt that allowing the emigres into our shores would be tantamount to thumbing its nose at the Germans and provoking retaliation.

But, true to his ornery reputation, having once said that he preferred a “government run like hell by Filipinos to a government run like heaven by Americans,” Quezon decided to defy the American overlords. He was aided in his quest by American officials like US High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt and a then young Army colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as (reluctantly, it seems) other officials like Vice President Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Roxas. He also had the help of Jewish businessmen in the country, among them the Frieder brothers.

Through steadfast negotiation and by stoking local public opinion, Quezon managed to get the United States to bend to his will, though he only was able to get 1,200 visas out of the 10,000 he wanted. True, MLQ may have been motivated mainly by personal humanitarian values. But also behind this was perhaps a desire to demonstrate independence from the colonial power, even if it put his and his allies’ drive for full independence at risk.

Filmmaker Matthew Rosen, who is of Jewish descent, made an excellent decision to cast Raymond Bagatsing as Quezon. Not only does the actor bear an uncanny resemblance to the Commonwealth president, he also manages to capture Quezon’s aura of hauteur and authority, as well as impishness and, toward the end, defiance of his failing health.

As Doña Aurora Quezon, Rachel Alejandro seems a bit too young for the role (or maybe because we remember Doña Aurora as a white-haired matron), but brings to her portrayal a mix of tenderness and steel that so many admired about the first lady.

The “American” cast members also acquit themselves well, especially James Paolelli as McNutt and David Bianco as Eisenhower. A notable performance is also that of Audie Gemora as Osmeña, who lends his historical character an air of dignity and integrity.

“Quezon’s Game” has a rather claustrophobic air about it, and it can be considered “talky” for today’s movie audience yearning for heart-pumping action. But its message is on point and eternal: There are certain values that transcend politics or even self-interest. Quezon may have been putting the “independence project” in peril by coming to the aid of the Jews, but he was motivated as much by humanitarian values as by patriotic zeal. A nation’s self-interest and values should not be traded willy-nilly to a more powerful neighbor, no matter the provocation. A lesson our officials should take to heart.

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TAGS: At Large, gaming history, Jewish refugees, Manuel L. Quezon, Matthew Rosen, Quezon's Game, Rina Jimenez-David, World War II
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