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MANILA — Much has been told about the legacy of Manuel L. Quezon, but little awareness, it seems, has been brought to an “act of humanity” of the late former president, which today resonates through the distinguishing hospitality of Filipinos.
That lesser-known fact unfolded in the 1930s, when millions of persecuted Jews sought to flee the Holocaust. Thousands of miles away from Europe, the Philippines was an unlikely refuge for the Jewish people — and yet it became one, through the resolve Quezon.
“Quezon’s Game,” a film inspired by the president’s open-door policy to welcome the displaced Jews, chronicles the challenges and the triumph of that political — and moral — undertaking.
Matthew Rosen, the Jewish filmmaker behind what he referred to as a “passion project,” had set out to share this chapter of the Philippines to the mainstream audience as early as 2009, when he first came across it.
The England-born Rosen, who considers himself “Pinoy at heart” after years of being based here, said what transpired during Quezon’s time is a reflection of the Filipino people today, with its hospitality and “wonderful culture that allows this lack of bigotry and prejudice.”
“This story really focuses on that — that in the time of war, when the rest of the world became apathetic and was drowning in the despair of war, the Filipino people shone a light on morality that led the rest of the world. And it was forgotten, and for me it was one of the most important stories of the war,” he told ABS-CBN News.
Quezon, as shown in the film’s opening minutes, had wanted to open doors to 10,000 Jews whose survival depended on whether they could escape the Nazi regime.
At the time, the Philippines had yet to reach independence from the United States, causing a number of obstacles for Quezon to realize his goal. Despite facing opposition, including from government leaders, he ultimately welcomed some 1,200 Jews to the country as their safe haven.
“The Filipino people is intelligent — that’s a given — but I believe more in the Filipino heart. That is our winning factor,” screen veteran Raymond Bagatsing, who portrays Quezon in the film, told ABS-CBN News.
“He’s an idealistic man who will go to the lengths — up to his death — to fight for something that is right and that is just,” Bagatsing said, referring to Quezon’s bout with tuberculosis around the same time he was maneuvering towards his mission concerning the Jews.
Rachel Alejandro, who plays Quezon’s wife Aurora, recalled crying when she first read the script by Dean Rosen and Janice Perez. “When people are determined to do the right thing regardless of consequences, miracles can happen,” she said.
The “miracle” of Quezon’s game not only saved the lives of the Jews who found home in the Philippines, but also secured the future of their descendants which number around 8,000, according to a 2017 estimate of the Israel embassy.
Among them is the former wife of President Rodrigo Duterte, Elizabeth Zimmerman, he said in a 2016 speech before the Jewish community in which he apologized for his past controversial remarks referencing the Holocaust.
Quezon’s humanitarian gesture was honored in 2009 with the “Open Doors” monument in Israel, located at Rishon LeZion Memorial Park just off Tel Aviv.
Israel also provides visa-free access to Filipino citizens — an arrangement borne of Quezon’s “moral courage,” as termed by the country’s embassy here.
The late president’s legacy carries a message that remains timely, according to Rosen, who pointed out that “the elements of bigotry and segregation that we had to fight against in the second world war seem to be coming around again.”
“After a period after the war where every man was equal and all borders were open — which was also led by Quezon — they’re beginning to close again.
“This story could happen again, and I think it’s a good time to show this to remind people the horrors of what happened if you close your borders and if you don’t treat all men as equal,” he went on.
Alejandro, whose character Aurora was instrumental in Quezon forging on despite odds, echoed Rosen’s statement: “It’s such a relevant thing to this day, because some countries are inward-looking now. It’s like, ‘Us first.’ There’s so much of that message going around, na parang, ‘Tayo muna, before helping others.’
“Paano kung sa atin nangyari? Iyon naman ang turo ng Diyos, ‘di ba, to extend the same kindness that we would like to be extended to us. Iyon ‘yung ganda ng storya.”
Aside from lessons to be re-learned, Rosen said he hopes Filipinos will gain a sense of pride from watching a “Quezon’s Game,” which is scheduled for a theatrical release on May 29.
“What I really want for Filipinos after seeing this film is to be proud. That was really why I made it,” he said.
“When humanity had gone, the Philippines really led the way, and they had to fight to lead the way. It’s an inspiration to the rest of the world, that a whole people can have this moral standing. That’s what I wanted to put across.”