The Filipino Schindler: How the country's former president saved hundreds from the Holocaust
A new film sheds light on a little-known story of humanity from former leader Manuel Quezon
In the opening scenes of Quezon’s Game, a newsreel plays harrowing images of concentration camps and the atrocities carried by the Nazi Party. As the reels plays, an ailing president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon – head of a government in exile at the end of the Second World War – turns to his wife and asks: “Could I have done more?”
It’s a fair assumption that most of the audience at screenings won’t know what he’s referring to. Is it his becoming the first elected president of a fully unified Philippines? His successful land reforms? His attempts to free the nation’s economy from the shackles of foreign ownership? His war on corruption? Or his leading of a government- in-exile in the US following the Japanese occupation of his homeland?
In fact, he’s not talking about any of these things, but about a little-known period in his presidency, one that doesn’t feature in many history books and remains a mystery to a vast majority of Filipinos.
Thanks to his actions, Quezon can reasonably be described as Asia’s equivalent of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist credited with shielding more than 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.
Between 1938 and 1941, Quezon concocted a plan with his American poker-playing buddies – Paul McNutt, the US high commissioner, Philippine residents and cigar magnates the Frieder brothers, and Dwight Eisenhower, then chief of the US military in the islands.
Their idea would mean Quezon issued visas and assisted with transport to smuggle around 1,200 Jews out of Nazi-occupied Europe and resettle them in the Philippines. Had Quezon’s plans gone perfectly, he would have rescued more than 10,000 lives. He had already built a village where successful escapees could have lived and worked in the city of Marikina, and had declared the southern island of Mindanao a safe space where he hoped to settle a further 10,000 European Jews. Sadly, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1941 cut his scheme short and the president was forced to flee his homeland to establish his government in exile.
The story was lost on the shelves of history, but now British filmmaker Matthew Rosen, a long-time resident of the Philippines, has brought the tale to the big screen – picking up more than 20 international festival prizes on the way. The film is currently in cinemas in the Philippines, while Filipino channel ABS-CBN, in association with the Philippine Embassy in the UAE, is planning select UAE screenings soon.
Rosen has been making films in the Philippines since the 1980s, after he was brought over as a cinematographer on a six-month contract by a British producer. That contract was extended to a year, and by then he’d fallen in love with both the country and his wife-to-be. He never left.
The tale of how he came across this particular story, which even his Filipina wife was unaware of, is almost as incredible as the story itself. “I found out totally by accident,” he admits. “I’m a British Jew, living in the Philippines with my wife, and we went back to the UK for a Jewish wedding. When we started singing [traditional Jewish wedding song] Hava Nagila, my wife knew all the words and dance moves.”
Upon quizzing his wife Lori on her sudden command of Hebrew, he discovered that she used to sing the song on the streets of her hometown as a child, and had always assumed it was a Filipino song in a dialect she didn’t understand.
Rosen looked further into the mystery on returning to the Philippines, where a visit to a museum in the back room of a synagogue revealed that the area where his wife had grown up once had a sizeable Jewish population. Slowly, the puzzle began to fit together, and once Rosen had managed to track down the surviving family members of both Quezon and the Frieder brothers, the full scale of the joint US-Filipino evacuation efforts came to light.
There is still a small Jewish community in the Philippines, Rosen adds, although most of those who came over during the Holocaust left when the war finished – the Japanese destroyed the village they had moved to, which was on the site of what is now Marikina City Hall. Although the filmmaker notes that the local Jewish community had some knowledge of the events, the Filipino community had none at all. “I just felt this was a story that needed to be out there. Quezon was a hero,” he says.
With the story complete, there was still one major challenge remaining for Rosen – getting the film funded. The Filipino cinema market is traditionally skewed towards romance, comedy and the occasional big action flick. Historical drama is not something the local industry is known for. It’s perhaps doubly surprising, then, that not only did Rosen successfully raise the film’s reported $500,000 (Dh1.8 million) budget, but he did so through the Philippines’s biggest mainstream TV and cinema conglomerate, ABS-CBN.
“It was really difficult, and ABS was not the first place we tried,” he admits. “It took us three years of solid pitching. We’d been turned down by almost everyone else, but we hadn’t tried the big houses first, because we didn’t think this was the kind of film they’d make. We’d been trying to pitch to government agencies and indies, but absolutely nobody wanted it.”
Rosen could perhaps have saved himself the trouble – his last resort loved the idea, and took it on board almost immediately: “We should have gone there first as they saw something they liked and it was settled very quickly,” he says.
Audiences seem to have bucked the trend of eschewing historical dramas, too, perhaps understandably given this fascinating lost story about one of their national heroes. The film is already in its third week in Filipino cinemas, and the director reports that it is still playing to packed houses and may extend its run.
Rosen’s next plan is to get the film out to wider audiences internationally. Quezon’s Game is filmed 80 per cent in English, with the remainder in subtitled Spanish and Tagalog, and its impressive festival run at the turn of the year should bode well for international audiences, too.
ABS-CBN in Dubai hasn’t yet confirmed the exact details of its planned UAE screenings, but perhaps the film’s runaway success back home could tempt them to give it a wider opening.
Updated: June 22, 2019 11:14 AM