Opening the door to persecuted Jews because ‘it was the right thing to do’

But very few countries were willing to take in Jewish refugees.

Israaid phillipines 248.88 (photo credit: )
Israaid phillipines 248.88
(photo credit: )
How many of the six million Jewish Holocaust victims might have been spared had more countries been willing to provide a haven for them? There were several countries in which non-Jewish friends, neighbors and total strangers risked their lives and those of their families to either shelter Jews in their homes or smuggle them to safe houses and across borders.
But very few countries were willing to take in Jewish refugees.
The Philippines was one of the significant exceptions – not because its charismatic, sensitive and humanitarian president Manuel Quezon wanted history to remember him as some knight in shining armor whose deeds might be commemorated in monuments erected in his honor. There was a time when such a thing would have been important to him, but confronted with the reality of the persecution of the Jews, their confinement to ghettos and concentration camps and their execution for no reason other than that they were Jews, he chose to open the gates of his country to Jews – primarily from Germany and Austria – because he believed that it was the right thing to do.
Documentaries about Quezon and what he did for the Jewish people have been shown in Israel in the past, but until this week, never a feature film on the subject.
On Sunday, the Israeli premiere of Quezon’s Game was screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as the curtain-raiser for the second annual Philippine Film Festival in the presence of Ernesto Abella, Undersecretary for Strategic Communications and Research at the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs; Philippine Ambassador Neal Imperial; Gilad Cohen, Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific at Israel’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs; and the film’s director, Matthew Rosen.
The large audience overwhelmingly comprised Filipinos, some of who were caregivers and brought along their Israeli employers.
It was no less important for Filipinos in Israel than it was for Israelis to learn of the long history shared by Filipinos and Jews and the Filipino-Israeli relationship.
Today, there is a small but flourishing Jewish community in the Philippines. Two of the offspring of Jews who benefited from Quezon’s determination and generosity of heart – Margot Kestenbaum, and Max Weissler – now live in Israel. The octogenarians readily admit that if not for Quezon, they might not be here. They also testify that there was no persecution of Jews in the Philippines until the Nazi presence and the Japanese invasion.
The story is well known to the Jewish community in the Philippines, said Rosen, a British-born Jew himself.
However, until his film was shown there, the story was not generally known among indigenous Filipinos. Rosen thought it was a story that should be told to the wider public and that it would make a good film.
He was right. It has consistently received rave reviews, and since December last year, has won 23 awards at various film festivals.
The acting and the well-researched script are brilliant, with one tiny fault that would be noticed only by people familiar with the background to the story.
One of the stars, Billy Ray Gallion, gives a superb portrayal of Alex Frieder, the wealthy Jew who first brought the plight of his co-religionists in Europe to Quezon’s attention. But the audience is not given sufficient information about the four Frieder brothers from Cincinnati who owned property and a cigar manufacturing company in the Philippines where they took turns in spending a lot of time. The Frieders, especially Alex, were friendly with the cigar-loving Quezon, who also enjoyed playing poker with them and with American High Commissioner Paul McNutt, convincingly played by James Paoleli, who sacrificed his own political career to help bring Jews to the Philippines.
Raymond Bagatsing, who plays Quezon, the handsome, charismatic president who, even as he was dying from tuberculosis, remained determined to save as many Jews as possible, has been lauded by Filipino film critics for looking and sounding like Quezon.
Also praised in her home country for her realistic performance was Rachel Alejandro, who plays Aurora Quezon, who supports the mission to save the Jews, although she was fearful for her husband’s life.
Recently an article appeared in The Jerusalem Post which highlighted some of the flaws in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s relations with the Jews. However in the film, Eisenhower – played by David Bianco – is extremely influential in getting a reluctant US State Department to issue thousands of visas for Jews.
Philippine Vice President Sergio Osmena, played by Audie Gemora, was dismayed by Quezon’s change of priorities from upgrading the quality of life of Filipino peasants to saving Jews. He was so disappointed in Quezon that he seriously considered withdrawing his support. Osmena felt that even though Quezon had been instrumental in the negotiations for Philippine independence from American rule, he was no longer deserving of support because he put the refugee Jews ahead of his own starving people. When he tells this to Quezon, the president responds by urging him on his upcoming visit to the White House in Washington to ask to go to the toilet. There is a toilet adjacent to the Oval Office, but Quezon emphasizes that Osmena will not be permitted to use that one. He will be directed to go down a long corridor to a door marked “Coloreds.”
Osmena protests that he is not a Negro.
“I didn’t say Negro,” Quesan retorts “I said colored – not white.” He impresses on Osmena that the Americans consider him to be colored, and therefore inferior. In presenting this argument, Quezon wins back Osmena’s support.
When the plan to save the Jews is initially proposed, McNutt throws cold water on it and says the State Department will never agree to issue more visas than the meager quota, because “the State Department is full of antisemites.”
One such example is seen in bigoted American Consul General Cartwright, played by Paul Holme, who though appreciative of the cigars manufactured and marketed by Jews, declares: “We don’t want to be over-run by Jews. They’re worse than n*****s.”
Prior to 1946, when it actually gained independence following the defeat of the Japanese invaders, the Philippines represented an important electorate in America’s presidential elections. Roosevelt wanted to change legislation so that he could run for a third term. Quezon, McNutty and Eisenhower used this as leverage in a special hearing in Washington to get the much needed visas.
Quezon in an inspiring address in Manila fired up the Filipino public.
During this scene, the audience applauded as if Quezon was talking directly to them.
They also applauded when the visas finally came through and the first of the refugees were seen arriving in Manila on water taxis after disembarking from the boat which had brought them to the Philippines.
In Israel, there is growing awareness of the assistance given by the Philippines to the Jews, said Imperial. Both he and Abella referred to the Filipino monument to that rescue operation that was inaugurated in Rishon Lezion in 2009.
Abella said that Quezon’s policy was “a defining moment in Philippine history” when a nation which had not yet gained its full independence opened its doors and “provided refuge for people in need.” He reaffirmed the Philippine commitment to a world free of persecution of people on the basis of religion, race, gender or any other reason.
“We are glad we extended a hand of welcome,” the diplomat said.
Cohen credited ambassadors of Israel to the Philippines and the Philippines to Israel for making this unique and noble story more widely known. He described it as “a bright light at a time of unimaginable darkness” and said that Israel’s Foreign Ministry has asked Yad Vashem to give special recognition to Quezon.
The film will be distributed to Israeli theaters next year.