Over a game of poker in the humid nighttime hours of Manila in the late 1930s, Alex Frieder proposed a radical idea that would ultimately save 1,200 Jewish lives.
Frieder, whose family moved its cigar-manufacturing business from Manhattan to the Philippines in 1918 to cut production costs, became a well-connected businessman in the southeast Asian country. His poker pals included a U.S. colonel named Dwight Eisenhower, American high commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt, and Manuel Quezon, president of the Philippines, which was then an American protectorate.
One night, Frieder raised the subject of Jewish refugees from Europe. The conversation marks an early scene in the new film Quezon’s Game, which is currently playing in select Canadian theatres. Frieder brings a telegram from his associate in the Chinese Consulate in Austria, warning of the Nazis’ sinister plans.
“They want to exterminate the Jews,” Frieder’s brother says.
“What Jews?” Eisenhower replies.
“All of them,” Frieder says.
“All Jews? It’s unthinkable!” rebuffs McNutt.
Unfortunately, the dialogue doesn’t dig much deeper than this. Totally lacking in subtext and subtlety, the movie gives off the feeling that Holocaust educators with no filmmaking experience teamed up with the production crew of a Filipino soap opera. Peppered with random outbursts and dialogue so bad it’s actually kind of funny, the film contains oddly small inaccuracies, too, like when Eisenhower boasts, “They don’t call me the poker wizard of Manila for nothing!” (In reality, it seems nobody called him that at all: Eisenhower was known as “the bridge wizard of Manila,” though he also played poker.)
It’s a shame, because the story behind this mediocre melodrama is a fascinating one, perhaps better served in literature or documentary form. The few non-fiction works that do cover the subject – the memoir Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror by Frank Ephraim, for example, or the documentary An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines – tell the tale from Jewish perspectives, rather than that of President Quezon, who faced a serious dilemma in deciding whether or not to bring hundreds of Jews to his country.
In Quezon’s Game, the president is played with mostly thoughtful stoicism by Raymond Bagatsing, a well-known Filipino TV actor, who only sometimes delves into laugh-out-loud melodrama. (At one point, his character suffers a bad coughing fit from a relapse of tuberculosis, but is simultaneously furious at his American overlords’ dismissal of his visa requests for refugees, so he ends up pushing everything off his desk, collapsing to the floor and standing up again to push more things off.)
Quezon faces domestic anti-Semitism from ignorant government officials more focused on re-election than saving lives. McNutt, too, struggles against systemic anti-refugee sentiment from the American government. However, the team ultimately prevails, raising the annual immigration quota, allowing them to bring in 1,200 European Jews before Japanese occupation forced Quezon into exile – a few years before his death in 1944 from tuberculosis.
No doubt Quezon deserves wider recognition and gratitude from the Jewish community. In February 2005, the Jewish community of Cincinnati, the Frieders’ hometown, honoured the events by hosting a joint Jewish-Filipino public Shabbat service, with songs sung in both Tagalog and Hebrew, with numerous descendants of the original refugees and politicians invited, including Manuel L. Quezon III, the president’s grandson.
“We’re a very hospitable people and we had experienced exile and imprisonment during the Spanish colonization and the early American occupation, so someone of my grandfather’s generation would have been conscious of the plight of refugees,” he said, before succinctly summarizing the story: “We’re a sucker for anyone who’s suffering.”