Hava Nagila: The song that gave birth to Quezonâs Game
Rachel Alejandro and Raymond Bagatsing holding their trophies for Quezon’s Game. With them is Matthew Rosen, who bagged the Best Director trophy.
Hava Nagila: The song that gave birth to Quezon’s Game
Pablo A. Tariman (The Philippine Star) - May 22, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Largely ignored in history books, it turned out President Manuel L. Quezon had a hand in saving more than 1,200 Jews facing imminent death from the Nazis from 1937 to 1941.

Some survivors figured out that the Filipino president probably saved more souls, outnumbering the ones chronicled in the movie, Schindler’s List, where one Oskar Schindler hired Jews in his factory to shelter them from Nazi persecution.

In 1939, a stream of refugees arrived in Manila, one of whom was Herbert Zipper who survived Dachau concentration camp. He became the second conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) founded in 1926 by Alexander Lippay.

Some descendants of the Jews, who arrived in the Philippines starting 1938 to 1941, were interviewed in the stunning documentary, An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines, directed by Noel Izon.

One such survivor was Lotte Hershfield, who was only seven when she left Breslau, Germany for the Philippines.

Raymond as President Quezon. A dramatic departure from his role in Pusong Ligaw.

As narrated in her recollection of the dreadful late ’30s in Germany, the young Lotte avoided the benches with the sign: No dogs or Jews allowed. She couldn’t attend public schools. And the Nazis and their growling German shepherds raided her family’s house, throwing their books into a fire.

The only way out was Manila.

Growing increasingly fearful, her parents and her older brother left their hometown of Breslau, Germany in 1938 and journeyed to the Philippines.

The dramatic rescue of over 1,200 European Jews from 1937 to 1941 is the main highlight of the award-winning film, Quezon’s Game, which has garnered 23 awards in the festival circuit in Canada and the USA including Best Director (Matthew Rosen), Best Actor (Raymond Bagatsing), Best Supporting Actor (Billy Ray Gallion) and Best Foreign Film, among others.  

Director Rosen, who is married to a Filipina, Lorena Rosen, told me his idea for Quezon’s Game started when he visited the Philippines some 10 years back and wondered why Filipinos were familiar with the Hebrew song, Hava Nagila. Then later, he became aware of the presence of a Jewish community in Manila. It didn’t surprise him that many of them turned out to be survivors of the holocaust and were saved when Pres. Quezon decided to accept them in the Philippines.

As the production staff worked on the script and casting, they realized there was no one in sight to play Pres. Quezon.

Lorena was watching the teleserye, Pusong Ligaw, and came across the image of Raymond in the cast. Right there and then, she knew she found the lead actor. Still tired and sleepless from all-night taping, Raymond was asked to read lines from one of the speeches of Pres. Quezon. After he was done, he heard applause. After two months of waiting, he got the part.

The author with MSO conductor Herbert Zipper who survived holocaust in Austria and sailed to the Philippines in 1939.

Rachel, who plays Aurora Quezon, said she had to use her instinct to be able to relate to her famous husband who happens to be her first cousin. “Well, the history books didn’t dwell on this but the Quezon couple was practically relatives with just a 10-year gap between them. I thought I’d act like a younger cousin but as the reading progressed, I found a way to become Aurora Quezon.”

Screenwriting partners Janice Perez and Dean Rosen took all of three months to rewrite the script. It took another month to finalize the cast.

Concluded direk Matthew: “This was an extremely difficult project to conceptualize and just as equally difficult to produce. This wasn’t conceived as a big project but as we go on, we know we have a big film in the making. What Pres. Quezon did to save over 1,200 souls from imminent death was a big act of humanity I really felt we owe it to him to tell this story.”

Quezon’s Game also won awards for Best Lighting (Matthew and Leo Santos), Best Original Score (Dean), Excellence in Best Design (Rowella Talusig and Set Construction Group), Best in Costume Design (Rowella Talusig) and citation for Award of Merit for Color Treatment (Antonette Gozum). It stars Kate Alejandrino as Baby Quezon, David Blanco as Dwight Eisenhower and James Paoleli as Paul McNutt.

Released by Star Cinema, Quezon’s Game opens in cinemas on May 29.

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