Belmont Club

Man Versus Man

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Oddly enough there’s a tenuous cultural connection  between the long ago days of the Philippine anti-Marcos underground and Auschwitz. Back in the day I went to see Jose Diokno about getting someone in trouble with the regime off the hook.  Martial law was still in force and Diokno’s willingness to meet with a nobody from the shadows under doubtful circumstances says a lot about his willingness to run risk for the cause, especially since he himself had just been released from two years in prison.

I should  explain to my readers and anyone born in the last 30 years, that former Philippine Senator Jose Wright Diokno was in 1975 locally regarded as the equivalent of Clarence Darrow and Nelson Mandela rolled into one.  Diokno listened courteously to my quixotic appeal but told me, through clouds of tobacco smoke, which he inhaled from a cigarette clenched in nicotine-yellowed fingers,  that taking the case I proposed would be fatal to the interests of the expectant clients.

“Anyone I represent will be found guilty,” he declared with finality. “There are some things one just has to tough out.” But perhaps sensing that he could not send me away totally empty handed, he opened his drawer and took out something.

“But I can give you this,” he said.  “I found it a great comfort in prison, as did many others.” He handed me a paperback edition of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning” a 1946 book based on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II.”  For those who haven’t read it, it is basically a manual for building an inner fortress of liberty in a situation where your body is in bondage.

It talks about meaning, love and survival, nothing that would interest a twenty something year old fool.  I had hoped for more than words. In fact, I had hoped for magic. The reputation of Jose Wright Diokno as a larger than life character had been built up in my mind, not simply by his public reputation — which everybody knew — but by a private conversation I had with a gentleman who had been his classmate from grade school onwards. They had an academic rivalry from childhood, a short version of which he related.

“We were classmates for more than ten years, from grade school through high school to preparatory law. Yet each year the our rivalry was boringly the same. Diokno was always first the class and I,” the gentleman said, “was always second. I was determined to surpass him and studied harder to the point where I did little else. Yet it was to no avail. He was always first and I was always second.”

I remember the older man pausing for effect, as if reflecting upon a wry memory and continuing.

“Then the war broke out and Diokno vanished, probably to join the guerillas, I thought, for he was that sort. Yet whatever evil the Japanese occupation brought, it at least brought one consolation. With him out of the way I should at last stand first in class.”

“After MacArthur returned they held the first post-war Bar Exam in 1945 for the class of ’44. Who should show up but Jose Diokno. Somehow he had gotten special permission to take the exam, despite being absent from law school the entire duration of the war. When the results were posted I walked up to the bulletin board and what do you suppose I saw?”

“Diokno topped the bar.”

“Yes and I was second. It was then I realized,” he said, “that some men are marked for a destiny.  It’s a shame he threw it all away.”

The chain-smoking senator’s destiny was to die the year after Marcos fell, of lung cancer in 1987 while the perennial second placer, having learned his lesson in 1945 gave up the law and made a fortune as a businessman. As I grew older my recollection went back and I re-thought that strange meeting. What did I expect to see? A legal miracle worker? Or the gravelly voiced, helpless, middle aged man that I actually met?

It was only later that I ‘got it’, sort of: all he could offer me was hope. A paperback book assuring its readers that there was life even in Auschwitz — and therefore also in Bicutan, Crame or Laur.  The name of the prison might change but the nature of the challenge was essentially the same. Auschwitz was eternal and and so was the unchanging human determination to survive. They would always be at war and the miracle, or so Diokno hoped to convince me, was that the prisons would lose in the end.

It was something Pepe Diokno believed which I had yet to to make up my mind about.  And I’m still not sure. A guilty civilization emerging from World War II promised posterity that Auschwitz would therafter mean “never again”. But today we know the promise was broken even as it was made; that it really signified — what it will always signify — is “until next time”. For as Camus put it, the plague never dies.  The huts, the wire, the silent iron gate only seem harmless now, but they’ll be back. It goes on.  The race is not — is never — over.


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