Escaping from the Nazis they came crowded in boats to Cuba, they sold their shirts to get visas and passports and the first thing they saw at the entrance to Havana Bay was El Morro. Hope and the unknown.
They were the Jews who had been fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe. Between 1933 and 1944, 12,000 refugees arrived in Cuba.
Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: a Haven in Havana rescues a part of the history of forgotten .
In the 1940s, thousands of Jews came to Cuba from Europe, fleeing from Nazism. On the island they found refuge and created workshops of Polished diamonds. There they employed and taught this laborious task to Cubans, but with the departure of Cuba from the Jewish refugees, after the Second World War, everything was forgotten.
Everything was strange and they did not speak the language. They left behind works of art, prosperous businesses – factories or small businesses -, professional jobs, and the most painful, family members they would never see again.
The life of these refugees from the war on the island is the center of the documentary Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels, a Haven in Havana , which premieres in this city during the Jewish Film Festival (Miami Jewish Film Festival), which is celebrated from 11 to January 25 in Miami Beach.
The first feature is already fully sold, but for the second, on Thursday, the 18th, at 7 pm, at the Miami Beach JCC (4221 Pine Tree Dr.), tickets are still available. It will feature the directors of the documentary, Robin Truesdale and Judy Kreith.
It is precisely because of the constant mention of Cuba in the memories of Judy’s mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, that the filmmakers begin to gather the testimonies of other people who shared that experience.
Judy says that her mother often remembered the work she did in the years she lived on the island: she polished diamonds in an industry that did not exist in Cuba and that the Jews created to survive.
“It was a situation in which everyone won because that industry hired both Jewish refugees and Cubans,” remembers Judy about the words repeated by her mother, who arrived in Cuba at the age of 14.
Many Jews tried to sell ties, says one of the interviewees in the documentary, but not all were vendors.
The diamond industry, and especially the laborious task of polishing them, was a business they knew.
After leaving Tiscornia, the detention camp where they were sent for quarantine, in a secluded place next to the bay of Havana, began their life as unemployed.
With mouths to feed, the refugees created their own livelihood. Then created the workshops where the diamonds that came out of Africa and that came to the island through New York, the destination with which most of them dreamed about.
Following the current legislation, the workshops had to employ 50 percent of Cubans. The rest were refugees.
“Today there is no physical evidence of these workshops on the island, or signs that this industry ever existed, and that was our only difficulty,” says Truesdale, who began filming Marion’s testimony for a family file.
“Once we started interviewing other Holocaust survivors and listening to their stories, we knew that this documentary had to be done,” says Truesdale, who has a career as a documentary maker.
Judy, choreographer and dance teacher, who had visited the island on several occasions to study Afro-Cuban and popular dances, worked with Truesdale for two and a half years on the documentary.
In 2015 they moved to Havana to film.
“We were fascinated and surprised that very few people in Cuba knew about the diamond industry that existed in the 1940s,” adds Truesdale.
The testimonies were filmed in the United States, mostly in New York. One of the interviewees is the son of Jack Grosbard, a businessman who worked alongside other refugees and later opened his own factory. He teamed up with a Cuban mechanic and perfected the machine that was used to polish those diamonds.
As most of the refugees left after the end of World War II, the industry did not survive. Neither the subsequent republican governments nor the Castroism were interested in maintaining a historical record of that industry.
“Most of the information is found in the archives of the Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) in New York, which helps Jews around the world,” says Truesdale.
The rest of the testimonies concentrate on how they adapted to everyday life on the island.
“I loved bananas, we went to the market on Paseo Street,” says one interviewee.
“There was a color, a life, a freshness in the air,” recalls another.
“The first time they paid me I took a coin and went to La Concha beach,” says another testimony.
But perhaps the most curious is that of Felicia Rosshandler, who not only became “a Cuban teenager “, as she describes, but found a love. Rosshandler fell in love then with a young Edmundo Desnoes. She left Cuba and years later was reunited in New York with the author of Memoirs of Underdevelopment , with whom he shares his life for decades.
Her experiences were collected in the book Passing Through Havana, A Novel of a Wartime Girlhood in the Caribbean.
The refugees say they have not experienced anti-Semitism in Cuba. “I never heard it said, what are you doing here?” They remember.
“I will always be grateful to Cuba for opening the doors to my mother and other Jews when other countries closed them,” says Judy.
“We considered ourselves fortunate, we lost everything, but not our lives,” sums up a testimony towards the end of the documentary.