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HAVANA, Cuba — On a hot and steamy Shabbat afternoon in early July, 50 or so Jews gathered in the social hall of Cuba’s largest synagogue to relive a little-known piece of their own history.
The island’s premiere screening of “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana” didn’t disappoint. This poignant 46-minute documentary by co-directors Judy Ann Kreith and Robin Truesdale tells the obscure story of thousands of European Jews who not only escaped extermination by the Nazis during World War II, but also brought Cuba a thriving yet short-lived diamond cutting industry.
The movie is a counterpoint of sorts to “Voyage of the Damned,” a 1976 drama starring Faye Dunaway and Orson Welles that chronicles the tragic voyage of the SS St. Louis — a German steamship that in 1939 sailed from Hamburg to Havana carrying 937 Jewish passengers.
Those on board the St. Louis had no idea the Cuban visas they had purchased from corrupt officials were invalid, and only 28 were allowed to disembark upon arrival in Havana. The ship — denied permission to dock in Miami and other US ports — eventually returned to Nazi-controlled Antwerp after a month at sea. About 250 of the St. Louis’s passengers later died in concentration camps.
“Forgotten Jewels” has a much happier ending. In this case, Cuba under Gen. Fulgencio Batista took in some 6,000 Jewish diamond cutters and their families from Belgium and elsewhere — joining roughly 6,000 German and Austrian Jews who had arrived in an earlier wave before the doors slammed shut.
“We tried to touch on the St. Louis because that’s what most people think about when they think about Cuba and the fact that all the refugees were turned away,” said Kreith, interviewed over café con leche at the Patronato — the largest of Havana’s three functioning synagogues.
“This is a very personal story,” she told The Times of Israel. “My mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, came in 1941, originally from Hamburg. She spent three years trying to escape the Nazis. Her father, who was interned in a camp in southern France, heard there were a few visas to Cuba, so they were able to get visas for the whole family. All of the characters in the film were in Belgium when the Nazis invaded on May 10, 1940.”
Kreith grew up hearing how her mother arrived in Cuba at the age of 14 on a boat called the Colonial, and soon went to work polishing diamonds in a stifling hot factory. At one time, between 30 and 50 such facilities operated in Havana — turning the tropical Caribbean island for a short time into a major world diamond-polishing center.
“Some were very small factories, operating in people’s homes, and others were very large,” Kreith said. “When Hitler invaded on May 10, the Belgian refugees and some from Holland took what they could on their bodies, but it was their connections that helped them start over again. They used those connections with the diamond syndicates in London and New York, convincing the Cuban authorities to keep the industry going.”
Most of these Jews saw Havana as just a temporary stop on the way to Miami or New York. But after Pearl Harbor, it became nearly impossible for refugees in Cuba — or any refugees for that matter — to get US visas, so they ended up staying put for years.
By 1948, however, with the war over and Europe rebuilding, Cuba’s fledgling diamond industry disappeared without a trace.‘Once most of the main experts in the trade received their visas, they left Cuba’
“Once most of the main experts in the trade received their visas, they left Cuba,” said Kreith. “Many went to the US, some back to Belgium and others to Israel. The Cuban government would have very much liked to keep the trade going, but without the worldwide connections of the diamond merchants and the top-level expertise, they were unable to keep the industry in Havana.”
Kreith’s mother emigrated to Miami, eventually moving to Los Angeles, where she met her husband. The couple settled in Boulder, Colorado, where they raised their family.
A dance instructor by profession, Kreith first came to Cuba in 2000 and fell in love with Afro-Cuban dance. Since then, she’s traveled to the island at least 25 times — frequently on trips funded by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. Kreith lived in Alaska for a time, and has spent the last seven years researching the subject of her documentary.
“I started mostly by talking to my mom and trying to get all the information I could. I purchased every book I could,” including “Tropical Diaspora” by Robert Levine, she said. “I began writing the story and gathering photos. Then I came back here in 2008 and talked with Adela Dworin [current president of Cuba’s Jewish community]. I realized that people here had almost no idea about the diamond industry.”
Kreith’s co-director, Robin Truesdale, interviewed the elder Kreith in 2013, then did the same with other refugees, most of whom are now in their 80s and 90s. Some B-roll filming was done in Cuba as well.
“I realized that if we were going to make this film, we’d have to make it while people are still alive,” said Kreith, 56. “My mom didn’t realize how much she remembered. And the more you interview, the more the doors of the past open up.”
‘My mom didn’t realize how much she remembered. And the more you interview, the more the doors of the past open up’
“Forgotten Jewels” was made on a $200,000 budget; Kreith and Truesdale were helped by a $10,000 JDC Archive Documentary Film Grant from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as well as $3,500 from New York-based AE Ventures. The film’s nonprofit sponsor and distributor is the National Center for Jewish Film.
Besides at the Patronato, the film has been screened so far this year at the Farthest North Jewish Film Festival in Fairbanks, Alaska; at Colorado’s Boulder Jewish Film Festival, and at the Cinematheque in Haifa. The reception so far has been positive.
“Many of the diamond retailers saw the story and said this is a lost part of our history,” Kreith said. “Our dream is to bring it to Yad Vashem. We’d like to have it be a part of their archives, and we’d also like to screen it as widely as we can.”
That includes the Havana Film Festival in December, as well as upcoming film festivals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“People are ready to hear stories of survivors,” Kreith said. “There’s so much pain around the Holocaust, but I feel that keeping the stories alive is absolutely essential. As the child of two Jewish refugees, I feel a certain responsibility because I lived it.”