They sailed on jam-packed ships, having sold everything to pay for passports and visas. The first thing they saw entering Havana harbor was El Morro castle. Beyond it was hope, but who knew what else.
They were Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. About 12,000 arrived in Cuba from 1933 to 1944.
Cuba was a foreign land, and the refugees did not speak Spanish. They had left behind artworks, prosperous businesses, professional jobs and, most painfully, relatives they would never see again.
Their lives in Cuba are now the focus of a documentary, “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana,” that has its Florida premiere this week at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, which runs through Jan. 25. The first showing on Wednesday is sold out, but tickets are still available for the second screening, 7 p.m. Thursday at the Miami Beach JCC, 4221 Pine Tree Dr., via miamijewishfilmfestival.org.
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Film directors Robin Truesdale and Judy Kreith will be at the screenings.
It was the constant mentions of Cuban memories by Kreith’s mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, that led the co-director to start gathering the recollections of other refugees who shared the experience.
Kreith said that her mother, who was 14 when she arrived in Cuba, frequently recalled her job during those years polishing diamonds as part of an industry that the Jewish refugees started from scratch in order to survive.
“I worked in a diamond polishing industry in Cuba and it was a win-win situation because the industry hired both Jewish refugees and Cubans,” Marion Kreith often told her daughter.
Many of the Jews tried selling men’s ties, but not everyone was a good salesperson, said another former refugee interviewed for the documentary.
But the diamond industry — especially the laborious task of polishing the gems — was a business they did know.
The arriving refugees were first put under quarantine in Tiscornia, a detention camp in a remote spot along the Havana harbor. Then they were released to start their new lives without jobs.
With families to feed, the refugees created their own jobs, establishing shops that polished diamonds mined in Africa and shipped to Cuba from New York — their dream destiny.
Under Cuban law, 50 percent of the shops’ employees had to be Cubans. The rest were refugees.
“There are no physical remnants of the factories or any sign that the diamond industry ever existed in Cuba, so that was our only difficulty,” said Truesdale, who began filming Marion Kreith’s recollections for a family album.
“Once we started interviewing others who had also escaped to Cuba during the Holocaust and hearing their stories, we knew that this was a film that needed to be made, and together we committed to the project” said Truesdale, now a professional documentary maker.
Judy Kreith, a choreographer who visited Cuba several times to study Cuban dance, worked with Truesdale for 2 ½ years on the documentary. They went to Havana in 2015 to film some of the scenes.
“We were fascinated and surprised to find that very few people in Cuba know about the diamond industry that existed there in the 1940s,” Truesdale said.
The interviews were filmed in the United States, mostly in New York. One of the men interviewed was the son of Jack Grosbard, a businessman who worked in the diamond shops and eventually opened his own shop. Working with a Cuban mechanic, they perfected the machine used to polish the diamonds.
Most of the refugees left Cuba after the end of World War II, and the diamond industry did not survive. None of the Cuban governments, before or after the Castro revolution, bothered to retain a record of its history.
“We found much of our information by searching through archival documents, many of which are in the archives of the Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) in New York. The JDC supports Jewish people worldwide and has provided support and relief to many thousands of Jews since World War I,” said Truesdale.
Part of the documentary also focused on the experiences of the European refugees as they adapted to life on a tropical island.
“I fell in love with fried bananas!” said one of the women interviewed.
“I loved the Cuban light, and there was a freshness in the air,” recalled another.
“I remember the first time I got paid, I took a quarter and went to the beach called La Concha,” said another person interviewed.
Perhaps the most curious testimony came from Felicia Rosshandler, who described herself at the time as a “Cuban teenager.” She fell in love with a young Cuban, Edmundo Desnoes, but left the island and years later reunited with him in New York. Desnoes later wrote “Memories of Underdevelopment,” the well-known tale of a bourgeois youth coming to terms with Cuba’s socialist revolution.
The couple have been together since. Rosshandler’s experiences were recalled in her 1984 biography, “Passing Through Havana: A Novel of Wartime Girlhood in the Caribbean.”
The refugees said they never experienced any antisemitism in Cuba. “I never heard someone saying, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” said one of the refugees.
“I will always feel the deepest gratitude to Cuba and the Cuban people for accepting my mother and 12,000 other Jewish refugees to their island, a place of safety when so many other countries had shut their doors,” said Judy Kreith, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her mother, now 90.
In conversation with Robin Truesdale and Judy Kreith
Q: How was the process of filming in the island? Did you have any support from the government? Did you encounter many difficulties?
Kreith: Since the year 2000, I have been traveling to Cuba, primarily to study Popular Cuban and Afro-Cuban Dance styles. I am a dance teacher/educator and have a great passion for the dance and music of Cuba. In 2012, I also began researching the history of the Jewish refugees who escaped to Cuba and the diamond polishing industry in Havana during the war. Altogether, I have traveled to Cuba close to 25 times.
Robin and I went to Havana together in 2015. We wanted our filming there to convey the atmosphere and a sense of life In Cuba both past and present. We did not have any government involved in the filming. We worked with a Cuban photographer/ videographer to help us capture the essence of the island. We did not encounter any difficulties during our filming in Cuba.
Truesdale: While most of our filming was done here in the U.S, we visited Havana in December 2015 to do more research and film some location scenes. We didn’t have any contact with the government and were very low-key about filming there. We visited places like Tiscornia, the detention camp where the refugees were sent when they arrived in Cuba, and Vedado, where many of the diamond factories had been located. We also hired a Cuban photographer to gather additional footage of Havana for us.
Q: What kind of feedback have you heard from the Cuban exiles?
Kreith: This is a very important question. We feel our time and screenings in Miami may give us the opportunity to hear more from Cuban exiles about their feelings and ideas around this sentiment in the film, We lost everything, but not our lives. For the refugees, the feeling of being lucky and fortunate for having found safety in Cuba is a very strong sentiment.
Q: What is your next project?
Kreith: My next project is a choreography of Cuban Cha Cha Cha for my students here in Boulder, Colorado. It is also my dream to bring the DVD of the film back to Cuba and share it with Cuban Communities from Havana to the Orient all the way to the lighthouse in Baracoa.
Truesdale: My documentary work has always focused on people, culture, and social issues. Some topics have been: a) gender inequality in Zimbabwe, b) faith versus politics in matters of war and peace, c) racial and religious persecution. I am now beginning work on a new film about a group of Quakers who lived in Alabama in the 1950s and left this country to move to Costa Rica because of their religious objection to the U.S. war in Korea. The title is “Sweet Home Costa Rica,” and we expect to finish it later this year.
Q: What is your impression of the situation in Cuba and the life of Cubans today?
Kreith: Since the year 2000, I have been visiting the island of Cuba. The Cuban people are incredible in their strength, humor, and resilience. Their lives are challenging today more than one can describe. The economic challenges are enormous. Yet, the Cubans go on, with strength, humor and incredible abilities. I will forever be in awe of the resourcefulness of the Cuban people. May life become easier and may the world know the essential role that Cuba played in saving the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees during the period of the Holocaust and WWll.