During World War II, about 12,000 Jews escaping Nazi occupied territories were given safe harbor in Cuba. It’s a story that’s not well known nor omnipresent in history books, Cuban or European. However, thanks to Cuba, thousands of Jews escaped the Holocaust and survived the war.
Filmmakers Judy Kreith and Robin Truesdale share this story in their film Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana. It’s told through refugees’ personal accounts, one of whom is Marion Kreith, Judy’s mom. Today, ninety-four years old, Marion was thirteen when Adolf Hitler set out to exterminate the Jewish people. She escaped Germany to Belgium, then on to France, Spain, and eventually Portugal, where they boarded a ship in Lisbon for Havana. Once landed in Cuba, they birthed a new life and a new diamond industry for the island.
Upon arriving in November, 1941, the Jewish refugees expected to be in Cuba temporarily, just for a matter of weeks, before receiving visas to travel to the United States. That didn’t happen as planned. The visas didn’t come. It was not until five and a half years later after the war, in March, 1946, that the refugees were granted asylum in the United States.
Once in Cuba, realizing they’d be there a while, the refugees largely went on with life; getting married, having babies and adapting to their new homeland. Although they remained largely separated from the Cuban people, they always felt welcome.
With a longer stay meant that these new European refugees needed to earn a living. They were given permission to work and wound up starting Cuba’s largely forgotten and unknown diamond industry. Using their skills and contacts from their European life, a new diamond polishing industry flourished on the island. Diamonds were being produced in thirty to fifty different factories, creating opportunity for many. Both Jewish refugees and Cuban citizens were working in these businesses and benefited from the income that was created.
After the war, when the refugees moved to America, the diamond industry quickly collapsed. With it went a large portion of the Cuban economy. The Jewish settlers were now in the United States and the Cubans working for them were left unemployed. It was hard for the businesses to continue on since the experts, or the people with the know-how, were gone. And, unfortunately the history and stories from this period have also been lost.
It’s a real gem (pun not intended) of a movie because it may account for one of the very few records of this time period in Cuba, available anywhere.
That’s what makes this film so interesting and important. Thanks to Kreith and Truesdale’s efforts and research, we’re all able to learn about these otherwise unknown events. The filmmakers spent time capturing the stories from people who were there and scoured through any documents and information they could find. It’s a real gem (pun not intended) of a movie because it may account for one of the very few records of this time period in Cuba, available anywhere.
I had the fortunate chance to speak with Marion Kreith, filmmaker Judy Kreith’s mother (see above). Now in her 90’s, she recalls her memories from this period fondly. Hearing her talk about this period commanded respect and humility. It reminded me of the stories my grandparents told of World War II. For her, it wasn’t necessarily a defining event in her life, but rather an interlude on her family’s journey to the United States.
Marion and a friend in Havana in the 1940s. Marion and frends in Havana.
Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana is a film that shouldn’t be missed. If you want to learn more about Cuba, more about this era or are intrigued by the fascinating story of refugees adapting to life’s punches, you’ll love it. Running at 46 minutes long, it’s a ride back in time and a fabulous piece of the puzzle that is Cuba. For details and viewing information, please visit the film’s website here.
Startup Cuba’s Jami Erriquez talks about volunteering for World Central Kitchen in Poland to provide food relief for Ukrainian refugees.