The largely overlooked story of Jewish refugees that Cuba took in during World War II and the island's diamond industry created by this community.
cuba's forgotten jewels by robin truesdale and judy kreith
Marion Kreith in Havana in the early 1940’s and today, at 94 years old.

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.

marion kreith cuba's forgotten jewels

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.

“It was a very, very fortunate way of escaping being exterminated”

Marion Kreith

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.

WATCH: Interview with 94 year old Marion Kreith who escaped the Holocaust via Cuba.

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.

WATCH here to see what we discovered in the Ecuadorian Chocó bioregion.

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.

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.

Related Post: Los Hermanos Is a Film That Unites Through Music and Brotherhood

robin truesdale and judy kreith
Filmmakers Robin Truesdale and Judy Kreith in Havana.

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Ken Deckinger is the co-founder and CEO of Startup Cuba and the executive producer and host of its namesake docuseries. A native of South Florida, Ken has been an entrepreneur for his entire professional career. Previously he was co-founder and CEO of HurryDate, pioneering the global concept of speed dating to 45 cities throughout the US, UK and Canada. HurryDate eventually evolved into online dating and was acquired by Spark Networks, the parent company of ChristianMingle.com and JDate.com. Ken is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Florida, where he was honored with the University’s Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Under 40 award and sits on the Board for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He actively advises entrepreneurs and is a two-time protagonist of a Harvard Business School case study. Ken’s filmmaking and journalistic journey is inspired by a love of travel and authentic connections with other cultures. He believes that the more we know about each other, through stories, the closer we can become — thus the mission of Startup Cuba: to amplify the voices of the people sharing stories in the Latinx space. After living in New York City for 15 years, he encouraged his wife to move their family to Miami to get back to his South Florida roots. Needless to say, it was a short discussion and he and his family now call Boston, where his wife grew up, their home.

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