A Jewish documentary brings Cuba’s forgotten diamond industry to life

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A still shot from Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels, a documentary about European Jews who not only escaped extermination by the Nazis but also brought to Cuba a thriving diamond business.

Cuba: exporter of rum, cigars, nickel and … diamonds?

Few are old enough to remember, but for a brief period during and after World War II, Cuba became a world center for diamond cutting and polishing.

A new documentary, Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana, brings this obscure story to life. The 46-minute film by co-directors Judy Ann Kreith and Robin Truesdale, which cost $200,000 to produce, describes how thousands of Belgian, Dutch and other European Jews not only escaped extermination by the Nazis but also brought to Cuba a thriving business.

“This is a very personal story,” Kreith told Cuba Trade, following a recent screening of her movie at the Patronato, largest of Havana’s three functioning synagogues. Her mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, was one of about 6,000 Jews who escaped to Cuba in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“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,” said Kreith, 56. “All of the characters in the film were in Belgium when the Nazis invaded on May 10, 1940.”

The elder Kreith, now 90, arrived in Cuba at the age of 14 and went to work polishing diamonds in a stifling-hot factory. At one time, between 30 and 50 such facilities operated in Havana.

“Some were very small factories, operating in people’s homes, and others were very large,” said Kreith. “When Hitler invaded, 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.”

Most saw Havana as a temporary stop on the way to Miami or New York. But after Pearl Harbor, it became nearly impossible for refugees in Cuba to get U.S. visas, so they remained. But by 1948, with the war over, Cuba’s fledgling diamond industry had disappeared.

“Once most of the main experts in the trade received their visas, they left Cuba,” according to Kreith. “Many went to the U.S., some back to Belgium, and others to Israel. Without the worldwide connections of the diamond merchants and their top-level expertise, the Cuban government was unable to keep the industry in Havana.”

Kreith’s mother, for example, emigrated to Miami, then to Los Angeles, and finally to Boulder, Colorado, where Kreith grew up. A dance instructor, she fell in love with Afro-Cuban dance when she visited Cuba in 2000. Since then, she’s traveled to the island at least 25 times, spending the past seven years researching the documentary. Her co-director, Robin Truesdale, interviewed the aging refugees, most now in their 80s and 90s.

“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. “Our dream is to bring it to Yad Vashem [Israel’s national Holocaust museum]. 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.

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