European Jews found refuge in Cuba during WWII, film recounts

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A review by Clare Gallagher for the Daily Camera News.

Instead of a beginning with a somber tone, which one would expect a documentary about Jews escaping World War II to start with, “Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana” begins rhythmically, with a Cuban dancer swaying on a beach. Co-directed by Boulder native and renowned dance instructor Judy Kreith, “Jewels” continues to break traditional World War II documentary boundaries simply by revealing the little-known fact that between 1933 and 1944 Cuba took in 12,000 European Jewish refugees. The film portrays a uniquely colorful and diamond-infused life for the refugees. One of the refugees happens to be Kreith’s mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, who was 14 at the time of her family’s escape to Cuba.

The film’s first screening in Boulder is scheduled for Sunday as part of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, and is sold out.

A second screening is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on April 30 in the Boedecker Theater at the Dairy Arts Center.

The diamond piece of the story came out of the Cuban labor laws barring refugees from taking jobs. An enterprising group of refugees started a diamond polishing industry from scratch, with a workforce of half Cubans and half refugee-immigrants.

It was a pop-up industry at its finest: One diamond polishing factory became more factories, followed by diamond polishing machinery factories. New York City jewelers sent raw diamonds to Havana to be cut and polished and then the sparkling carats were sent back to New York. Former shop owners of Hamburg, Germany, became diamond cutters, such as Marion’s father.

“He wasn’t the most dexterous man, but we worked because that’s what you had to do,” Marion, a Boulder resident, said during an interview.

In the film, Marion calls the diamond industry a “life-saver.” It allowed for refugees to make money, and since many Cuban schools were not reliably open, due to frequent strikes, many teenagers, like Marion.

Co-directed by award-winning filmmaker Robin Truesdale, “Forgotten Jewels” depicts the various jobs of the pop-up industry. Most women, like Marion, girdled the stones, which meant they would round off the bases in preparation for polishing. Men cut and polished the stones. Every ounce of diamond counted, and workers often would spend precious work time looking for a stone that “jumped” a machine. Everything was accounted for. The industry thrived. Marion calls the industry a “win-win,” as it sustained both Cubans and refugees in Havana during the war.

The film doesn’t ignore what was happening back in Europe at the time. Marion reads from a diary she kept in Havana, in which she worries about relatives still back in Europe, and questions life and death. Since most of the world didn’t know about the full extent of Hitler’s extermination camps until the war ended, most of the refugees’ time in Havana was spent unknowing and immersed in Havana life. They had their own challenges working in the factories, though they later found them to be “nothing compared to what was happening back in Europe,” as Marion says. All of the refugees dreamed of immigrating to the United States, and most did after the war.

After she watched the completed film, Marion, 89, said that her favorite parts are “the scenes with dancing, food, joyousness and music. The film did a wonderful job of incorporating that part of life in Cuba.”

When asked if she thinks her time spent in the Caribbean dance-mecca influenced her daughter Judy’s expertise in Afro-Cuban dance, Marion responded immediately: “No. I’m totally three-footed when it comes to dance. Passion for us, when I was in Cuba, was to get as many diamonds cut as possible.”

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