First Jewish cemetery in Cuba restored

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In “Restauran el primer cementerio judío de Cuba,” Andrea Rodríguez (Associated Press) reports on the restoration of the first Jewish cemetery in Cuba. [We are still trying to find the cemetery’s proper name. So far, we have only seen it referred to as the Ashkenazi Jewish Cemetery.] Here are translated excerpts from the article:

There are still broken tombstones and pieces of marble scattered across the floor. In some vaults, the vegetation overtakes the cement, but little by little, the first Jewish cemetery in Cuba began to be rescued and, with it, the memory of this small community on the island.

As she stands by a tomb adorned with small stones that Jewish relatives often use to pay homage to their dead, Adela Dworin, president of the Jewish Board of Cuba, says to AP, “I feel great peace and tranquility when I visit the cemetery… For me, it’s like being with my mother, my only sister, and my nephew.”

Here and there you can see those stones—the equivalent of flowers among Catholics—next to the plaques that immortalize the name of a grandfather, a father or an aunt surrounded by stars of David and words of consolation in Yiddish. In other sections, a workers’ brigade polishes metal sheets, repaves streets, or repairs a pantheon that was looted.

“Here are buried the people who came escaping from Fascism during the war, the ones who founded the community, who bought these lands to build a cemetery,” David Prinstein, vice president of the Jewish Board of Cuba, told the AP, “It has historical and sentimental value.”

The lands of this Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery [“Ashkenazi” indicates that they were people of Central and Eastern European origins—were bought in 1906 by members of the first Jewish society that was formed on the island, with people coming mostly from the United States, and it was inaugurated in 1910. Many other families also arrived in the period between world wars, fleeing from the persecution to which they were subjected.

In another adjoining plot, decades later, another cemetery of Sephardic tradition (from Spain) was installed.

A few years ago, Prinstein and other members of the community estimated the budget to fix the cemetery at $200,000, but they did not receive the necessary donations. Now the restoration is being carried out by the state Office of the City Historian.

On the verge of its 500-year anniversary, Havana and the Office of the Historian are in a real maelstrom of preparations that includes repairing streets and historical monuments, and rescuing/preserving documents and valuable sites.

According to local engineer Pilar Vega, from the Office of the City Historian, there are about 1,100 vaults in the cemetery. Of these, about 50 have already been repaired, and another 150 are expected to be completed this year. They also repaired a special room for the purifying cleansing of the body of the dead required by the Jewish rites and a waiting room for families. Vega did not specify how much the state investment will be.

Far from the center of the city, the necropolis is located in the peripheral municipality of Guanabacoa, and it is usually closed as to prevent looting. Therefore, although the arrangements began in the past months, it is only now that one can see the results of the restoration process with the paving of the main street and the reconstruction of several of its main installations and monoliths.

[. . .] The cemetery has a monument that extends about three meters high, which stands as a tribute to the six million Jews who died in the Nazi holocaust. There lie buried about half dozen soaps made with human fat from the concentration camps.

Dworin, who lost his entire family during World War II, recalled that he was in elementary school in 1947 when they inaugurated the monolith. His parents left a small town that was then in Poland before the arrival of the Germans, but his grandmother and uncles did not have the same luck, he said.

[. . .] Through the years, the Jewish community was not exempt from the political swings in Cuba and many families left the country after the 1959 revolution, leaving behind their dead, who in this tradition should not be exhumed unless it is to be transported to the Holy Land. The secularism that imbued the first years of the rebel triumph caused some people to disengage with Judaism and lose their roots. It was not until the 1990s that Judaism regained strength due to efforts by the former leader of the community—the prominent Dr. Joseph Miller, who began to bring together the Jews scattered throughout the island—and even those who were Jewish without knowing it reconnected with their past.

[. . .] Currently some 1,500 Jews live in Cuba, most of them elderly.

“Families leave and many even forget those who are left behind,” lamented Prinstein, acknowledging the deterioration and abandonment that took over the cemetery through decades of neglect and looting; he also emphasized that the archives of the cemetery are currently being digitized, which will allow us to know more about its history and that of the community.

[Follow Andrea Rodríguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP]

Translated by Ivette Romero. For the original article (in Spanish), see https://www.latimes.com/sns-bc-rep-gen-cuba-cementerio-judio-20190625-story.html and https://www.apnews.com/040bad4bdc55459e99427ef380813141

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