Judy Kreith never set out to be a filmmaker. Her passion was dance. Afro-Cuban dance, in particular. Krieth’s interest in Cuba was sparked by her mother’s stories of her teenage years in Havana in the 1940s after fleeing Nazi-occupied Belgium. Cuba, she said, was one of the only countries open to Jewish refugees in 1940-41.
After her own experiences travelling through Cuba and with her mother aging, Kreith wanted to memorialize her mother’s stories of coming of age in Cuba and the forgotten diamond industry that thrived at one point with the influx of refugees.
“She’s been such an incredible role model in my life,” Kreith said. “But as with many women, she was always kind of under the shadow of my father,” a famous engineer.
“I felt her story was a beautiful tale. They’ve always had an incredible, respectful, wonderful relationship but I felt like at this point in her life it would be incredible to bring out her story,” she said. After initially planning to write her mother’s memoirs, Kreith began to realize the stories would make “an incredible film”. She joined with co-director Robin Truesdale to bring Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels to the screen. The film will have a second showing tonight at the Miami Beach Jewish Community Center as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival. The first screening last night at Cinematheque was sold out.
Primarily, Kreith said, the film is a story of the diamond industry that no longer exists in Cuba. The timing was becoming more urgent as many of the refugees passed away. “I was afraid the story would disappear,” she said.
About 6,000 Jewish refugees worked in the diamond industry in Cuba during World War II. When it was over, the industry returned to Europe and most of the refugees left with it, either returning to Europe or migrating to the United States. The Jewish population in Havana now numbers only about 1,500, according to Truesdale.
Kreith said she was surprised to learn that the history of the diamond industry is almost completely unknown in Cuba. “When the main body of refugees left and the Castro administration took over, this was all almost covered over,” she said. “When we took [the film] to Havana, people said ‘We learned so much about this story’ which was a great feeling to uncover it again.”
Truesdale, meanwhile, was surprised by the different responses of the men and women they encountered. “We were searching for people to interview and gather information and as we were searching, we came across both women and men. The women were almost always more open to discussing their memories, their histories and more likely the men were less open to that or they just thought there was no reason for us to be interested in this. It’s past history. The women were more forthcoming.”
In addition to the diamond industry, Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels examines the experiences of the refugees in a new – and very different – world.
Not only did they have to adjust to the tropical climate, there was a “cultural clash”, Kreith said. “The Cuban people have a certain lightheartedness. They don’t like people that are pesado, heavy. They want people who can survive and make life a little bit lighter.” The refugees, meanwhile, had left behind family members. “They had no idea what was happening with their families,” she explained. “The juxtaposition of the lightheartedness – even though people admired it, kind of loved it – it was a real juxtaposition of two cultures that really needed to come together.”
“The focus on music and dance, juxtaposing that with the reality of what the refugees were facing in their sadness, in what they felt but the two cultures coming together was a fascinating part of the film,” Kreith said.
“There’s a very serious, heavy aspect to the film because of the reality of the Holocaust and families dying, juxtaposed with music, lightness, the warm tropical environment, food, and the young people at the time they were teenagers,” Truesdale added. “For them it was a very vibrant place to live and I think it changed their lives through that direction of detouring them through this beautiful tropical area and giving them a sense of rhythm in their bodies that they carry with them today.” Contrasting that with their eventually learning what happened in Europe provides “the dramatic arc between where they came from and where they ended up,” Truesdale said. “They’re safe but so many people perished.”
Kreith said the experience of the teenagers was much different from the older refugees. “The wife of one of the characters made a very interesting point. For the elders it was so much harder to address, yet for the teenagers they were able to embrace this culture in a very different way. My grandparents stayed to themselves the way the teenagers put Cuba into themselves, carried it with them. That’s a poignant reality. When elders have to leave their country it is so much harder to assimilate.”
Another “fascinating story” told in the film is the conflict between the already thriving Jewish population in Cuba and the new arrivals. “Many of them welcomed the Jews,” Kreith said, “but for some, there was some conflict between those that were already there and those that came in later.”
The directors have been pleased with the response to the film so far. “Whenever we’ve been present at a screening, we have great Q&A sessions after,” Truesdale said. “A lot have been sold out which has been reassuring to us that people are interested in this story. More often than not, someone in the audience will have a connection. They have some thread that ties them to the story so it always expands our knowledge and understanding of the story.”
The directors shared an important goal for the film, being true to history while being uplifting. “With all of its sadness and hurt,” Kreith said, “it basically is a very positive and wonderful life affirming story … We made a conscious decision to not brush under the rug the hard things but to make it a beautiful uplifting story of the Holocaust and I think that is one of the greatest moments, when people say there is such hope and uplifting positive notes to this story.”
The current political environment is not lost on them and is acknowledged in Forgotten Jewels. “Within the film we do talk about the changing of the President,” Kreith said. “That small amount of the film is dedicated to this idea, as we well know, that with one change of a presidential figure everything, the entire country, can take a different direction … that’s part of the story that for us right now is very poignant too. Thanks to [Fulgencio] Batista who was known as a terrible tyrant, the policy changed to allow in another 6,000 Jews and then Castro took over.”
Asked about the complicated history Miami and Miami Beach have with Cuba, both directors who are from Colorado said they were looking forward to learning more while they are in town for the screening.
Kreith and Truesdale gave a special “shout out and thank you” to Igor Shteyrenberg, the Executive Director of the Miami Film Festival for believing in the film. “Igor has been wonderful in thinking this was an interesting story for Florida,” Kreith said.
They also thanked their distributor, the National Center for Jewish Film. “We’ve been incredibly lucky,” Kreith said. “They’ve really helped us get the film out.”
Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels
Miami Beach Jewish Community Center
Thursday, January 18, 7 pm
As noted, this film has been popular at its previous screenings. In addition to the sold out show last night, this showing is RUSH LINE only meaning advance tickets are sold out.
Rush line forms approximately 45 minutes prior to the show.
Ten minutes prior to the start of the screening, if any seats are still available, Rush Line tickets will be sold for $13.
Subtitles in Spanish and Hebrew
Now available for film festival and event screenings
More information including list of screenings and trailer
Miami Jewish Film Festival info and schedule of events (runs through January 25)
Cuba's Forgotten Jewels, A Haven in Havana:
miami beach screening part of jewish film festival