FAIRBANKS — Among the films being screened at this year’s Farthest North Jewish Film Festival is the documentary “Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana,” co-directed by dance instructor and former Fairbanks resident Judy Kreith. The movie explores the experiences of Jews fleeing the Holocaust who found refuge in Cuba.
Kreith said she was drawn to the story because it’s so little known. “Between 1933 and 1944, different waves of Jewish refugees came to Cuba,” she said. “Altogether, about 12,000 found refuge. My mother was one of those.”
Kreith’s mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, escaped Hamburg, Germany, with her family after Kristallnacht in 1938. The family spent three harrowing years fleeing through Europe, eventually reaching Portugal where they boarded the S.S. Colonial, bound for Havana.
Among the refugees who reached Cuba, Kreith said, “many who came after 1940 were from Antwerp, Belgium, and were part of the diamond trade. The industry had been totally shut down after Hitler invaded the Low Countries. These diamond merchants and skilled diamond cutters and polishers were able to open factories in Havana that benefited both Cubans and refugees during WWII.”
Kreith explained that Jewish refugees were restricted to tourist visas and not allowed to seek jobs that could be filled by Cuban citizens. However, by re-establishing the diamond industry from scratch, including building the necessary machinery on the spot, they were able to support themselves and even employ Cubans.
Kreith’s mother, who is interviewed in the film, was a teenager at the time. She was able to find work in the diamond industry and help her family survive their years as refugees. Kreith said her mother came to the United States in 1946.
Kreith began researching the story in 2012 and was surprised to learn that even in Cuba it is little known. Many people are familiar with the tragic history of the S.S. St. Louis, which carried 900 Jewish refugees and was turned away by ports in the U.S., Canada and Cuba, forcing them back to Europe where many died. Most don’t realize that Cuba did take in many others, however.
Two years ago, Kreith began work on the film with Robin Truesdale who has directed past movies including “A Beautiful Equation” about Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. “Robin and I wanted to interview refugees first hand while they were still alive to tell their stories,” she said.
The pair received financial assistance from the National Center for Jewish Film. The movie will premier at Alaska Coffee Roasters on Saturday night at 7:30. After another showing at the Jewish Film Festival in Boulder, where Kreith now resides, she and Truesdale will look to online streaming and other venues so the movie can reach a wider audience.
Kreith said the current controversies surrounding refugees have made the movie especially timely. Refugees, she said, can thrive if given a chance. “I hope people can walk away from the film feeling that refugees from anywhere can contribute amazing things to their host society. They can give something back.”
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be reached at email@example.com.