When Cuba Opened Its Doors to Jewish Refugees

A must-see documentary at the Havana Film Festival (Dec. 8-17)

HAVANA TIMES – When most people think of Cuba, escaping Jewish refugees and the Second World War what pops in mind is the MS St. Louis ocean liner which tried to dock in Havana in 1939.

The Cuban government, headed by President Federico Laredo Bru, refused to accept the foreign refugees even though the passengers had previously purchased legal visas.

The desperate travelers were turned away, and not only from Cuba, but also the USA and Canada. The escaping refugees were then returned to Europe where many lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis at concentration camps.

However there is another related and little publicized story that began in the early 1940s, and had a much happier ending. The 46-minute documentary “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” will be shown at the ongoing Havana Film Festival on Tuesday December 12th at the Infanta Theatre at 3:00 p.m.

Synopsis: The documentary “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” was born of the tales that Marion Kreith told her daughter, co-director Judy Kreith, over the years. Marion escaped war torn Europe as a young girl with her family, evading Nazi capture and crossing the Atlantic to a tropical paradise. In this film, her story mingles with the personal accounts of other refugees who recall their escape to Havana [under President Fulgenico Batista, elected for the term 1940-1944] and the challenges they faced in an exotic and unfamiliar land. With a stunning musical score of Jewish melodies and the pulsating music of Havana, the film merges the realities of two vastly different yet intermingled cultures, bringing this colorful and uplifting piece of history to light.

In recommending the film, the Times of Israel newspaper wrote:

“The movie is a counterpoint of sorts to “Voyage of the Damned,” a 1976 drama starring Faye Dunaway and Orson Welles that chronicles the tragic voyage of the SS St. Louis — a German steamship that in 1939 sailed from Hamburg to Havana carrying 937 Jewish passengers.

“Judy Kreith grew up hearing how her mother arrived in Cuba at the age of 14 on a boat called the Colonial, and soon went to work polishing diamonds in a stifling hot factory. At one time, between 30 and 50 such facilities operated in Havana — turning the tropical Caribbean island for a short time into a major world diamond-polishing center.”

In all around 6,000 Jews from Belgium and another 6,000 from Germany and Austria, who arrived earlier, were allowed to take refuge in Cuba.

The Times adds: “Most of these Jews saw Havana as just a temporary stop on the way to Miami or New York. But after Pearl Harbor, it became nearly impossible for refugees in Cuba — or any refugees for that matter — to get US visas, so they ended up staying put for years.

“By 1948, however, with the war over and Europe rebuilding, Cuba’s fledgling diamond industry, developed by the refugee families, disappeared without a trace.”

11 thoughts on “When Cuba Opened Its Doors to Jewish Refugees

  • In civilaced world that we are living no matter ideas politic what so ever the generosity of the Cuban people not deserve the way they are treated my feeling viva Cuba .

  • What a nice happy story emagicmtman!

  • No, the National Socialist Party of Germany was dubbed Nazi as an abbreviation by others.
    Yes I remember the trials at Nuremburg and elsewhere well. If as you claim Dan, you have German Jewish heritage then you will know of the Jews political awareness, I experienced it not only as a child, but as an adult guest of those friends at a certain city’s Jewish Club being the only Gentile present. I served in Germany when it was still an occupied country and well remember the aged prostitutes operating from shacks on Stahl Strasse which ran along the side of the kilometer square ruins of the Krupp Werk in Essen, and in Austria I observed that Catholic anti-Semitism based upon the view that: “The Jews killed Christ.” I even knew a lady of that persuasion from Linz, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. My late father was responsible for “de-nazifying” some prominent people including one who became recognized as the world’s leading soprano – she had been Goering’s mistress.
    So what you describe as my “ignorance” is based upon those and many other experiences.
    Regarding socialism, as demonstrated by contributors to these pages, no two ‘socialists’ appear to have the same definition of the word and deny any obvious misdemeanors by ‘socialist’ governments upon the grounds that they were not pursuing true ‘socialism’. The interpretation has no consistency in reality. If I fail to respond to your next missive, you may understand that it is not rudeness but absence to where due to “socialismo”, I am denied communication.

  • Incorrect Dan unless you regard some 5,500 people as “a large immigrant population.” I quote the Government of Cuba official figures from the 2012 National Census.

  • Congratulations, you knew a few Jewish children….I’m sure they were as politically aware as my German Jewish grandparents.

    Yes the Nazis did use the term ‘Socialism’ in their name to try and hoover up supporters from the post WW1 groundswell for Socialism however, like Italy they were Corporate Fascists who created a corporate cartel base. Companies like Krupp, the chemical giant IG Farben , Seimans, Thyssen, Bayer…..all profiteered greatly from the Nazis and all used slave labour. US companies colluded up until they entered the war and once CocaCola could no longer operate a German corporation created Fanta.
    The war trials resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of dozens of important company owners and directors.

    Sure in 1933 during the depression the Nazis invested in infrastructure to get the economy growing as Roosevelt did with the New Deal in the US.

    If you’re as old as you claim there really is no excuse for your ignorance. The Nazis were as Socialist as the World Series has anything to do with the world.
    The Nazis were Corporate Fascists…..very much like what we’re seeing happen today.

  • No actually there is a large immigrant population from other regional countries despite 60 years of US oppressive sanctions and embargoes against other nations trading with Cuba. What you propagandists never do is compare Cuba with other Caribbean nations none of whom have been subjected to these embargoes and through all of that Cuba is streets ahead of them on every level.

    I encourage people to visit Cuba, it is a beautiful fascinating country with wonderful people the happiness of which i’ve rarely seen on my travels. If its this good one can only imagine what it would have been like without US interference. My greatest fear is that it will eventually turn into some hideous plastic Las Vegas hell hole. So go now before its infested with Yanks.

  • An interesting sidelight: Edmundo Desnoes, author of “Inconsolable Memories” (on which the subsequent film “Memories of Undervelopment” is based) was in love with a Jewish refugee from Germany during the late 1940’s/early 1950’s. As depicted in both book and film, she left Cuba for the States with her family in the 1950’s, while he had to remain in Cuba with his family and their business. Many Years later, (1980) he, too, emigrated to States and, still later, he reconnected with his first love, and they married and now live in New York City.

  • Haven’t met one yet Stephen-Pons. But am aware that of the over 50,000 that took refuge in the US, over 14,000 have now crossed the US/Canadian border as illegal immigrants. maybe your President Trump(f) will build a wall to keep them in? Perhaps as one who apparently is informed, you would be kind enough to relate HOW MANY HAITIANS FLED TO CUBA? Did the number equate with those Cubans fleeing Cuba?
    As I attended school with Jewish children who escaped from Germany and Austria and the evil of National Socialism, I am only too aware of the effects of totalitarian rule. One of those Jewish children became a life long friend.

  • They also were fleeing to Cuba, because the other choice was being a jew under nazism, they would have fled to Somalia to escape that

  • You clearly haven’t heard of the Haitians fleeing to Cuba have you?

  • it is interesting that Cuba shares the shame of Canada and the US in rejecting that shipload of Jews seeking haven. But it is to Cuba’s credit that it allowed some 12,000 Jews to immigrate later. That figure is particularly interesting as it is more than twice the number of people born in other countries now resident in Cuba. (2012 census).
    it is worthwhile considering why it is that refugees from oppression no longer seek to live in Cuba. Could it be that in fleeing from oppression they seek freedom? Instead of immigration, the Castro regime has created mass emigration, caused by Cubans also seeking freedom in the capitalist world.

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