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Cuba's oldest Jewish cemetery gets an update as Havana is spruced up

“The people buried here escaped fascism during the war," said David Prinstein of Cuba's Hebrew Board. “It has historical and sentimental value.”
Tombs decorated with the Star of David, and one lacking the image of a person, stand in the Jewish cemetery in Guanabacoa, eastern Havana, Cuba, June 12, 2019.Ramon Espinosa / AP file

HAVANA — Some marble grave covers are broken and tombstones lie on the ground, covered in moss. At some plots, vegetation pokes through the cement cracks.

But slowly, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Cuba is beginning to be rehabilitated, along with the memory of many of the island’s early Jewish forebears.

The restoration is the result of an initiative by the government-run city historian’s office to spruce up Havana ahead of the 500th anniversary of its founding in November. Across the city, streets are being paved, monuments are being polished and historic sites are being restored.

There is also an effort to recover long-forgotten sites — among them the all but neglected Jewish cemetery in the Guanabacoa neighborhood on Havana’s east side.

“I feel a very great peace and calmness when I visit the cemetery. ... For me it’s like being with my mother, my only sister and my nephew,” said Adela Dworin, president of the Hebrew Board of Cuba, standing beside a grave adorned with small rocks that are used by Jews to pay homage to the dead.

Workers polish a marble tomb at the Jewish cemetery in Guanabacoa, eastern Havana, Cuba, June 7, 2019.Ramon Espinosa / AP file

The rocks, which are believed to symbolize eternity, lie near inscriptions bearing names of the buried. Many have words of consolation written in Yiddish or Spanish and are adorned with the Star of David.

“The people buried here escaped fascism during the war. They’re the founders of the community who bought these lands to make it a cemetery,” said David Prinstein, vice president of the Hebrew board. “It has historical and sentimental value.”

For many years, he said, the Jewish community was unable to raise the $200,000 needed to completely overhaul the grounds. Jews in the U.S. contributed to the upkeep of some burial plots, but the cemetery as a whole was largely left to deteriorate.

Pilar Vega, an engineer in the historian’s office, told local TV there are about 1,100 grave sites in the cemetery. About 50 have been repaired and 150 more are expected to be cleaned up before the end of this year, she said. She didn’t say whether the entire cemetery would be refurbished or give the total amount spent, though she added that a special room where bodies are ritually washed and dressed according to Jewish burial rites has also been fixed.

The restoration effort in Havana comes as Cuba finds itself struggling with a severe economic crisis, which experts have blamed on a combination of a Trump administration trade embargo and the halt of Venezuelan shipments of subsidized fuel that Cuba used to generate electricity and earn hard currency on the open market. The country’s lack of liquidity has now made it difficult to pay creditors and suppliers, resulting in a shortage of basic products like chicken and flour.

Over the years, the Jewish community has not been immune to the island’s political ups-and-downs.

Many Jewish families left the country after the 1959 revolution, leaving behind their dead in accordance with Jewish custom that prohibits bodies from being exhumed unless they are taken to Israel. Others abandoned religious traditions amid deep secularism that took hold during the first few years of the Castro government, or moved to Israel amid the periodic economic crunches in ensuing decades.

“Families leave and many even forget those left here,” lamented Prinstein, who said the cemetery had also been looted throughout the decades of neglect.

It was not until the 1990s that Judaism on the island regained strength, partly due to the efforts of José Miller, a noted surgeon who helped Jews scattered throughout Cuba reconnect with their roots at a time when the communist government discouraged religious denominations. Miller, who died in 2006, is buried in a prominent place in the cemetery.

Some 1,500 Jews live in Cuba now, most of them elderly.

Land in Guanabacoa was bought in 1906 by members of the island’s first Hebrew society, and the cemetery was inaugurated in 1910 by Jews and their descendants from Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom fled persecution in the period between World Wars I and II.

The cemetery also has a 3-meter (10-foot) monument paying tribute to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. A half-dozen bars of soap that the Nazis made with human fat from the concentration camps are buried nearby.

Dworin, who lost nearly her entire family during World War II, said she was a schoolgirl in Cuba when the memorial was inaugurated in 1947. Her parents had left a small town in modern-day Poland before war erupted in 1939, but her grandmother and uncles stayed behind, she said.

On a recent day, a group of workers scrubbed tombstones and reconstructed various installations at the cemetery. A paved street was also visible nearby.

“We are not the country’s only problem. There are many places that require the attention of the historian’s office, so we are eternally grateful for their interest and friendship to the Jewish people,” Dworin said.