First Holocaust Exhibition has Opened in Cuba

Jewish refugees on SS St-Louis, May 1939; courtesy.

An exhibition about the Holocaust has opened in Havana, Cuba, the country’s first, but so far it is attracting more foreign visitors than locals. Initiated by ORT Cuba National Director William Miller two years ago, “We Remember – The Holocaust and the Creation of a Living Community” combines text, photographs and video to enable the island’s resurgent Jewish community to better understand its roots and for the general public to learn about the nadir of modern civilization. Knowledge of the Holocaust is next to non-existent among Cuba’s non-Jewish population and the exhibition has yet to draw wide-scale attention locally. “People passing by the Sephardic Center notice that the exhibition is here and come in but we’re working hard to spread the word among teachers and the general population to visit. We actually get more foreign visitors than local ones at the moment,” Miller said. The standing exhibition examines the conditions in Europe which forced some 11,000 Jews to seek refuge in Cuba between 1933 and 1942; it looks at the experiences of those refugees, most of whom left for the United States, and it explores the contributions made by the Jews who remained in Cuba to the country’s political, social and economic development.

Miller continued, “For a very long time Jews assimilated but now, with the renaissance of the Cuban Jewish community, many people are coming back and looking for their roots so they need to know how the community started here. This exhibition will tell them.”

The major partners in setting up the exhibition – the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), and the Jewish Cuba Connection – are all based in California; the Institute provided video testimony clips from its archive while narrative and photographs from the SWC’s Courage to Remember exhibition were also used. Other material has been sourced from private family collections, from the book, The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba, by local historian Maritza Corrales.

The videos of community members were directed and edited by a former ORT Cuba student, Sumiko Ruiz Zayon, and among the rest of the exhibition team is another ORT graduate, Ayelet Ojeda Jequin, who works as a curator.

Among the stories told is that of the SS St Louis, which had set sail for Cuba from Germany in May 1939 with 930 Jewish refugees aboard. But on reaching Havana, the refugees found themselves trapped, unable to disembark due to a combination of official corruption, manufactured antisemitism and Depression-induced xenophobia. A handful who had the extortionate sum of $500 demanded by new government regulations were eventually allowed to land but the rest ended up back in Europe after also being rejected by the USA and Canada. More than 250 of the passengers on the so-called Voyage of the Damned were to perish in the Holocaust.

“Memories of the Holocaust are woven into local histories throughout the world,” said Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, at the opening exhibition. “They tell a human story that crosses every national, ethnic, religious and ideological barrier. In telling the story we draw closer to one another.”

“The Nazis sought to destroy Jewish lives and extinguish Jewish Life,” Rabbi Cooper, SWC’s associate dean, said. “The honor of affixing a mezuzah on the entrance to this exhibit at Havana’s Sephardic Center and being able to declare ‘Am Yisrael Chai‘, together with young and old Cuban Jews, is proof that Jewish solidarity and continuity will forever outlast the genocidal goals of the Nazis.”

Mr Miller said he was delighted that two years of hard work had brought the exhibition to fruition and thanked the anonymous donor who made it possible. But, he added, the work had not finished.

“We want to create a series of country-wide activities related to Holocaust education so that, in the spirit of the UN’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we can honor the victims of the Nazi era and develop teaching programs to help prevent future genocides.”