Everyone has a story to tell, but stories are fragile and can easily be forgotten. They must be cared for and saved for future generations. And if not for historical purposes, then for cultural ones.
That’s the hope behind Forgotten Jewels, a new 46-minute documentary from the Boulder-based filmmaking team of dancer Judith Kreith and documentarian Robin Truesdale. The story they tell is a personal one and of historical significance: the story of Kreith’s mother, Marion (pictured above), who, at the age of 14, fled Nazi-occupied Europe and found sanctuary in Havana, Cuba.
Marion was one of 6,000 European Jewish refugees who found a haven in Cuba, where Batista’s government took in anyone who could pay their way. For these refugees, Cuba was supposed to be a stopover before heading to the United States. But on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. entered the war, and Marion and her fellow refugees were stuck.
The need for money and work arose, and since many of the refugees had worked in the diamond industry in Europe, it only made sense to continue the tradition. Almost overnight, Havana entered the diamond business.
“I started to do research in Havana and came to find out that almost no one knew about the industry,” Kreith says. “I was actually aware of it since I was a teenager. [My mother] mentioned a few different things about the ways they survived in Havana. But, truthfully, she really didn’t tell me a lot until I really started to dig a little bit deeper into her story.
“There was just so little known,” Kreith continues. “As I came to find out how little people knew, I realized that I’d have to be the one to try to uncover it while the refugees that were there were still alive.”
With little archival material to draw on, Kreith had to tailor Forgotten Jewels to an oral history of the period. And for that, she needed help. Enter Truesdale, a documentarian who has been in the business for about 12 years.
After Marion told Truesdale her story, Kreith sought out other refugees to paint a larger picture of the time.
“The war years were so desperate for so many people,” Kreith says. “The fact that right there in Havana, they had found a way to actually bring in enough money to support their families throughout the war. … The amazing part of the story: so many of the diamond merchants that learned the trade in Havana later went on to become very, very well known and very established diamond people. Whether it was in Belgium, New York, or back in Israel.”
But getting the subjects to open up on camera wasn’t easy. As Kreith says, the diamond industry is very hush-hush, and she had a hard time getting the male subjects to discuss the war years. Thankfully, the female participants wanted to be a part of documenting their history and were more forthcoming in the interviews.
“The women tended to be more open to telling the story,” Kreith says. “I worked on trying to interview a few different men from that period, and they just didn’t seem to have the same motivation to really dive in.”
Kreith and Truesdale have a fascinating story to tell, but it is not yet complete. Before Forgotten Jewels comes to a theater near you, it needs a few finishing touches and that is where the Boulder audience comes in. Forgotten Jewels will screen April 30 at the Boulder Public Library, and Kreith and Truesdale will ask the audience for feedback about the project.
“I’ve done this before with another film [A Beautiful Equation, 2014], where I screened it at the library and then we opened up a discussion after the screening with the audience and have people give their comments,” Truesdale explains. “We’ll also pass out a sheet with some very brief questions that will help us find out what direction we’re going in.”
Both Kreith and Truesdale are interested to see how much background and content the audience is looking for. But their overall goal is the same: Tell a personal story and find away to connect it to the audience.
“Both of us would really like to keep some space in the film,” Kreith says. “There is a chance to get a little introspective about the progression of the story.”
How much the audience’s input will affect the final outcome of Forgotten Jewels is entirely up to Kreith and Truesdale. But filmmaking is a collaborative art form, and sometimes the audience plays a role in that collaboration.
“It is kind of ambitious,” Truesdale says with a laugh. “It is amazing how far ambition can get you. Because [we’re] just these two women in Boulder, and we’re finding that people are so receptive to this, and we’re getting lots of calls and emails and people asking us more about the project. It’s helping carry us forward, it’s really great.”
Kreith and Truesdale are counting on the support of the Boulder community, and in many ways, they already have it. Truesdale’s walking group, the Boulder Ramblers, will host a pre-screening stroll down Boulder Creek to the Boulder Public Library. All are welcome.
The above interview first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 38, “Forgotten Jewels adds to the history books.”
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