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.”