Cuba restores oldest Jewish cemetery as Havana is spruced up

Friday, June 28, 2019

HAVANA (AP) — 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.

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.