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Polish stone for Cuba’s Shoah memorial

Local Jew Alberto Esquenazi views a recently dedicated Holocaust memorial in the Jewish cemetery in Santa Clara, Cuba, in April. (Larry Luxner)

Local Jew Alberto Esquenazi views a recently dedicated Holocaust memorial in the Jewish cemetery in Santa Clara, Cuba, in April. (Larry Luxner)

SANTA CLARA, Cuba, May 3 (JTA) — Barely a five-minute taxi ride from Cuba’s imposing shrine to Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara is a lesser-known monument honoring the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The unpretentious memorial is located within the crumbling Jewish cemetery of the city of Santa Clara, a provincial capital that’s home to only 23 of Cuba’s estimated 1,500 Jews. The monument’s centerpiece is an original cobblestone from Chlodno Street in the Warsaw Ghetto. The 19-pound block was donated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, following lengthy negotiations by two Cuban-American Jewish women who wanted to do something for the island they left years ago. Aida Wasserstein of Wilmington, Del., said she first went back to Cuba in March 1999 on a Jewish humanitarian mission and later reconnected with Miriam Saul, a childhood friend now living in Atlanta. Saul introduced her to David Tacher, the charismatic leader of Santa Clara’s tiny Jewish community. “Tacher told us he wanted some tangible object that had survived the Holocaust,” Wasserstein said. “There was a possibility of getting a Torah from Europe, and I worked on that for a while, but it fell through.” Saul had thought it would be an easy task, but said it turned out to be “gargantuan.” “All the Holocaust survivors we knew had already given whatever they had to museums, and the museums hesitated because they didn’t want mementos to be worshipped like idols,” she said. “I assured them that wasn’t our wish, that the problem was that Cubans can’t travel to Yad Vashem or the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and they wanted something concrete. But no one would give up anything.” In the end, the solution was to bring a piece of the Washington museum to Cuba. Diane Saltzman, chief curator of the museum’s collections division, said that shortly before it was inaugurated, her institution had received a gift from the Polish government consisting of several crates of cobblestones removed from a street inside the Warsaw Ghetto. “In the museum, there’s a section where you can actually walk on the stones,” she told JTA. “Over the years, we’ve saved a small cache of stones that we weren’t doing anything with, and they felt it was important to memorialize the Holocaust in Santa Clara.” Getting the stones to Cuba’s Jewish community entailed a whole new set of bureaucratic headaches — mainly because of the 40-year-old embargo that prevents most Americans from traveling to or trading with the communist island. “We actually went to the Department of Commerce to find out whether we could even do this, especially since we’re a federal agency,” Saltzman said. “It was determined that the stones were of educational value, and so we did not need an export license.” Two cobblestones were finally sent to Cuba — one for the large Patronato synagogue in Havana, the other for the cemetery in Santa Clara, about 170 miles east of the capital. The monument was dedicated last October, in a ceremony attended by over 200 people including Monseñor Arturo González, the bishop of Santa Clara, as well as various Protestant church leaders and top officials of Cuba’s Communist Party. At the inauguration, six candles were lit in memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, and a tree was planted nearby with soil from Israel. Many non-Jews in the audience, including a tour guide and interpreter, were moved to tears. “My family surivived the Holocaust only because my father left two weeks before the Germans entered Poland,” Wasserstein said. When the stones were presented in Cuba, she told José Miller, president of Cuba’s Jewish community, that “had it not been for Cuba opening its doors to my father in 1939, I would never have been born. So my taking the stones was like coming back full circle.” The monument, about seven feet wide and six feet high, is made from local marble. Among other things, it depicts a hand trying to reach over an electrified fence, with railroad tracks and pebbles leading into the base of the structure, symbolizing the trains that carried Jews to Auschwitz. Along the top is a phrase written in Hebrew and Spanish in bronze letters. Loosely translated into English, it says: “Fading survivors, we have sculpted in bronze the tenacious promise of the Jewish people: to always remember and intone melodies for the six million.” Located along a dirt road lined with wooden shacks and banana trees, the Santa Clara cemetery seems an unlikely place for a Holocaust memorial. Outside of its importance in the sugar industry, Santa Clara mainly is known as the site of the last major battle that Fidel Castro’s rebels fought against the government forces of Gen. Fulgencio Batista in 1958. That’s why the city was chosen for the Che Guevara mausoleum, a monstrous shrine to socialism that attracts thousands of tourists a year. Cubans generally know little about Judaism, but they are starting to take note of the Holocaust. Film director Steven Spielberg broached the topic with Castro during his controversial visit to the island last year, and several weeks ago, the Communist newspaper Juventud Rebelde printed a two-page spread entitled “Sobreviviente del Infierno,” or “Survivor of Hell.” The story — about an 80-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor who recently visited Cuba to discuss his experiences — marked the first time an official Cuban publication had given so much space to the subject. Some say a Holocaust memorial could be built in Old Havana, home to thousands of Jewish merchants and shopkeepers prior to the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. Saltzman, who has sent Warsaw Ghetto stones to synagogues and Holocaust museums from Salt Lake City to South Africa, said a total of 10 cobblestones have been transported to Cuba. “I’ve gotten a lot of reaction from the Americans involved in this,” she said. “The stones have tremendous emotional power for them because they’re connected to the Holocaust. I was told that people were touching the stones and kissing them.” Small Jewish communities in other Cuban cities, including Camagüey, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, also want Warsaw Ghetto cobblestones so they can erect Holocaust memorials. Later this month, several more Polish cobblestones will be taken to Santa Clara by a 27-member youth delegation from the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. “We’re in the process of acquiring more stones so we can make a replica of Chlodno Street,” said Alberto Esquenazi, a retired accountant and treasurer of Santa Clara’s Jewish community, which meets every other Friday night in a private home because it is too small to sustain its own synagogue. “The idea is to have American Jewish groups bring stones, purchase new ones and make a walkway intertwining the old and the new,” Saul said. “The symbolism is that Cuba’s Jewish community is intertwined with both the past and the future.”

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