by Richard Fellman
Bev and Dick Fellman were among the 30 participants on the Mission to the Jewish community of Cuba sponsored by Temple Concord of Syracuse where their son, Daniel Fellman, is the Senior Rabbi. This is part three in a series of articles about their trip.
Jewish Cemeteries in Cuba
A basic concept of Jewish life requires each community to establish a cemetery as one of its first undertakings. Cuban Jews met that test.
Though stories persist of Jews among the ships’ crews with Columbus in 1492, and other stories which claim Jews were among the earliest settlers from Spain, none of these tales have yet to be validated with any semblance of historic proof.
On the other hand, it is clear, based on fact, that German Jews began a migration to Cuba in the first decade of the 20th century; Jews from Turkey followed starting in 1914 with the outbreak of WW I and the Ottoman Empire’s entry in the war on the side of Germany; and Eastern European Jews moved in large numbers to Cuba starting in 1921 when United States passed stringent immigration laws limiting newcomers to
their national origin based on the then existing population. This policy entirely excluded Jews of Eastern Europe.
So, Jews came to Cuba, found the tropical island warm and comfortable, began as peddlers and soon built viable commercial entities, bought real estate, and in every respect did well. Even more, most of them liked their daily life in Cuba. They found the island free of anti-Semitism.
Of the 15,000 Jews in Cuba by the middle of the 20th century, all but a few thousand lived in Havana. The rest lived in the large cities to the east on the island, especially Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, on the eastern tip of Cuba.
As Jewish communities routinely do, each established a cemetery of its own, one in Havana and the other mid-way between Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba.
In 1925 the “Cementerio—Hebreo” was opened, just east of Havana, named in Hebrew, with Hebrew lettering on its entry way stating “Bet H’Hayim.”
The cemetery, still in use today, is well kept, tended to by non-Jewish workers paid by the State.
When a person dies in Cuba, usually in a hospital, the administrators at the hospital notify the Jewish community, which then arranges to transport the body to the cemetery where it is prepared in the traditional Jewish manner for burial. Near the entrance to the cemetery is a small building which has in the center a marble table, with a drain in the center. It is here that the Burial Society meets and prepares the body. The funeral is usually held within twenty four hours of death.
The major Jewish communities of eastern Cuba, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, have their own cemetery, located in the small village of El Cristo, and the Jewish cemetery is named “Cementerio El Cristo,” though it is Jewish in every respect and has a large and prominent six-pointed Star of David at its entry way.
Among those buried there are relatives of leaders of the synagogues in Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. The cemetery is cared for by an 80-year-old Cuban, again paid by the State, who has worked in the Jewish cemetery since he was less than 20 years old.