Forgotten Jewels – Review

A fascinating documentary titled ‘Forgotten Jewels” is about to be released that brilliantly illuminates a little known period in the diamond industry. During WWII, as Jews were fleeing persecution and genocide at the hands of the Nazis, over 12,000 refugees from Europe were given safe haven by Cuba. Once there, a few of the refugees from Antwerp were able to establish a fledgling diamond cutting industry.
At that time in Cuba, in order to protect their own workforce, foreigners were not allowed to hold jobs. With limited options available to them to survive, a few determined refugees were able to strike a deal with government officials. As long as they employed one Cuban for every non-Cuban, they would be allowed to start businesses. Before long a diamond industry was up and running spawning multiple small businesses from the actual cutting of diamonds to the manufacturing of tools, machines and supplies to support the cutting operations.
Still Diamond Industry
Image Courtesy of the Filmmakers
The cutters in the group from Antwerp began training both their fellow refugees and Cuban nationals in the art of diamond cutting. Among those new diamond cutters was Marion Finkels Kreith, the mother of one of the filmmakers and inspiration for the making of the film. She was just 15 years old when she learned to cut diamonds in Cuba. The hours were long and the pay very little, but considering their limited options and the suffering of those they left behind in Europe, the refugees were grateful for any opportunity.
The film chronicles the events from the time of the arrival of the first refugees in Cuba to the end of WWII and the eventual migration of most of the refugees on to the United States or back to Europe and Israel. Their departure also spelled an end to the brief era of diamond cutting in Cuba.
Cars in Havana
Image Courtesy of the Filmmakers
Forgotten Jewels is wonderfully told in the voices of some of those who lived the experience and against a backdrop of news chronicling unfolding world events, together with a view into Cuban culture of the time. Some of the refugees who were inclined to do so were able to successfully integrate into Cuban society and gained a deep appreciation for the culture - especially the music and dance. Significantly, the Cuban people accepted the refugees without prejudice.
The film’s combination of upbeat Cuban rhythms and stunning visuals of a tropical paradise create an almost subliminal contrast that enhances the telling of the story. The trauma and hardships experienced by the refugees were counterbalanced by the positive energies and accepting attitudes of the Cuban people.
Filming on the Beach
Image Courtesy of the Filmmakers
There are a number of important themes that emerge from this excellent documentary that are highly relevant today. It is, of course, a story about the Holocaust. These events and the people who lived through them - and those who did not - must never be forgotten. Although these refugees were unable to acquire visas to enter the United States, Cuba accepted them, much to their credit and to their benefit. The humanitarian effort on the part of a new Cuban government served the local economy well as the diamond cutting industry created jobs and promoted cultural exchange. In the current climate of nativism which appears to be spreading around the globe, it is important to understand the benefits of properly caring for innocent people who are displaced by war and oppression.
Robin and Judy
Image Courtesy of the Filmmakers
Another theme at the center of the film is how, with meager resources, a few industrious and tenacious individuals could band together in a very short period of time and create a whole industry that would give people back their pride and dignity and purpose, and the ability to earn a living in very difficult circumstances. The film is a historical archive as well as a tribute to the power of the human spirit.
This is an important film for all viewers, but those fortunate enough to work in the diamond industry today will find it particularly inspiring. It is always good to count our blessings and to appreciate the contributions of those who have gone before us. And it is a reminder that we must learn the lessons of history so that a repeat of the dark periods might be avoided.
Forgotten Jewels Poster
Please visit the Forgotten Jewels website.

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