Guanabacoa, a colonial town southeast of Havana where the first African guild was created to alleviate the plight of slaves in Cuba, is a somewhat improbable home for not one, but two Jewish cemeteries, both of them more than a century old. They are not the only places where Jews are buried on the island, but their strategic location, half an hour by car from the capital, makes them the most prominent.
As I stopped there in April, during a trip that took me to different corners of Latin America, I was horrified by what I saw: A number of the tombs are in ruin, but not from natural decay. They have been desecrated.
The cemeteries sit next to each other. The largest, Centro Macabeo of Cuba, is used mostly for Ashkenazim. It was founded in 1906 and erected in 1910. Its frontispiece also reads “United Hebrew Congregation,” which points to the American funds with which it was built. The other graveyard is the Cementerio Sefardí, once serving the Sephardic community of Havana.
I have a passion — perhaps even an obsession — with cemeteries. I have visited Jewish ones countless times. Their state, I might say, is a mirror of the society surrounding them: When Jews thrive, their graveyards shine; when they are in distress, the tombstones are in disarray. In the cases of Guanabacoa’s two graveyards, the mess is, to a large extent, an expression of what the Jewish community there has gone through: exile, abandonment, forgetfulness.
At its height, Cuba had some 10,000 Jews. The island was a popular destination for American Jews. Meyer Lansky helped build a hotel on the Malecón, Havana’s gorgeous coastline. Castro’s revolution of 1958 to 1959 put a damper on Jewish life. People left in hordes, with a large constituency ultimately settling in Miami. America’s embargo has since kept numbers down. Depending on whom you ask, there are between 750 and 1,500 Cuban Jews in the nation today. A great many of them are converts or products of mixed marriages who identify as Jews.
In some ways, the sorry state of the two cemeteries could be viewed as a reflection of the abandonment and reduced circumstances that Havana’s remaining Jews have experienced during decades under Castro’s communist rule — at least until the 1990s, when the government lifted many of its restrictions on religious communities and allowed Cuba’s Jews to travel freely to Israel and permitted American Jews to visit them.
Yet this doesn’t begin to express the rage I felt at the desecration.
Even Ruth Behar, a Cuban-born anthropologist at the University of Michigan who visits Cuba regularly and who accompanied me on this trip, was stunned at the sight of these two graveyards. The tombs have been vandalized; the marble stones are broken to pieces, their fragments put back in place. Inside, bones have been stolen.