“I was a left-wing extremist… a young student… screaming in Rome against Israel and Zionism,” said Francesca Cernia Slovin, the Italian author of “In Principio: Dove Affondano le Radici di Israele” (“In the Beginning: Where the Seeds of Israel Take Root”), which was showcased at a February 12 event at the Center for Jewish History. “That is… until 1974… when I left for Israel with a four-day round-trip ticket and ended up living there for a year,” said Cernia Slovin, a convert to Judaism.
“This [book] is a story of love … for the land of Israel,” professor Allan Nadler said, quoting from the book’s jacket. Nadler, a Judaic scholar, told the audience that the book was “originally intended as a short biography of David Ben-Gurion,” but was transformed “into an historical novel [to help] the reader gain… a deeper understanding of Ben-Gurion and bring together the parallel discourse that modern Zionism stood for… more illuminating for the readers in Italy, where the subject is quite unknown… or intentionally neglected.”
Prefacing a reading in English translation by actor George Marfogen, Nadler introduced the audience to the book’s protagonist, Yakov, a 10-year-old in czarist Russia at the time of the first Zionist Congress in Basel — which took place in 1897, the year the Bund was founded and the Forward launched — who at 16 goes to Palestine with his friends. Yakov joins a moshav, or agrarian cooperative; one friend becomes a guard in the first Jewish defense unit in Palestine, or a shomer; two help smuggle Jews into Ottoman-blockaded Palestine; another helps found the first kibbutz, Digania; several die of malaria or from Bedouin and Arab attacks.
In Italy, she said, “the book has been adopted in several high schools…. Mature audiences, teachers thanked me… for this missing page of history…. But the 16- to 18-year-olds refused to open their minds…. There were attacks from the left-wing press.”
“I hope my book sheds a little light on this piece of history… little known in America and less in Europe and Italy,” Cernia Slovin said.
* * *
“I’ve just come back from Cuba!” Jolanta Zamecka exclaimed when she called me last month. A board member of the Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove, N.Y., Zamecka was part of a group that brought to Cuba the country’s first-ever Holocaust exhibit.
How? When? Why? I wanted to know. Zamecka told me to “call Murray Slimowitz,” a fellow board member.
During a series of conversations, Slimowitz told me that in June 2003, courtesy of Miami-based Jewish Solidarity, he revisited Cuba for his 50th wedding anniversary. “It was a pearl in the book of our memory,” said Slimowitz, whose last visit was 44 years ago. Of Cuba’s estimated 1,500 Jews, according to Slimowitz, 800 are in Havana. He said that “at Patronato, a Conservative temple, I was amazed to see Jewish children going to Sunday school…. In 1997 [Fidel] Castro allowed Jews to practice…. Castro is politically anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, but not anti-Jewish. He comes to the synagogue. We donated $300 to the Hebrew school for supplies. But the community’s president, a Dr. [Jose] Miller, said he’d rather buy shoes for the school’s children. In Cuba, children over 7 do not get milk without U.S. dollars.”
In Santa Clara, Cuba’s second-largest city, he visited the Jewish cemetery and met its 25-strong Jewish community’s leader, David Thacher, a professor. Thacher spent $500 to build a Holocaust memorial in the Jewish cemetery.
“He told me he wished he had a Holocaust museum to show the Cuban people why Israel is so important — to counter the propaganda,” Slimowitz said.
“I’m a Zionist,” Slimowitz said. “I was motivated by Thacher, and back home I assembled an exhibit with Jolanta to go to Cuba.”
Incorporating photographs from Yad Vashem, the exhibit opened in Havana in December.
Curated by Rachel Jagoda of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the exhibit “will travel to Cuba’s Jewish communities, including Guantanamo Bay,” Slimowitz said. He added that a Nicaraguan representative to Cuba, “who happens to be Jewish and davens at Great Neck Synagogue when in New York, attended the exhibit. He asked that the exhibit be brought to Nicaragua.”
A few days ago Slimowitz called with exciting news: “I’m going back to Cuba in October. They’re planning to place the exhibit — permanently — in Havana’s National Museum!”