Project number: [JOWBR, CUBA-00347]
The UNITED HEBREW CONGREGATION ASHKENAZI CEMETERY at GUANABACOA/HAVANA, CUBA
We would like to thank our host and guide Señor Luis Szklarz of Habana Vieja, who spent many mornings with us in the cemetery collecting data and understanding the words and conventions used by families on their matsevot (gravestones). Without his help, our project would not have been possible.
There are two Jewish cemeteries, about 6 miles across the bay from Habana Vieja on the east side, in the La Jata section of Guanabacoa. The United Hebrew Congregation Cemetery (largely but not entirely Ashkenazim) was established 1911 by the United Hebrew Congregation of Cuba. In 2007 there are about 1600 graves. There are incomplete burial registers for this cemetery - one at the Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel at 52 Picota and the corner Acosta streets in Habana Vieja and another at the cemetery.
The United Hebrew Congregation Cemetery is on Calle (street) Independencia Este near to Avenida de los Mártires de La Jata (Martyrs of La Jata). In 1895 the second Cuban independence movement against the Spanish began. On several occasions Guanabacoa was attacked by rebel troops. This caused reprisals by the colonial government. On December 26, 1896 a particularly brutal massacre occurred in the fields of the La Jata section in Guanabacoa. There is an obelisk to the Martyrs of La Jata near to the Cemetery. First settled by Europeans in the 16th century, today Guanabacoa is a poor area. Jews moved in during the 1920s and 1930s and for a time there were even Jewish organizations here. The cemetery occupies the former Finca el Aguacate (Avocado Farm). The nearby Sephardic cemetery, founded much later in 1842, has about 200 graves. The Centro Hebrea Sephardi de Cuba at 462 Seventeenth Street at E Street in the Vedado section of Havana has the burial register for this cemetery. Both are incomplete. Both cemeteries have full-time caretakers. Both Guanabacoa cemeteries contain Holocaust victim's memorials – among the earliest in Latin America.
We only systematically documented and photographed the grave sites of the United Hebrew Congregation Cemetery. However, because of heat, the summer sun and insufficient time we were unable to photograph more than 65% of the matsevot. Our permitted time in Cuba was limited. About two-thirds of the way through the cemetery, we chose to emphasize data gathering on-site - checking birth and death dates; correcting names and gravestone locations so our database would be correct and complete. We stopped photographing matsevot so we could work in parallel. We did take some global shots of the areas where we did not photograph individual matsevot.
Our master source list was the same one used to create the current JOWBR entries. We could not find 62 graves on our master list. At least 15 inscriptions on matsevot were totally unreadable. In our files, we have replaced the Spanish term "quadrate" with "block". In addition to adding new data we made numerous corrections to the names and spellings of many persons currently on the JOWBR website for the "Ashkenazi cemetery at Guanabacoa (CUBA-00347)".
The cemetery was cited by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). In its 2000 Heritage at Risk Report, the ICOMOS Cuba Committee noted that the Jewish Cemetery in Guanabacoa continues to suffer progressive deterioration of its original appearance. The Jewish Community in Havana maintains it as much as possible but does not have sufficient funds to restore the cemetery. The cemetery is seriously damaged. Unless fully documented now, further deterioration would mean an irreplaceable loss. (See photos 119, 323, 338, 373, 446, 470, 483, 485, 488, 499, 519, 525, 535, 538, 545, 565, 674, 718, 832, 882, 895, 896, 914, 926, 1349, 1351, 1369, and 1472.)
The site of the United Hebrew Congregation Cemetery was once a United States military base or a temporary cemetery for American soldiers who had been killed-in-action or died of disease during the Spanish-American War. Records from this period are less than complete. According to the United States Army many bodies were repatriated to the United States for reburial.
- The general cemetery layout holds to Jewish tradition. A room for washing the deceased is located at the entrance of the cemetery with an outside working faucet to allow the visitors to wash their hands on leaving.
- Some matsevot follow the naming convention of Spanish America. In most Hispanic countries, people use two last names. Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim used the Spanish convention. The first is the name of the father and the second is that of the mother. It is correct to call a person by the first of the two names (the name of one's father) or by both names. A married woman can add the preposition "de" before her husband's last name. So our full names could be Stephen Denker Epstein and Elayne Webber Kruger de Denker. Wherever possible we recorded multiple surnames exactly as they appear on matsevot. However, we know of several specific cases where the family was originally of European descent and their family today (mostly in the United States) know their Cuban relative by only one surname or the other, not necessarily as they appeared on the matseva. All spellings of surnames and given names in our list are as found on matsevot.
- Sections C11, D1 and D9 contain many children's graves (See photographs 731 and 732). Many of the young children and babies' graves are either unmarked or completely illegible. We are unsure whether they were intentionally left unmarked by custom or just worn. Some very young children's graves and several teenagers had specifically identified graves and matsevot.
- Many matsevot have a very shallow relief and were difficult to read. The stones are aligned so they face directly east or directly west. The morning sun made photography difficult. Also we found that our 3 megapixel digital cameras lacked sufficient sharpness to read all the inscriptions and dates accurately. Clearly a return visit and a better camera would help – both to verify our data taking and editing as well as completing the photographic record.
- The matzevot and ohels show different burial traditions and languages. Inscriptions are in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and Spanish. Memorial artwork includes universal Jewish symbols - menorah, candle-stick, Star of David and lion, etc. Inscribed birthplaces are from Eastern and Central Europe, and Cuba.
- There are definite patterns of matsevot inscriptions. We saw distinct differences in the presentation of information on matsevot: date and place of birth, Hebrew date of death, description of deceased, inclusion of art, special expressions of love or respect, including poetry and phrases, matsevot materials and size; but no clues to wealth or Community status. For example, graves are not segregated by gender or wealth. They appear to be mostly organized by date of death. There are few family plots and no societies.
- The letters "E.P.D." that appear on some matsevot are from the Spanish "en paz desonse" – for "rest in peace".
- There are two memorial centographs in the cemetery: One is a memorial to Holocaust victims along front wall and the other is a Machado Martyrs cenotaph to Jewish Communists of the Popular Hebrew Center - Noske Yalub 1927, Bernardo Reinharz 1930, Boris Waxman 1932, Isaac Hurvitz 1932 and Yankel Burstein 1932 located along street C, block 4 (see photographs 808-811). This memorial was refurbished early 2007 by the Adath Israel synagogue.
- Extracted from pages 8-11 Jay Levinson, The Jewish Community of Cuba 1906-1956 (Nashville Tennessee: Westview, 2006). Levinson describes the Cuban Jewish community in its Golden Age, how Jews fleeing from persecution abroad found refuge in Cuba, adjusted to a new country and built a vibrant Jewish presence in Cuba, how there were essentially three Jewish communities in Cuba and how sociological, linguistic, and cultural differences changed at different periods of time, but always separated them.
In post-Spanish Cuba, although there was official separation of church and state, the founders of the United Hebrew Congregation still needed official Cuban permission for a Jewish cemetery. American Jews living in Cuba, they sought intervention by the United States Government. In 1906, Manuel Hadida met in New York with Rabbi Pereira Mendez, the spiritual leader of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel. Mendez
See the map of the cemetery