This article was first published as “JCCSF trip to Cuba helps solve a tomb mystery” in JWeekly.
When Cuban-born Sylvia Weiner heard last year that the JCC of San Francisco was offering a spring 2013 trip to Cuba that included a visit to Guantanamo, she knew she had to be on it.
What she didn’t know was that, thanks to the help of Ariel Goldstein, the JCCSF’s travel program manager, and the Cuban Jewish community, a piece of her past would be dug up — literally.
Weiner, who lives in New York, was only 2 when she arrived in the United States with her mother from Guantanamo after her father, William Zukerman, died. A Polish immigrant to Cuba, Zukerman died in December 1930 at the age of 29, four months before Weiner, his only child, was born.
“To be honest, I don’t even know where exactly I was born,” Weiner said. “It could have been Guantanamo or Santiago. I didn’t have a birth certificate, so it took until after I finished college for me to become a naturalized American citizen.”
Her place of birth was not the only thing she did not know about her family’s time in Cuba. Her mother, who also died when Weiner was young, never talked about living there. And as Weiner grew up, cared for by an uncle who had brought her and her mother to New York, she never asked questions.
“It just wasn’t done in those days,” she said.
So when Weiner saw the trip listing, she wondered if Goldstein could help her locate her father’s grave, so she could visit it on the trip.
Given his familiarity with the Jewish cemetery in eastern Cuba, called “El Cristo” after the town in which it is located, Goldstein thought it would be easy to locate Zukerman’s grave.
But when he checked with several people in Cuba, including Rodolfo Mizrahi, president of the Guantanamo Jewish community and a descendent of its original founders, “I hit a roadblock, a real obstacle,” Goldstein said. “My contacts in Cuba told me that there was no grave for a William Zukerman in El Cristo” (which is located on the road between Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba).
He found that very odd, as his contacts also sent him a copy of a Guantanamo Jewish community document from 1929, on which Zukerman’s signature appears. How could it be that a leader of the Jewish community was not buried in the Jewish cemetery, Goldstein wondered.
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© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.