JCCSF trip to Cuba helps solve a tomb mystery

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.

Sylvia Weiner at her father’s 83-year-old grave, discovered under two feet of soil

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.

At that point, Weiner shared with Goldstein four documents that had been passed down to her, including a deed to a cemetery plot and a photo of a cemetery. It turned out that her father was buried in the Municipal Cemetery in Guantanamo.

Through further investigation, Goldstein discovered the likely reason for Zukerman’s burial there: in 1930, there was no road between Guantanamo and Santiago, making it too difficult for mourners to make the journey with the body to El Cristo.

At that point, Goldstein figured the grave was found. But it wasn’t.

Members of the current Guantanamo Jewish community went looking for it, but it wasn’t in its designated spot. Goldstein was shocked, “but I didn’t want to give up,” he said.

Crew in Guantanamo that dug and searched until uncovering William Zukerman’s grave

He asked the community to dig exactly where the grave should have been, and to everyone’s amazement, Zukerman’s gravestone, in perfect condition, was found beneath almost two feet of soil. Goldstein surmised that the many hurricanes and landslides in the area, combined with the fact that nobody had visited the tomb for more than 80 years, had caused it to disappear from view.

Weiner was incredibly grateful to the local Jewish community for unearthing the grave, and she was equally moved by the fact that its members came to the gravesite to recite Kaddish when she and her daughter, Elyse, were there on the JCCSF trip in early March.

“I’m tearing up as I’m telling you about this,” she said during a recent phone interview.

Goldstein spoke of the special bond between the Guantanamo and San Francisco Jewish communities. Members of the JCCSF group that visited Guantanamo in 2012 raised significant funds to renovate the local Jewish community center, which was in obvious need of repair.

Goldstein said part of the reason for the March 2013 trip (another one is slated for December 2013) was to visit the community again and see the finished building.

Unearthed gravestone

“It was a great moment for all of us, seeing the tangible evidence of our efforts to help the community, and experiencing their delight” with the facilities, Goldstein said.

“It’s been a very strange, remarkable and wonderful journey,” said Weiner, 81. “Ariel gave me back a large part of my past, but there are still many unanswered questions.”

However, the question of who will say Kaddish at her father’s grave from now on has been answered.

It will be members of the Guantanamo Jewish community, who have promised to do so every year on the anniversary of Zukerman’s death.

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.