Curator’s Catch

October 2017: Bracelet made in Cuban prison

Bracelet made in Cuban prison
  • Object No.: 2015.07.01
  • Donor: Bruce Pascal
  • Description:

    bracelet made from plastic bottle caps, 2010

A bracelet made of plastic bottle caps is not exactly the kind of object you expect to reveal a story so stirring and unusual as the one about Alan Gross’s imprisonment and release in Cuba. Yet, it tells us about a recent case of civic activism within the Washington Jewish community.

The story starts with Alan Gross, a government contractor working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), who was arrested in Cuba in 2009 while delivering technical supplies to the Jewish community of Havana. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for this “crime against the state.” After five years of imprisonment, Alan Gross was released. In a recent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he linked his release in part to the grassroots efforts in the Jewish community and concluded: “My redemption from Cuba is a story of activism.”

The bottle cap bracelet is part of this story. In prison, Alan Gross made bracelets like this one by manipulating bottle caps and tying them together. He gave them to visitors who had permission to see him.

Among these few people was Bruce Pascal, a businessman from Washington and member of B’nai B’rith International. Pascal had been a frequent visitor to Cuba through his B’nai B’rith activities and established relationships with the Jewish community in Havana. Hearing about Gross’ imprisonment prompted him to see whether he could help in any way. “I realized pretty quickly that there probably weren't too many people in the Washington area that had the ability to fly on a moment's notice to Cuba because B'nai B'rith International had a special license. … I naively said to myself, maybe I could help. … I knew the players in Cuba,” he reported in an interview with JHSGW in 2015. Arranged by the Jewish community in Havana, Bruce Pascal met with Cuban officials to advocate on behalf of Gross. His prison visits, though, held importance on a very personal level, since he became friends with Alan Gross and served as a messenger between him and his family and friends in the U.S.

Protest sign featuring Alan and Judy Gross with logos of Jewish Community Relations Council and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman donated this poster from the weekly vigil to “remind our community, now and in the future, of what we can accomplish together.”

JHSGW Collections. Gift of Arnold Saltzman.

Another important story of communal activism occurred in D.C.: The Jewish Community Relations Council and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington organized a weekly vigil in front of the Cuban Interests Section building (today’s Cuban Embassy). For three consecutive years, protesters gathered there under the leadership of Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, showing their support and concern for Alan Gross. The motto of the vigil was “Hineni,” which means “I am here” in Hebrew. This simple, but powerful statement is reflected in the silent message of the bracelet: By giving it to his visitors, Alan Gross made them a keepsake that can be read as “I was here,” caring for somebody.