One of the Free Alan Gross signs that was waved weekly every Monday for at least four years in front of the Cuban Interest Section on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., by those hoping to free the former USAID contractor, is now a historic artifact.
The poster that is now part of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s collection consists of a photo of Alan and Judy Gross in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Its message demanding freedom for Gross is written in English and Spanish.
The poster was donated by Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, who along with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, helped organize the weekly vigils that were held while Gross was imprisoned in a Cuban jail. Gross had been working for the federal Development Alternatives Inc., of Bethesda, bringing Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community when he was arrested in 2009 after being accused by Cuban authorities of trying to instigate a “Cuban Spring.”
The signs carry their own history. The first ones were paid for and printed by the Jewish Federation and the JCRC.
“Over time some signs were damaged, as in the rain or snow,” Saltzman said. “Other signs were given to those who asked [for them] in order to display them in their temples and synagogues.”
Eventually, the protesters began running out of signs. Two of Saltzman’s congregants, Ed and Sue Apple who own Prince Frederick Graphics, volunteered to produce signs, flyers and banners at no charge.
The Apples were more than happy to help. Not only did they believe in the cause, but Ed Apple and Gross had been friends since the late 1960s when they were both in the AZA youth organization. At one point in high school, Apple was the Aleph Godol (leader in the international AZA movement) for the Washington, D.C., area and Gross held the same position for the Baltimore Council, Apple recalled.
“Alan is an old friend of mine,” Apple said. They stayed in each other’s houses when growing up, and they each attended the other’s wedding, he said.
During Gross’ imprisonment, “My wife and I tried to lobby all the congressmen we could. We kept on their case all through those years,” Apple said.
As soon as it was announced that Gross had been freed, said Laura Apelbaum, executive director of the historical society, she knew she wanted to have a keepsake in the museum’s collection. Museum employees have followed Gross’ plight closely, she said.
Gwen Zuares, Gross’s sister-in-law, sits on the museum’s board and while Gross’ fate wasn’t often discussed, it was never forgotten “There was so much despair. There was a feeling of wanting to help but feeling you couldn’t,” Apelbaum said.
Having the poster will keep Gross’ story alive in the minds of museum attendees. “It’s so exciting. It’s so gratifying to be able to collect something so quickly,” she said. “We are trying to collect around issues. We think it’s more engaging.” Apelbaum hopes that the sign in the museum will spark family conversations for years to come.
Saltzman believes that having an actual sign in the museum’s collection “invites us into the world of these events, and brings to life that this was not just a story but part of a struggle to free him.”
The sign “reminds all those involved that ‘we’ accomplished an important mitzvah, he said, adding that the weekly vigils “gave Alan Gross himself the hope that people cared and were not going to let up.”