HAVANA (AP) — A leader of Cuba's small Jewish community who visited jailed American contractor Alan Gross and even released pictures of them celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah together said Wednesday that he was in good spirits and fine health. But her account was quickly disputed by the man's wife, who said he was increasingly frail and despondent.
Adela Dworin said that she and another Jewish leader spent nearly two hours Monday with Gross at the military hospital where he is being held. They lit candles, ate potato pancakes and passed around chocolate coins to celebrate Hanukkah.
Photographs taken during the meeting show a thin Gross wearing a light-blue guayabera shirt standing between Dworin and another Cuban Jewish leader, David Prinstein. Gross has a gray beard. They are believed to be the first photos released of Gross inside the military hospital.
"His health is very good," Dworin told The Associated Press ahead of the photos' release. "He has gained some weight. He's not fat, but he's not so thin anymore."
But that account was questioned by Gross's wife, Judy, who revealed that she had traveled to Cuba to visit her husband a few weeks ago, and said she speaks to him regularly on the phone.
"He is deteriorating more and more every day," she wrote in a statement. "He told me he is feeling very hopeless ... I truly do not know how much longer he can take this ordeal."
Judy Gross said her 62-year-old husband had recently cried for the first time while they spoke on the phone together, and said if he appeared cheerful in front of Dworin it was only to "put on a brave face."
"We continue to beg the Cuban authorities to let Alan come home to us," she wrote, adding that one look at the photos released by Dworin show a man who is weak and frail compared to the way he looked before his arrest.
Gross, who was portly, reportedly had lost 100 pounds (45 kilos) since he was arrested in December 2009.
Dworin said he told her he now weighs 161 pounds and walks five miles a day within the military hospital he is being held. She said he looked considerably better than on a previous visit she made to see him, and even made a muscle to show her his returning strength.
Dworin said Gross even told her he would like to return to Cuba for a visit after his release, noting he has seen the entire island except for the western province of Pinar del Rio.
Gross was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested. His supporters say he was only trying to help the island's small Jewish community improve its Internet connection. Cuba says the USAID programs are aimed at bringing about regime change on the island.
Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this year. His family and other prominent Americans have pleaded with Castro to release him on humanitarian grounds, noting that both his mother and daughter have been diagnosed with cancer since his incarceration.
Castro has voiced concern about Gross' condition, but the American was not included on a list of 2,900 prisoners the Cuban leader pardoned last week, most of them in jail for common crimes.
Gross' wife, Judy, said Saturday that her family was deeply distressed to hear that Gross was not included in the pardon.
"To receive news in the middle of Hanukkah that the Cuban authorities have once again overlooked an opportunity to release Alan on humanitarian grounds is devastating," she said.
Dworin said Gross was extremely anxious to get back home to his wife and family, but said he was upbeat during the visit.
She said they did not discuss Castro's prisoner amnesty at length during the Hanukkah celebration, but that Gross knew about it and was clearly disappointed not to be part of it.
"He wants to have hope," Dworin said. "We Jews always live with hope, or we would have disappeared from the earth long ago. A miracle could occur. After all it is Hanukkah, which is all about a miracle."
Hanukkah, which concluded Tuesday, is the Festival of Lights for Jews. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. According to tradition, a candelabra was lit with only enough oil for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days.
Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven/