Small Band of Jews Still Clings to Cuba as Home

Maritza Corrales, who has spent her academic life researching the history of Jewish migration to Cuba, fascinated listeners at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel two weeks ago.

Sponsored by HIAS and Council Migration, the program focused on insights into the Cuban Jewish community gained from archival studies in the United States, Israel, Spain, Turkey and other countries, often integrating her finding that "there was no anti-Semitism in Cuba."

The scholar will also be speaking at Congregation Kol Ami on Sept. 30, following 7:30 Shabbat services at Gratz College.

Corrales is a graduate of the University of Havana, and holds three master's degrees from Cuban institutions of higher learning. She has held positions such as the coordinator of the "Study of the Jewish Presence" at the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, and has advised the city of Havana on the restoration of the Jewish Quarter there.

In her latest book, The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba, she recounts the lives of 36 Jewish men and women who immigrated to or were born in Cuba over the last century.

The first migration came with the U.S. occupation of the island following the Spanish-American War. "The 'Americanos' were originally from Rumania and Germany," said Corrales. "They were Reform Jews and not religious, though they wanted to die as Jews and founded their own cemetery. Most were businessmen connected to the sugar industry, and were welcomed by and mingled with the upper classes."

She went on to speak of the Turcos, who fled the Ottoman Empire around the time of World War I, to avoid conscription in the army.

"They started out as peddlers, like Jews do in so many countries, and became retailers: Orthodox/Zionists who spoke Ladino, and therefore understood Spanish," said Corrales. "Some were combatants in Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

"They had their own synagogue and institutions, as all the immigrant groups did, but there was also a level of integration in all things Cuban, such as carnivals and festivals," she continued. "Cubans are friendly and make you feel at home. Religion was not an issue to them."

Polish Jews – called Polacos – came to Cuba in the 1920s because of tighter U.S. immigration laws. Hoping to use their relocation as a springboard to enter the states, they were told by captains who wanted to fill their ships: "It's close enough to swim."

Some 60 percent of Cuban Jews came from Poland, most of them in the 1920s.

Corrales praised HIAS for setting up an office in Cuba in 1921 to help the incoming residents. "Proportionately, Cuba took in more Jews than Argentina or Brazil," she said.

Around 1925, Jews active in the founding of Cuba's Communist Party were generally from Germany, Austria and Belgium. In the late 1920s, they were persecuted and killed.

According to Corrales, the "pull of Zionism and Communism co-existed in counterpoint, and shaped the character of the community."

In Fidel Castro's first cabinet, Jews held posts but were not identified by their religious backgrounds. Among them was Enrique Oltuski Osacki, who served as Minister of Communication.

But for all of its vitality, the Cuban Jewish community's "prognosis after the revolution in 1959 was that it would disappear," she said. "Ninety percent of the Jews left – 13,000 in all. There were no private businesses, except the kosher butcher; the day schools were closed."

Of the approximately 600 Jews who remain, the author went on, most have defied the expectation: "Young people are starting to come to Jewish events. Jewish organizations contribute to pharmacies, clinics and tzedakah relief projects. ORT is in Cuba teaching computers."

Rob Levin, who attended the Corrales discussion and met her in Cuba, has been on missions there twice, once with B'nai B'rith and another with Society Hill Synagogue. "Religious missions," he said, "are the only way Americans can go."



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