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My Man in Havana

When we fled Cuba in 1962, my uncle stayed. He died 50 years later, without ever explaining his decision.

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Sephardic cemetery, Guanabacoa, Havana. (Linda J. Hirsch)

I gained small insights into my uncle’s life when I saw his home on a backward city street where chickens roamed freely. He was attentive to us, giving us a tour of his modest orderly household and showing us one family album. He was handy, as Cubans must be, fixing things that are beyond repair. I tentatively asked him questions that would elucidate his past for me. He laughed uneasily at my desire to get information I craved, avoiding answers. He mentioned government rations and help from the Jewish community center. Our shared Hanukkah meal consisted of food homemade from ingredients from the ration line and from the hard currency market, and “luxury” imported items donated by overseas Jewish communities. I asked to see the ration book, but it couldn’t be found.

Our third reunion was in Israel in July 2010, when my uncle visited his son who had made aliyah. My uncle was ill; time was running out. I had emailed him a copy of notes I’d gathered from interviews with my dad about their early days, before the revolution, when the brothers were growing up in a rural town east of Havana. My uncle, who worked as an accountant until he retired, remembered numbers: their home address, dates. He corrected facts but didn’t elaborate. He offered a tidbit about the “special period,” the years after Soviet communism fell and Cuba was bereft of critical support; he spoke about losing 30 pounds and his family practically starving during those years. Then he clammed up again. I don’t know if 50 years under communist rule made him cautious about saying anything that could possibly incriminate his family or whether he was a true believer in the system until he died. Now I will never know.

In the short exposures I had to my uncle, I felt a visceral blood connection, loyalty to my father and conflicting emotions of love, betrayal, and curiosity. He touched my soul when he smiled at me affectionately and called me sobrina. As I hugged him goodbye at the end of each of our three visits I cried, feeling a sad sense of impending loss. I hadn’t done enough, having started too late, conversing with him cautiously instead of risking our pleasant contact with tough questions. Were we separated by the wall of political difference between two countries and two brothers, or was it simply naturally opposing personalities and geographical distance that kept us from knowing each other?

Maybe my uncle didn’t want me to know who he really was, or what he believed; perhaps he didn’t want to openly challenge my father’s views, or maybe he never wanted to connect with any of us gusanos who abandoned him—it may have been dangerous for him to do so. Or, perhaps it was too late for a closed person like him to open up. Does it really matter anymore? Can I let him go now?

Since my uncle died, I have tried to balance love for my dad and respect for his intense disagreement with his brother’s life choices, trying to picture how my uncle may have felt. While I believe my dad’s hurt is valid, and though I will never have all the facts, I can still try to imagine my uncle’s viewpoint as an idealist and as one left behind. Removed by a generation from this conflict, I can accept him despite his attached labels: communist, atheist, intermarried. I may not have truly known or understood him, but I will always love him simply for being the uncle who held me with affection as a baby.

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Laz Red says:

great story but very sad. most of us have a depressing one. thank you for share it. regards.

PhillipNagle says:

My family lived in Puerto Rico at the time of the Cuban revolution. Our Jewish community was graced with an influx of Cuban Jews. These refugees, who had their property and livelihood stolen by the rapacious Cuban communists, soon rebuilt their lives and prospered while their former country collapsed in failure. Not unsimilar to this story where the brother who fled Cuba could afford to bring his brother to NY for a visit while the brother who stayed in Cuba lived in relative poverty.

Is it possible that he was silly enough to believe in Marxism a totalitarian system

Karen Duys says:

I, too left as a small child, though we were American ex-pats. We did not leave family members in Cuba, but my parents left loved ones. As I was growing up, I would occasionally walk in on my mother while she was immersed in sweet and achingly sad memories — those moments have never left me. Do we ever consider that the embargo might be exacerbating the difficulties of Cubans — that we are in part responsible too? What would happen if we emptied Guantanamo and gave it back (we should not be a colonial power), if we were bold enough to unilaterally normalize relations? Would that not upset the balance enough for the Cuban people to release themselves from the stranglehold that the Castros and the embargo have on them?

Joauin49 says:

I really enjoyed your story…

I very much appreciate your story, thank you. It adds some dimension to a local Rabbi I know (Canadian now, but born and raised in Argentina) who has worked tirelessly over the past decade, frequently returning to Cuba to assist those remaining Jews with their Aliyah.

thank you for sharing these reflections– so often writing about cuba descends into kitch and cheap nostalgia– your piece is poignant and honest!! mil gracias!

I live in Miami and know many Jewbans (not an insult). Cuba is a terrible place and I’m glad you were able to see the difficulties of life there in what was once a shining paradise. My friends go as often as they can to visit family and return home with many of the same feelings you describe. Our history is so amazing to me. So vast, so complex, so personal, and usually so painful. We are a constant discovery of old meets new. Truly a living history! Well, you did a mitzvah I think and I know your uncle must have loved you very much.

The embargo exists because Cuba expropriated $1.8 billion in US business assets. That means they simply stole it, violating the rules of international trade. Since then the regime has made no apology nor attempted to settle those claims. Instead the regime has frequently bilked subsequent foreign investors in Cuba. Despite the embargo the US is Cuba’s third largest trading partner and largest source of food and agricultural products (that must be paid on a cash up front basis). Cuba is free to trade with every other country and does so with many though Cuba has become a delinquent debtor nation. The economic model in Cuba simply does not work and that is why the conditions there are miserable. They could apply market reforms tomorrow and improve the lot of ordinary Cubans dramatically without a single penny of trade with the United States. But the regime won’t do that because totalitarian regimes are about self-perpetuation. Ending the embargo would only serve to legitimize an illegitimate regime and put taxpayers on the hook when the regime gets credit from institutions like the US Export-Import bank. No thanks. As for Guantanamo, that’s never going to happen. And I guarantee you that the average Cuban does not give one iota of thought to the base. The Cuban people are well aware of who is causing their misery. Sadly it’s the people that have all the guns and the ability to harass and imprison.

I knew your uncle and aunt very well and can assure you that long before the end of his life, he was very active in his synagogue, the Patronato, and active for many years in the Maimonides lodge of B’nai B’rith in Havana.They were also active in the Senior Jewish Group. He was kind, loving and a good father to all three of his children. His second wife has been a member of the Patronato for years and attends regularly. I am surprised that you thought of their home as poor even though other parts of the town were poor. Their street had nice homes that were well cared for and their home had an apartment upstairs where the daughter lived with her family. This meant the seniors always had family to help them. I suggest that you visit Cuba again and get acquainted with your step aunt, a lovely woman and a wonderful wife and mother. They really loved being with you and their son always spoke lovingly about you. You are one of his favorites.

Loving and lovely response, June. Coverage of Cuba is often too harsh, superficial or simplistic. You & I know how nuanced and paradoxical life
there is. There is heartache and joy on both sides of the Straits — family,
faith and community can oly be sustained by building bridges of under-
standing.
The gravestone inscription in my photograph which enhances this eloquent
article says (in Ladino): “You will not be forgotten (or we will not forget you).”
Through renewal of roots, rites and rituals, Cuban Jews will sustain a living
legacy and brighten their stars in the Diaspora constelllation.

Loving and lovely response, June. Coverage of Cuba is often too harsh, superficial or simplistic. You & I know how nuanced and paradoxical life there is. There is heartache and joy on both sides of the Straits — family, faith and community can only be sustained by building bridges of understanding.
The gravestone inscription in my photograph, which enhances this moving article,
says ( in Ladino): “You will not be forgotten (or we will not forget you).” Through renewal of roots, rites and rituals, Cuban Jews will sustain a living legacy and brighten their stars in the Diaspora constellation.

Loving and lovely response, June. Coverage of Cuba is often too harsh, superficial
or simplistic. You and I know how nuanced and paradoxical life there is. There is heartache and joy on both sides of the Straits — family, faith and community can only be sustained by building bridges of understanding.
The gravestone inscription in my photograph, which enhances this moving article,
says ( in Ladino): “You will not be forgotten (or we will not forget you).” Through renewal of roots, rites and rituals, Cuban Jews will sustain a living legacy and brighten their stars in the Diaspora constellation.

Linda J.Hirsch says:

Loving and lovely response, June.
Coverage of Cuba is often too harsh, superficial or simplistic.
You & I know how nuanced and paradoxical life there is.
There is heartache and joy on both sides of the Straits — family, faith and community can only be sustained by building bridges of understanding.
The gravestone inscription in my photograph, which enhances this moving article,
says ( in Ladino): “You will not be forgotten (or we will not forget you).”
Through renewal of roots, rites and rituals, Cuban Jews will sustain a living legacy and brighten their stars in the Diaspora constellation.

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My Man in Havana

When we fled Cuba in 1962, my uncle stayed. He died 50 years later, without ever explaining his decision.

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