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The Cuban Connection

Two American novelists draw inspiration for their fiction from the true stories of their grandmothers’ immigration

Aaron Hamburger
Elizabeth Graver
April 19, 2023
Courtesy Elizabeth Graver
Elizabeth’s grandparents Rebecca and Sam in Cuba, where they met each other for the first time in March of 1934 for an arranged marriage that would allow Rebecca to enter the United States as Sam’s wifeCourtesy Elizabeth Graver
Courtesy Elizabeth Graver
Elizabeth’s grandparents Rebecca and Sam in Cuba, where they met each other for the first time in March of 1934 for an arranged marriage that would allow Rebecca to enter the United States as Sam’s wifeCourtesy Elizabeth Graver

We “met,” if that’s the right word, on Facebook, when Elizabeth commented on Aaron’s post about his new novel, Hotel Cuba, inspired by his grandmother’s migration story. Elizabeth—whose new novel, Kantika (“song” in Ladino), grew out of her grandmother’s immigration story—was struck by how both women came to the United States via Cuba. She speculated on what might have happened if they’d bumped into each other. From there, we began a conversation that led to this one.

Despite its 21st-century virtual mode, our first encounter felt appropriate, marked, like our novels, by twin forces of separation and a desire to connect. As third-generation Jewish American writers, we both hoped to animate our family’s lost pasts. We both have recorded interviews of our grandmothers—both skilled dressmakers—and chose fiction as the form and wrote partly in response to the current refugee crisis and rising antisemitic and anti-immigration rhetoric. Finally, both our grandmothers were marked by grit, creativity, and a capacity for adaptation that might prove instructive for our current day.

For all their echoes, our two stories also speak to the variety of the Jewish immigration experience. Elizabeth’s Sephardic grandmother Rebecca spoke Ladino and grew up in Turkey, where the collapse of the Ottoman Empire caused her family to flee. Aaron’s Ashkenazi grandmother Ethel (called “Pearl” in Hotel Cuba) spoke Yiddish and fled pogroms and the Russian Revolution. Had they met as new immigrants, they might have had to surmount linguistic barriers and a suspicion of each other’s differing Jewish cultures.

Still, we like to think that they would, in time, over coffee, have found a lot in common. Since they can’t talk, we will—about the true family stories behind our novels.

Graver: You mentioned that your brothers recorded your grandparents telling stories. How did that lead you to Pearl?

Hamburger: I was 5 years old then, and you can hear my grandparents stopping to ask if I wanted a cookie. My grandmother died when I was relatively young, and when I listened to these recordings as an adult, I realized I knew her only as “Ma,” as we called her, not as a woman. The recordings helped me get to know her—not just from what she said but how. Ethel was a woman of few but emphatic words, which she uttered in a sometimes shaky and always thickly accented voice. Also, her English was quite limited. In the recording she raises her tone, struggling to find the vocabulary to express deep emotions. I sensed she had a richer inner world than she could voice, and I wanted to bring that world to life. How did listening to the recordings affect your conception of your grandmother?

Graver: I love the cookie interruption! In my case, I was the one to make the recordings. I was 21, in 1985. I’d always been both fascinated and confused by my maternal grandmother’s stories. Was she Turkish or Spanish? She seemed different from my kosher-keeping Ashkenazi paternal grandmother. Had she really been born rich? (She wasn’t rich now!) I was a young writer and knew she had a story, and she was a great raconteur, though not literary—and, like your grandmother, she struggled with English. I recorded two microcassettes. Then I guess we got tired or lost focus. She died in 1992, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I felt ready to try to tell her story. Her voice is so alive; it brings her back. She intersperses Ladino, Spanish, and French, adds sound effects. Her story is wrenching at times, and full of gaps. If she were around, I’d ask her so much more. Still, having her voice with me (you can hear it in this little video) made Kantika feel almost like a duet. I’m so grateful for those tapes. I tell all my students to record their grandparents.

Hamburger: I made a short video that contains my grandmother Ethel’s voice, too! I loved the family photographs accompanying your story, showing your grandmother at various life stages. You also described how the photos were made, at times creating a narrative that may or may not have been true. I’d love to hear more about the photos and their legacy.

Graver: They fascinated me both for what they revealed and for what they withheld or even lied about. My grandmother was a beauty, and quite sensuous and open about her sexuality. She tried to pass at times—as not Jewish, or more Western than she really was, or of a higher social class. She loved designing dresses and self-fashioning, but some photos embody much more painful realities: having to send a portrait to America to land a new husband so she could leave Spain; being separated from her children by immigration laws, with only a photo to cling to. Luna, Rebecca’s stepdaughter (who bears my real Aunt Luna’s name), had cerebral palsy and a complicated relationship to Rebecca. I don’t know the true story behind the picture of Luna posing in the grass (my aunt sadly died before I started writing Kantika), but it felt charged to me, beautiful but also stiff, strained and arranged to hide her legs. Even the photos’ reverse sides told stories: the insignia of an Armenian portrait studio in Istanbul; my new immigrant grandmother’s handwriting in misspelled English with a New York accent (“there in Spain my dollings”!).

Including photographs was also partly an attempt to show some seams: Yes, this is a novel but with nonfiction roots. In Hotel Cuba, you include one (spectacular) photo, tucked in the acknowledgements. Your grandmother stands dressed in men’s clothing, smoking a cigarette. Her gaze is sober, maybe even confrontational. What did this image open up for you?

Hamburger: I saw that photo for the first time only a few years ago, and immediately I had to know why she was dressed in men’s clothing. The outfit reminded me that the “Bubbie” I knew was once a young woman with natural curiosity and an ability to transgress norms. Her facial expression suggested to me the difficulty of her journey. Ethel came from a poor Russian shtetl that was constantly being invaded and reinvaded by Reds, Whites, Poles, bandits. With each wave, Jews were abducted, beaten, raped, or killed, often at random, a scene that played out all over the famous “Pale of Settlement” at this time. This was no Fiddler on the Roof. Somehow Ethel’s family managed to send her and her sister to America, knowing they’d never see them again. The two sisters made it across this war-torn, bombed-out landscape to Warsaw, only to find that new laws in America have closed the gates to them. So they decided to go to Havana, Cuba, of all places because someone told them it was close to America. Imagine crossing an ocean, then getting off the boat in the tropical heat wearing heavy woolen clothes, not knowing anyone or the language or recognizing the food. And then having the temerity, as my grandmother did, to pay an American couple to pretend she was their daughter and take her to Key West, only to be arrested and detained upon arrival for two weeks. That’s when that photo was taken. I’d have crumpled up in a corner crying, but there Ethel stands, determined to keep going. And that’s just a part of the story! Can you talk about the obstacles your grandmother faced?

Aaron’s grandmother Ethel, with her new husband, Morris Fishman, about a year after she left Cuba for the United States
Aaron’s grandmother Ethel, with her new husband, Morris Fishman, about a year after she left Cuba for the United StatesCourtesy Aaron Hamburger

Graver: She left Turkey in 1924, when things had grown more difficult for the Jews. She and her family went to Spain—the country that had murdered, expelled, or forced their Sephardic ancestors to convert during the Inquisition. A “homecoming,” or a jumping back into the fire? They didn’t have a lot of options. My grandmother’s sister had already come to the U.S. by way of Cuba, but the 1924 Immigration Act closed doors. In Spain, my great-grandfather was caretaker of an unmarked synagogue where the family lived. They hid their Jewishness in public. My grandmother married a man who abandoned her, then died, leaving her a single mother as Spain headed toward the Spanish Civil War and Hitler rose to power. Through an arranged marriage to my grandfather, she left Spain for Cuba and then New York in 1934. She got her kids to the States nine months later but could never get the rest of the family over. My great-grandfather died during the bombing of Barcelona in 1938, when the synagogue was ransacked. My great-uncle Marko had his head bashed in by Franco’s henchmen and lived out his days in a psychiatric hospital. Being unable to get her whole family to America was the heartbreak of my grandmother’s life.

I felt almost weirdly privileged to be able to research this story through travel (I went to Cuba, Turkey, and Spain) and was struck by the stark difference between my grandmother’s crossings—forced, marked by anguished separation—and my own. In Istanbul, I walked past Syrian refugee kids to stand on the corner where my grandmother had lived and thought, this is where she played in the streets, before her life turned upside down. Of course, present-day Turkey is marked by human rights issues and the refugee crisis—and now the terrible earthquakes—and my trip to Cuba, while wonderful in many ways, was a stark reminder of the country’s poverty and impact of the U.S. embargo. I know you also went to Cuba for research. What did you find?

Hamburger: I learned that many Jewish immigrants went there in the 1920s and nicknamed the island “Hotel Cuba” because they considered it a waystation to get to America. I also noted the sensory experience of being in Cuba—the heat, the music playing, sounds of Spanish conversations, the crash of the water on rocks by the shoreline. How different this all must have been for a woman who’d rarely ventured from her landlocked rural hometown. Cuba in the ’20s was going through a depression caused by the fall of sugar prices after WWI, so there was little money or work. Jews mostly lived in the narrow streets of Old Town Havana and often worked in small sweatshops or they peddled ice cream, souvenirs, even Christian religious articles. Some of them slept in the Parque Central, which is pictured on my book cover. There was a Jewish aid group like HIAS called the Ezra Society that met female immigrants at the docks when they arrived. They helped Ethel and her sister find a home and work with a middle-aged childless Jewish couple who had a hat-making business. Ethel and her sister were grateful to them, but not content to stay in Cuba, however, which led Ethel’s sister to pay a smuggler to get her into the U.S., where she could reunite with family and a boyfriend from back home who was now in Detroit. My grandmother thought, if my sister can do it, I can, too! But as I mentioned, she was caught and eventually deported back to Cuba. Ethel finally managed to join her sisters in New York, and she was horrified by the poverty in which they lived. She says in her interview: “When I saw the way my sisters were living, I wanted to go back to Russia.”

Tell me about Rebecca’s transition to the U.S.

Graver: It was rough for her, too. In New York, she was suddenly living with her brand new husband’s not-so-welcoming family, and stepmother to his daughter, Luna, who had major health issues. Within months, she was pregnant again, with her young sons from her first marriage still stuck in Spain. She used to say, “What I had with all that—you have no idea!” but she also liked to tell funny stories about asking the butcher for a “kitchen” when she meant to say “chicken,” or how, after her little son Albert finally arrived, he was so homesick that he packed a bag and set off for Spain, and she followed him on the streets, just out of sight, until he ran out of steam.

My grandmother—like yours, clearly—was an adaptable person. She discovered rummage sales and Jones Beach. She learned to drive. She made friends with a Cuban neighbor and sang Spanish songs. My grandparents had a small ice cream and newspaper store—a grueling business—that was subject to robberies and antisemitic graffiti, but she loved to decorate the windows and found side gigs cutting hair and doing alterations. She got involved in community theater through her synagogue. She appreciated the multiplicity of America—we have people from everywhere, she liked to say. She had, in ways I find instructive when I sink low or start to kvetch, a great capacity for reinvention, and for joy.

Hamburger: I think what both our grandmothers showed by their example was that when all seems lost, find another way, however improbable. I’ll share one more anecdote. When Ethel was trying to get to America from Cuba, she needed $25. So she wrote her sister’s boyfriend’s brother in Detroit, whom she knew slightly, asking him to lend her the money. He agreed. A year later, she saw this man again in the U.S. and they ended up getting married and were together the rest of their lives, over 60 years. Though she never paid him back the $25!

Aaron Hamburger’s fourth book, Hotel Cuba, comes out from Harper Perennial in May.

Elizabeth Graver’s fifth novel, Kantika, is out from Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, with Turkish and German editions forthcoming.