In 1962, Pola and Juan Bradman secretly fled Cuba for the United States with their daughter Miriam, who had just celebrated her first birthday. They left behind all they knew—including Miriam’s uncle, who remained in Cuba and became a communist sympathizer.
Although Miriam only lived in Cuba a short time, her family had lived there for over 30 years after leaving Eastern Europe, and she always had a longing to understand where she came from. A long-awaited trip back to Cuba in 2008 sparked something inside Miriam—now Miriam Bradman Abrahams, living in Long Island, New York—to really examine her family’s background, and tell their story. She felt her family had a unique story—one that wasn’t being told at the time. “I’ve read so much about the Holocaust. Many stories about Russian refugees were coming out, but very little about those who fled Cuba,” Abrahams said. ”I wrote articles for a local newspaper about my travels, and I wanted to write more. I wanted my father to write his story, but he said, ‘No, you write it.’”
A computer programmer by trade, Abrahams was only comfortable writing short essays, and knew her family’s story deserved to be in a book. Nevertheless, Abrahams began interviewing her parents to gather details of their story. She gathered over 80 pages of interview notes, but she knew she didn’t have the tools to take it to the next level.
While taking some time away from work to raise her three children, Abrahams began reviewing books for the Jewish Book Council. One of her assignments was to review Forgiving Maximo Rothman, a novel by A.J. Sidransky. A friendship developed, and Abrahams and Sidransky met a couple of times. “We talked seriously about him writing our family’s story, and I felt like he really understood us because he speaks Spanish and has spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic,” said Abrahams. “But he told me, ‘There are enough memoirs. Nobody wants memoirs, so I can do fiction.’ I said, fine.”
Four years later, Sidransky’s sixth novel, The Incident at San Miguel—taking place in Cuba in the 1950s and ’60s, modeled on the true story of the Bradmans—is out, with a foreword by Abrahams. “I treasured black-and-white photos of my first birthday in Havana in January 1962, taken days before my parents and I secretly fled to the United States,” she writes in the foreword. Growing up in the U.S., she remembers learning English in preschool, and her dad sounding “charmingly like Ricky Ricardo.” But Cuban culture strongly influenced every aspect of her life, she writes: “How I think, speak, and react today; what I cook and eat; how I communicate with my parents, my husband, grown kids, and community are a direct result of being trilingual and tricultural.”
Sidransky always wanted to be a writer, but his parents steered him toward a more lucrative, stable career. “I wanted to write for as long as I can remember,” he said. “But my parents said, ‘No, no, no. You’ll never make a living.’ So I ended up in the real estate business for 35 years.” After getting laid off, Sidransky took a creative writing course, and in a period of nine months he completed his first manuscript.
“Forty-five years later, I achieved the thing that I always wanted to achieve, which was to become a writer. I published my first book when I was 53,” said Sidransky, now 66.”
After meeting Abrahams, and getting to know her story, Sidransky knew he wanted to try and make a book work. “I arranged to go visit her parents in Brooklyn and I fell in love with them in about 10 seconds,” he said. Juan and Pola (the real life inspirations behind the novel’s characters Aaron and Beatriz) lived in Cuba after their families were exiled from Eastern Europe. Juan worked as a judge, and Pola had studied languages at the University of Havana. They got married, had a daughter, and after they understood the direction Cuba was going, they decided they needed to leave. “My husband began to read Das Kapital by Karl Marx,” said Pola Bradman. “And when he finished reading it, he said to me ‘Let’s get out of here right now.’” They eventually settled in Brooklyn. Juan left his career in law behind him, becoming a social worker in the U.S., and Pola went back to school to become a teacher, and eventually a school administrator.
Once Sidransky felt confident there was a story there, he had to convince them that historical fiction was the way to go. “The problem is that nobody can time-travel and talk,” he said. “Fiction puts us right there, so that we feel what the character is feeling. And when I explained to them the direction I wanted to take, they said, ‘Please, go ahead.’”
Sidransky agreed with Abrahams that more stories from Jewish Cuban refugees needed to be told. “There was a 15,000-member Jewish community in Havana,” he said. “They had their own social clubs and beach clubs. I wanted the reader to understand what life was like for these people, what a great life they had, and what they left behind.”
In order for people to leave Cuba at that time, they couldn’t let anyone know they were leaving for good, otherwise they would be identified as traitors to Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba, and not be allowed to leave. That meant no goodbyes, no packing up, and leaving many beloved people, and items behind. For Jewish families, it also meant leaving behind the traditions, culture, and sentiments they worked so hard to rebuild in Cuba. “A Passover seder plate, a Chanukah menorah, silver Shabbat candlesticks,” Sidransky writes in the novel. “Everything would remain, caught in some kind of official, absurd limbo, waiting for their return, a return that would never come.”
The Incident at San Miguel tells many stories stemming from the lives of the Bradmans, some that are based on true events, and some that are completely fictitious. “The characters of Aaron and Moises Cohan and their wives and families are based on real people and real events, but the remainder of the characters in this book are purely fictitious,” Sidransky writes in the Historical & Author’s Notes in the book. There’s a scene in the book where Beatriz and Aaron (the characters based on Miriam’s parents) are at the airport, beginning their journey to discreetly flee Cuba. They discover that the baby doesn’t have a visa and is unable to leave the country, so Beatriz’s mother begins to panic. In a matter of moments, in front of suspicious immigration officials, they decide that Beatriz will leave and head to the U.S. alone, and Aaron will stay behind with the baby to sort out the visas. “Aaron watched as Beatriz picked up her suitcases and walked through the gate. She disappeared behind the partition that separated them from their future,” Sidransky writes. This part of the story is very true, Abrahams said: “When I read the part where my mom has to leave me, I cried,” she said. “I have children and grandchildren now, and I can only imagine the bravery that took.” Abrahams confirms that her mother read it, and those parts of the novel are very close to the truth.
There’s another scene where Aaron encounters Che Guevara, which is mostly true. It’s believed by Sidransky that Miriam’s uncle (who influenced the character Moises in the book) was a believer in the communist movement, and had worked for the Cuban government in a relatively high-up position. Yet the part about the titular “incident”—a murder—is completely fictitious. “The murder never happened,” said Sidransky. “Why did I need that? Because I needed a dramatic aspect to the story.”
Now that the book is being released, Abrahams and her parents—now in their 80s, living in Brooklyn—are happy for the world to learn their story (even if it’s been fictionalized), which is emblematic of other Jewish Cuban refugees. “My kids all know that I’ve been trying to write this story,” she said. “My oldest son asked me if I will feel complete when the book finally comes out. And I thought about it and I said, ‘I think so, but I think there’s still room for me to write someday.’”
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.