Cuba and the Jews


    🕮    As we approach Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we hear from two authors who have written about the welcome or lack thereof that Jews received in Cuba in the years around World War II. Ruth Behar's Letters from Cuba, based on her family history, was a 2021 Sydney Taylor Notable Book (Middle Grade category). Barbara Krasner's forthcoming 37 Days at Sea: Aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939, is a poetic take on a historical tragedy, available May 1, 2021. 

Let's start with a description of each book, and then we'll dive into questions.

Ruth Behar's Letters from Cuba 

The situation is getting dire for Jews in Poland on the eve of World War II. Esther’s father has fled to Cuba, and she is the first one to join him. It’s heartbreaking to be separated from her beloved sister, so Esther promises to write down everything that happens until they’re reunited. And she does, recording both the good–the kindness of the Cuban people and her discovery of a valuable hidden talent–and the bad: the fact that Nazism has found a foothold even in Cuba. Esther’s evocative letters are full of her appreciation for life and reveal a resourceful, determined girl with a rare ability to bring people together, all the while striving to get the rest of their family out of Poland before it’s too late.

Barbara Krasner's 37 Days at Sea

In May 1939, nearly one thousand German-Jewish passengers boarded the M.S. St. Louis luxury liner bound for Cuba. They hoped to escape the dangers of Nazi Germany and find safety in Cuba. In this novel in verse, twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons is one of the refugees, traveling with her parents. Ruthie misses her grandmother, who had to stay behind in Breslau, and worries when her father keeps asking for his stomach pills. But when the ship is not allowed to dock in Havana as planned―and when she and her friend Wolfie discover a Nazi on board―Ruthie must take action. In the face of hopelessness, she and her fellow passengers refuse to give up on the chance for a new life.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Each of you chose an interesting format: Barbara used poetry while Ruth used letters. Talk about your decision to write your book in this special way instead of straight prose.

Ruth Behar:
When I was growing up, I’d see my two grandmothers, one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardic, receive letters from family far away and weep with joy; those letters meant so much to them. Before phone calls and the internet came into existence, people sent letters back and forth to stay connected. Especially for immigrants making the journey across the ocean in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, letters were a crucial form of communication. Letters from Cuba is about a Polish Jewish immigrant girl, Esther, who flees to Cuba to help her father bring the rest of the family to the island as conditions grow dire for Jews on the eve of WW II. She has left behind her mother and grandmother, three brothers, and a beloved younger sister, Malka. She decides she will write letters to Malka telling of her experiences in Cuba, but rather than send the letters, which will take a long time to arrive, she collects them in a notebook so that Malka can read them when she makes it to Cuba. Esther reveals her hopes, fears, uncertainties, and her fervent wish that she and Malka be reunited. The letters become for Esther an extended prayer that finally brings Malka and the family to Cuba. I chose the format of letters to put myself in Esther’s head and imagine what she would write. Because a letter is addressed to a specific person, it can be an intimate and warm form of writing. And when written to someone you love, letters can be very lyrical. They speak from the heart. I love all those features of letters, so even though I didn’t use poetry, when I wrote each letter for the book I felt that I was writing a poem.

Barbara Krasner:
37 Days at Sea began as middle-grade nonfiction prose. It went to committee at a publishing company and the editors wanted me to fictionalize it. I refused. That was around 2010. Then in 2012 I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) in Chicago and attended a session on "Contemporary Poetry, Historical Sources." I decided to rewrite the book as poetry in several voices, some children, some adult. By this time I'd became a published poet and successfully completed a post-MFA graduate semester in poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked and rewrote this version over the next few years for an adult market. However, few novels in verse exist in that market. I went to a Highlights Foundation workshop on novels in verse, twice, and my narrative became the fictionalized account of one feisty girl--in verse. I think this poetic approach captures the despair of the passengers well.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: These two books present very different views of Cuba. What context can you give for young modern readers - what do you want them to know about Cuba?

Letters from Cuba
offers a perspective on the lives of Jews who found refuge in Cuba and were able to make a home there. Most Jews settled in Havana and provincial cities on the island, but some chose to settle in the countryside. This was the case with my grandmother and her family, who settled in the small town of Agramonte, in the province of Matanzas, where they were the only Jews. Having heard so many stories about Agramonte, I was curious to learn more about the town. Being a cultural anthropologist, I decided to do research in Agramonte. I learned about the sugar plantations where enslaved Africans had worked, and how their traditions were preserved in religion, music, and dance. I also learned that Chinese Cubans lived in Agramonte and that their stories were part of the local history. This mix of cultures fascinated me, and I decided to set my novel in Agramonte in 1938, on the eve of the war. I didn’t want to represent Cuba with rose-colored glasses, so in the fictional retelling, the plantation owner belongs to the Cuban Nazi Party and continually harasses Esther and her father. But I also wanted to show that Cubans on the whole are a tolerant people; in the story, the different communities come together and the town launches an anti-Nazi campaign in support of Esther and her father. Ultimately, my aim was to offer young modern readers a vision of Cuba as a welcoming place where people of diverse identities seek to co-exist peacefully and to stand together against racist hatred.

For the passengers of the MS St. Louis, Cuba was a way-station. Most of the passengers had visas to enter the United States. They needed a place outside Germany to wait for their visa numbers to come up. Some of them already had family members in Cuba, like the character of Wolfie in 37 Days. The passengers did not know the head of Cuban immigration sold them bogus landing cards, which were declared invalid when the ship entered Havana harbor. Antisemitism was on the rise in Cuba, stirred by Nazi Germany. Further just before the St. Louis arrived, the Cuban government issued a decree that would make it difficult for refugees to enter the country.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Both of these books are immigration stories, about being welcome and unwelcome. Please talk about why that subject is important to you.

I often say that I am Jewish because I am Cuban. I feel gratitude toward Cuba because my four grandparents found refuge there in the years before WW II at a time when the door was closed to them in the United States. If not for the welcome they received in Cuba, I would not have been born. My family came to love Cuba. When we left in the 1960s, to start a new life again in the United States after the turn to communism, it was with great sorrow. My family lived through a double exodus, a double migration, from Europe to Cuba, and then from Cuba to the United States. If we had not been given refuge twice, we would not have survived. Knowing that my ancestors fled persecution and genocide, I believe we should be compassionate and humane toward immigrants and foster policies of welcome, kindness, and generosity of spirit.

I wanted to tell the story of the St. Louis, because no one wanted to accept this ship of nearly 1,000 German-Jewish refugees. About 250 of these passengers perished in the Holocaust. As Elie Wiesel once said in a talk about the St. Louis at New York City's 92nd Street Y, and I'm paraphrasing, the worst thing anyone could do is stand idly by. Only through the intervention of an American Jewish relief agency was safe haven, albeit short lived for some, negotiated.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Please share some interesting or surprising tidbit you learned while researching for this book.

I learned about a sacred tree, a ceiba, that still exists in the countryside of Agramonte where people leave offerings in memory of the enslaved Africans who worked in the sugarcane fields. I found this very moving, the idea of a tree as a memorial, and included it prominently in the book.

For this book, in addition to archival work, I interviewed about eight people who had been children aboard the ship. All but one I interviewed in person in their homes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The St. Louis voyage shaped who they became and how they handled conflict.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: What was the easiest part of this project, and what was the hardest?

The easiest part of this project was the knowing that inspiration for the book was the story of my maternal grandmother Esther. She made the real journey to Cuba and through her courage saved her Jewish family and made it possible for her descendants to be born. I adored my grandmother and it was a joy to be thinking of her constantly as I wrote. The hardest part of the project was actually writing the book. I had a general outline, but I had to go on the writing journey to discover what would take place in the day to day of my fictional characters and how the story would come to life. I had to be open to serendipity. That is the magic of writing, and also the challenge of writing, not knowing what will happen until it’s on the page.

There were about 160 children on board the St. Louis. By interviewing people who had been children, I could find their stories: Mickey Mouse movies, pushing all the buttons on the elevator, banging the dinner gong, playing pranks on adults. That was relatively easy. More difficult: Finding the time while holding down a corporate job to do archival work. I spent at least two days in the basement the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee office in New York City, spinning through microfilmed records, reports, newspaper articles. I spent several days at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington combing through about 80 testimonies in the USC Shoah Foundation's collection as well as donated materials about the St. Louis by survivors.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: What takeaway are you hoping readers will end up with?

I hope readers will come away with an understanding that immigrant stories are diverse and that Jewish immigrants have found refuge not just in the United States but in Latin America. There are Jews for whom our sense of identity and belonging stems from a passionate attachment to the Spanish language and Latino culture.

To notice when someone is in trouble and to take action to help, that is, the value of tikkun olam. And, as one survivor said, "We're still here. Hitler is not."

THE BOOK OF LIFE: On The Book of Life Podcast we always have a Tikkun Olam Moment when guests share a suggestion for making the world a better place. What is your Tikkun Olam suggestion for how each of us can help to repair the world?

I anticipated your question! As I said above, I hope people will keep their eyes open to notice when others need help, and reach out whenever they can.

I think the most fundamental thing we can do to make the world a better place is to be open to the stories of people, to listen and take in the lived experiences of others. Stories have the power to change the world. Understanding the hopes and dreams of another person, we learn that we are all connected, and that to nurture all of our communities, our families, and our individual lives we must nurture one another.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?

Even after the ship landed after 37 days at sea at Antwerp, Belgium, the trouble wasn't yet over for many. Those staying in Belgium, the Netherlands and France found themselves in Nazi-occupied lands once again in the fall of 1940. Even those who went to England weren't safe. German-Jews were considered enemy aliens; men were interned on the Isle of Man.

I'd also like to point out the ship's captain, Gustav Schroeder. He did not join the Nazi party (he refused). He was ready to scuttle the ship off the coast of England rather than return these passengers to Germany if he had to. Decades later, passengers nominated him for Yad Vashem's Righteous among the Nations. He received the award posthumously.

Your questions were wonderful. Thank you so much for including me in this interview! 

THE BOOK OF LIFE:  Thank you, Barbara and Ruth, for sharing your insights with us today, and thank you for your wonderful books!


Lisa said…
Very enlightening interview! Thank you, Heidi!
I'm not sure if my other comment went through. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for posting these reviews and interviews. I'll definitely read for my own research on Miami's "Jewbans."