The history of Cuba and its Jews has always been a fascinating but under-researched subject. Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba by historian Robert M. Levine is a comprehensive and absorbing account of the travails of Cuban Jews.
The first Jews to arrive in Cuba were those escaping the heavy hand of the Spanish Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.
After World War I, there was a huge influx of Jews from Europe, most of whom saw Cuba as a stepping stone to the United States. Those who stayed to build their lives in the Caribbean nation worked in small-scale retail and went on to become owners of large stores and producers of consumer goods. Jews were also founders of the Communist Party and leaders of Trotskyist, Bundist, and Zionist groups.
The arrival in Cuba of German Jews escaping Nazism in 1930s Europe emboldened the local fascists. In October 1938, the Cuban Nazi party was legalized, and the Cuban Order of Merit was bestowed upon German foreign affairs minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
In May 1939, the German SS. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, but Cuban authorities refused to allow it to dock. The many appeals fell on deaf ears. The vessel eventually sailed back to Antwerp with its 937 Jewish refugee passengers, who were then taken in by Belgium, Holland, France, and Britain. Only the 287 souls who reached London were lucky enough to survive the Holocaust. The others perished.
The first Zionist emissaries arrived in Cuba just after the war, including Leib Yaffe, who was later killed in Jerusalem (when the Irgun blew up the British administrative headquarters for Mandatory Palestine) housed in the southern wing of the King David Hotel. Two other Cubans lost their lives on board the Irgun’s arms ship, the Altalena.
Cuba was the only Latin American country that voted against the establishment of two states – one Jewish and the other Arab – at the United Nations on November 29, 1947.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Levine’s book is the Jewish involvement in Fidel Castro’s July 26 movement which took power in 1959. Ricardo Subirano y Lobo (Richard Wolf), “an elderly socialist Zionist,” was one of two who purchased the boat the Granma, which transported Castro and his followers from Mexico to Cuba to start the revolt. Castro eventually appointed Subirano y Lobo as Cuban ambassador to Israel.
Another Jew, Jean Contenté, a former member of the French resistance who also fought for the Irgun, helped train Che Guevara and other Cuban revolutionaries in Costa Rica. Martin Klein was yet another Jew who worked with Castro as his private pilot, following his refusal to bomb Castro’s followers in the Sierra Maestra mountains and his subsequent imprisonment by the Batista regime.
Castro appointed Jews as communications and interior ministers; another Jew became the Cuban ambassador to the United Kingdom; and Israel Behar, a general, served in Cuba’s intelligence service. In addition to those imbued with Castro’s vision of a socialist Cuba, many Jews were veteran Communists.
HOWEVER, THE broader Jewish community was situated among the upper and middle classes; and while the new Cuba boded well for the underprivileged, it sounded the death knell for the business community. This led some 70% of the 12,000 Cuban Jews to leave in the early 1960s. According to the report of the American Jewish Committee, there was an absence of antisemitism in this exodus. Even so, many Jews were bitter at losing their wealth, status, and identity as Cubans.
Levine points out that those Cuban Jews who chose to leave for Israel had their passports stamped “Repatriated,” which gave them a sense of returning to their ancestral homeland. On the other hand, those who immigrated to the US were labeled gusanos (worms).
When Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi died in 1963, Castro declared three days of mourning while Israel sent some 20 agricultural experts to Cuba.
During the 1960s, Castro’s Cuba became enmeshed in the Soviet sphere of influence and became little more than a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Cuba also began to align itself more and more with the developing world. Unlike most Communist countries after the Six Day War, Cuba delayed breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel until just before the Yom Kippur War – and then proceeded to send 500 soldiers to Syria after the conflict.
Yet the Cuban Zionist Federation lasted until 1978, and there were large outdoor rallies on Israel’s Independence Day.
As Castro’s regime became more authoritarian and dictatorial, those who had differing views were punished. History was rewritten, and the Jews were airbrushed out of the recollection of World War II atrocities.
Yet, just before the fall of the USSR, Havana welcomed several Israelis, such as Prof. Edy Kaufman of the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute.
Castro commented on Arab existential threats to Israel: “True revolutionaries would never threaten a whole country with extermination.”
Cuba did not conform to the behavior of a classical dictatorship in its struggle to chart its own path, but perhaps it is this nonconformity that makes it such an interesting country to study. And in parallel, this is what makes Levine’s insightful book so interesting to read.
Jerusalem Post 3 November 2023