This is one chapter from the book Jews in Cuba, The Chosen Island by Maritza Corrales, (Chicago, Salsedo Press, 2005), which tells the story of thirty-six Cuban Jews who, following the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, decided to remain rather than leave, as most other members of the Cuban Jewish community chose to do. Thanks very much to the author for sharing this chapter in her wonderful book.     Walter Lippmann, March 1, 2006
Jose Miller Fredman (1925-2006)

A Jew secretly baptized on paper

My parents arrived in 1924. Mama came from Pinsk, Poland, and papa from Quedania, Lithuania.  Both of them came to Cuba in order to get to the United States.  My father emigrated when he was twenty two years old for the same reasons as many Jews: to flee compulsory military service, which for them was terrible. I know that Papa was the youngest of four siblings, although he didn’t talk much about his family.  Mama had been left an orphan when she was five. 

As far as I know, through letters and photographs, the family lived in a suburban area, semi-rural, with their animals, geese and chicken.  Everyone in the family, with the exception of one who lives in Israel and my grandfather, was exterminated in the Holocaust.  According to what my mother told me, my grandfather died during a pogrom from the blows they gave him. 

When my parents arrived in Cuba, they earned a living as itinerant venders in Havana.  Later, they moved to Yaguajay, a town in the northern part of Las Villas province, where one of my mother’s sisters lived.  There, they opened a variety store that they called La Economía.

I was born in Yaguajay, in August of 1925, almost at the same time as the Cuban Communist Party.  My parents had rented a room in the home of a very Catholic family, where a very strange thing happened. When I enrolled in the University, they asked me for my birth certificate, and when I applied for a copy, it turned out that I had two birth registrations.  In one, my father, instead of being Yona, was listed as Juan and as a business owner, and Mama wasn’t Yashke, but rather Josefa, and did typical women’s work. The other registration was normal and had only one error: my surname is actually Ferdman (man-horse), but they had inverted a letter, and I was registered as Fredman.  It was only as a result of this incident that I became aware that they had baptized me in secret, at least on paper, and had re-registered my birth.

At the time, there were six Jewish families living in Yaguajay: the Gribov’s, the Krost’s, the Sussi’s, the Barroca’s, one of my father’s sisters, and us.  The Sussi’s went to Tunisia, and when the returned to Cuba, the father became the Hazzan of Chevet Ahim and performed my brother’s Brit, a big event because they had never seen one in our town. The Crasin and Feldman families lived in the town of Meneses.  There were three families in Iguará: the Zimmerman’s, the Usher’s, and the Dworin’s. All had stores in good locations: La Catalana, El Paraíso, the Bazar Hamburgo and Villa de París. They were well located in two neighborhoods of the town: in Sansarí (the Hawk) and in the Loma (the Cock), where the well-to-do lived. The area of the hardware stores was between the bridge and the neighborhood of Sansarí.  Above it, were the fabric stores; it was the best location because normally no one bought in the first store he found. 

The merchandise arrived through Iguará, which was the best road out of Yaguajay to civilization. There were wholesalers in Santa Clara who sold to us, above all those in leather and shoes: Enrique Oltuski’s father and the father of Abel Holtz.  Traveling salesmen also came, like in Arthur Miller’s novel.  My father knew some of them from his first years in Havana, and they even stayed overnight in our house instead of a hotel in order to save money, Jews as well as Spaniards.  After 1945, when I came to Havana, I bought for them.  Also, around the time of Pesach, Papa came to Havana to get the matzoh and took advantage of his time to purchase other goods as well. 

My mother and father were not very religious; they weren’t orthodox, but they were kosher. At home, we ate the meat from the butcher shop in Havana; my father used to buy live chickens from the farmers and slaughtered them himself.  My mother kept track of all the Holidays, with or without a calendar.  She made traditional desserts: cookies (kijalaj) covered with powdered sugar for which she cut the dough with an upside down glass, and blintzes. She also made gejakte leber, chopped chicken liver with egg and onion. 

A Cuban couple with a lot of children lived across the street from our house. They cooked very well.  We didn’t eat fillet mignon, but there they ate nothing but fillet.  They would kill a pig and store the meat in pork lard.   I ate everything.  I enjoyed spending Christmas Eve in the homes of all my friends in town. For me, it was a punishment to have to eat the gefilte fish and matzoth ball soup in my aunt’s house. I couldn’t stand the sticky gelatin.

The Cubans were always open, friendly and welcoming.  This country does not have a history of religious conflict.  There had never been anti-Semitism in Cuba. Sometimes they called me “polaco,” but that was not important. I never felt discrimination or disrespect. Not at the University, either. While I was living in the countryside, I had no idea what a Muslim was, nor much idea what an Arab was. People were identified as sirios, moros or libaneses. There was never a single incident among the different groups, nor with the Cuban people. Everyone I knew—Elías, Miguel the Moro, Yunes—was Christian. I always went around with the Fernández kids, who were very Catholic.  Although I knew I wasn’t the same as they, that they understood each other better, I never had any difficulty being part of their club.

Andrés Dworin was the only mason, but there were many in the United Hebrew Congregation in Havana, the institution of the American Jews on 21st Street and G, which hosted all the sessions of the B’nei B’rith.  No doubt the masons were behind the creation of that fraternal organization.

A Jew attracted to politics

My father, my uncle Benjamin, and the people I knew did not get involved politically. I was the only one who got involved.  I belonged to the Liberal Youth, was secretary of the Anti-Fascist Front and, later, a supporter of the Socialist Youth.  The office of the Communists was in a place that Papa had rented to the Popular Socialist Party next door to my home.  Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, Fabio Grobart, Gaspar Jorge García Galló, Raul Ferrer and many more went there. They were friends of mine. Maybe Papa didn’t like it, but he never mentioned it to me.  I was attracted to politics. My connection to the Communists was through a lawyer they had sent to town, and I spent a lot of time talking to him in the house.  The lawyer was José Felipe Carneado.

In Yaguajay, there was a relatively big group of Communists. The political activity in support of the Spanish Republic was very strong, mainly among the workers at the sugar mills.  The town had three mills and most people depended on them for work, but they only worked ninety days a year.  In one of them, the Narcisa, 97.5% of the workers were Communists. It was difficult to live there, to see the frequent and numerous evictions of the peasants, to see entire families homeless, sleeping in the doorway of my house, the abuses of the rural guards.  You couldn’t be a young person and witness that with indifference. 

I’ll tell you a story.  In Yaguajay there was an army officer by the name of Corporal Perdomo, who, they said, had killed a boy in the area.  Later, Batista made him a colonel. When we were living in Havana, my sister was studying law, and one of her classmates noticed my books.  Soon after, the Military Intelligence Service came, seized the books and arrested my father.  When we arrived at the police station, they were already taking his fingerprints and photograph. Suddenly, an officer comes in, and I tell him that I think I know him.  It was Corporal Perdomo.  Fifteen minutes later, my father was released.  That’s the way Cuba was.


Cubans and Jews at the same time

My link to B’nei B’rith was through Marco Pitchón. I began to participate in the youth group, Hillel, in 1946, and I ended up being secretary of the B’nei in 1950.  I took on other responsibilities as I matured. As a fairly unknown young man in the community in Havana, I could enter on safe footing.  The way to access the community was as a member of the left wing student groups. We were young, and we had intellectual and political concerns. We all felt we were Cubans, and, at the same time, we felt we were Jews. We didn’t want it to be seen as ambivalence, but rather as a manifestation of our dual identity and understood by all those around us who weren’t Jews.

At that time, the State of Israel had recently come into existence, and some people were influenced by what they read in El Diario de la Marina, which didn’t hide its reactionary leanings and was very critical of the creation of Israel. We wanted to promote understanding between Cuba and Israel.  For that reason, many participated in the founding of the Agrupación Cultural Hebrea-Cubana. Dialogue was strengthened with other organizations, above all with the B’nei. Fathers Biaín and Aldeaseca, as well as many professors, like J. B. Kourí and Virgilio Beato Núñez, were invited to the activities.  I think it was one of the best periods of community work in Cuba.

In the early years, Gromyko was one of the defenders of the State of Israel.  The defeat in the 1948 war convinced the Arabs that the decadent monarchies had to be replaced with younger and more popular governments.  Thus, the movement emerged that brought Naguib and later Nasser to power.  It also resulted in Soviet support for Arab nationalism. 

We were leftists, but not Communists. La Victoria, on Obispo Street, was Marcus Matterin’s favorite book shop and mine as well.  A circle of intellectuals used to meet there, including Lezama Lima, Isidro Méndez and others.  There was also another book store La Económica that was owned by the Party. It was better to relate to the people that you met there than with any others. The only thing the Communists had was their ideals: they wanted to help the poorest, the most humble. They were heroes, and. I don’t regret having known these people. I do regret, however, not discovering earlier the evil of Joseph Stalin. I began to distance myself from my Communist friends during the trial of the ten doctors, after the death of Andrei Zhdanov.

The most difficult was the decision to leave

I think the most difficult moment for the Jews in Cuba was the moment when they decided to leave.  Almost all were merchants—small, medium, rich.  My sister, who was a lawyer, decided not to stay because all her clients had left.  I didn’t have a reason to leave.  Papa didn’t want to emigrate, his business hadn’t been nationalized, and he was making good money.  He didn’t decide to leave until it was nationalized in 1968, but at that time my son was of age for military service, I was married to Dalia, and our youngest child had been born. Really, I have never regretted staying because the final outcome is what counts, and it hasn’t been bad for me.

I had friends in the Ministry of Public Health from the days of the Socialist Youth, who acted as advisors.  Three or four months after the triumph of the Revolution, they offered me a post as a dentist in the army, in the Tactical Forces.  I was there until 1961 when I went to work at the Military Hospital.

The return of the prodigal son

As soon as I left the Revolutionary Armed Forces in 1968, I returned to the Patronato. I no longer felt comfortable in the military because of the war of 1967 in Israel.  I had an opportunity to change jobs, and I took it.  They placed me for a year in the Orthopedic Hospital in Camagüey, and afterwards, I went to work at the National Hospital from which I also attended patients at the William Soler Hospital. I entered the Patronato when it could no longer be considered a community.  Before that, I had not been a member of either the United Hebrew Congregation or the Patronato, for the same reason that many who are here today weren’t members.  It can’t be said that the Patronato was in its time, at the beginning, really a popular institution among the Jews. It was elitist, more elitist than the Centro Israelita. My uncles were old members.  Nevertheless, I got married at the United Hebrew since I had a connection with them through the B’nei B’rith because many of its members also belonged to the B’nei.

My work in the community has had two phases:  the first, when I returned and became involved in community activity; and the second, when I became president of the Patronato. During the first, I began to direct the B’nei B’rith, which had been left without a president and owed its existence to the efforts of Isidoro Stettner who kept it active during the 1970s. They were eager for new people, and I organized a few activities that were very well received. I was forty five, and I was much younger than those who were the leaders.  Although not everyone had left in the 1960s, everyday more people abandoned the country, and nothing could prevent the decline of community life.

We miss our Jewish home

Ten percent of the Cuban population, one million people, emigrated.  Among that million and something were thirteen thousand Jews, but those thirteen thousand Jews represented not ten percent, but ninety percent of the community. And they were the most involved, the most observant of its members.  So, our community not only declined numerically, but also—and this is even more important—its identity diminished and was being lost in Cuba.  The elders continued to age, and the young grew up without a Jewish education. They did not have their Brit or Bar Mitzvah. But a sufficient number stayed so that Jewish life didn’t die altogether.  We remembered our Jewish home, and we missed it. We wanted our children to know about it and tried to reconstruct a little of that life.

By 1968, community life was already very reduced and getting worse each day.  The leaders of the community had considered it very important that there be an Israeli representation in Cuba and that Cuba maintain relations, as it had in the 1960s and, even more significantly, after the Six Day War in 1967.  For that reason, the breaking of relations with Israel in 1973 left the leadership of the Patronato somewhat limited. Until then, they had used the Legation of Israel to communicate the things they wanted to say to the Government and the department of the Communist Party concerned with ecumenical relations.  

After the Yom Kippur War, Israeli politics took a turn. The Labor Party lost control of the Government for the first time and a center-left coalition yielded to Menahem Beguin. Carter assumed the presidency of the United Status and Sadat took power in Egypt. That, undoubtedly, caused and brought about a situation favorable to the peace process between Egypt and Israel, with the return of the Sinai.

It is a contradiction.  At the moment that there is a great change between the most important Arab country and Israel, the Arab reaction is to call a boycott, a policy related to the price of oil as a result of the 1973 war, and they threaten nations that maintain relations with Israel.  That scenario—Sadat in Jerusalem, a US president supporting the peace process and Beguin, who despite his past also wants peace—was  not the best time to mount the anti-Zionist, anti-Israel policy, which arose in this period. 

What is certain is that the dissemination of anti-Zionist propaganda, which had not previously been heard in Cuba, impeded the activity of the leaders and considerably diminished the possibilities for a resurgence of Jewish community life, which was already very reduced and insignificant.  Some of the leaders became old and died.  Others, of greater importance because of their national stature and knowledge of the international Jewry, such as Baldas,
[2] thought that little was left for them to do for the community and its Zionist projection.

In 1978, they closed the Unión Sionista. Baldas thought that his being a Zionist militant was harming the community and that he was no longer accepted as before. He really did a lot for the Patronato.  He applied for the exit papers of those who wanted to leave, obtained the import of eggs and tires from Israel and made the links with agricultural technicians in the citrus projects.  But he did something that I consider a mistake: he used the Legation of Israel in Cuba as the intermediary instead of establishing direct contact with the department of Mier Febles, which dealt with the community at the Communist Party of Cuba at that time.

Baldas asked me to stay. We had worked together and, although we didn’t always agree, we maintained a good relationship.  Also because I knew José Felipe Carneado. Baldas had a hand in my taking leadership of the Patronato, even though there were other qualified people.  Maybe because of the way I related to others outside the community, or for the work I did in the country, he thought that I was well thought of by others.  In his opinion, my success did not reflect marginalization as a Jew, but rather, being a Jew, I was doing quite well in this society.

Avoiding confrontation

A new period began in Cuba in 1978-1979.  The Interests Section of the United States was established, political prisoners were freed and, although this is not directly related to the community, the liberalization favored the few Jews who had been penalized for illegal money changing.

One of my goals as president of the Patronato was never to let it get into a situation of confrontation.  We kept active and waited for the appropriate moment to reconstruct it, which happened after the historic meeting with Fidel in 1990.  We then asked for support from the Joint, and we sought out those who had Jewish ancestors to come and form a new community with very different characteristics. 

That moment also coincided with an ideological opening in Cuba, after perestroika, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and also with a change in attitude that had been growing in Israel that resulted in Rabin’s election in 1992 and opened the way for the Oslo accords. This political move put the State of Israel and the world Jewish movement on a different footing. 

Remember, world public opinion at that time was very different compared to that of today in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, independently of which side is right. Israeli politicians should understand that we cannot turn our backs on world public opinion and that, if we are in a situation that is not evident to the rest of the world, we must defend our policy in a way that non-Jews can also understand. I don’t think that Israel manages the art of communication and political discourse very well.

Israel does not have any kind of policy to help the communities of the Diaspora. They want the Diaspora to end and everyone to go to Israel. The Israeli concept is that it is the State where all Jews should live. The policy is motivated by demographic phenomena more than anything else, which is contradictory. They cannot accept that the Palestinians establish the law of return. More than half a million Arabs live in Israel, who are Israeli because they live there. It is like a sudeten,
[3] but it has been respected.  We Jews understand it, but the rest of the world doesn’t.  Nevertheless, the majority of Jews, inside and outside of Israel, agree that there should not be Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory.

Disagreements have to be accepted

I believe, but I don’t want you to think I am being immodest. Maybe yes, maybe no. One can’t say that someone else wouldn’t have done the same.  I believe it lead to positive results. As a leader of the Jewish community, you have to work in collaboration and perfect understanding with the Office of Religious Affairs.  One is trusted because one understands the process and why the government makes certain decisions.  On occasions, only a thin line divides conduct that is justified and acceptable and that which is not justifiable or correct.  We have always paid attention to that.

Everyone has to accept disagreement, but when you disagree, you have to be careful not to cross the line. To be in disagreement is not the same as being an adversary.  My objective has been to prevent our becoming an element of friction and to maintain a good equilibrium.  I have tried to be on the side of reason, justice and what is decent, without ever being influenced by any type of partisan politics. Let others judge if that is easy to achieve.   

[1] José Felipe Carneado, leader of the old Communist Party.  After the Revolution, he was head of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Party.
[2] Moisés Baldas, president of the Jewish Community of Cuba, from the great exodus of the 1960s to 1981, the year in which he immigrated to Israel.
[3] Sudeten: Sudetenland in German, a region of the former Czechoslovakia occupied by a significant German minority that was annexed to the Third Reich in 1938.

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There are many references to Dr. Miller on the web. One particularly good one is: