Cuba’s other exiles: Cuban Jews started over in Dallas
They, too, fled Castro. But unlike most of their compatriots, these Dallasites are Jewish
This is a difficult time for American Jews. With Passover beginning at sundown Wednesday, many will say a prayer for Israel, a spiritual home they see as being under siege.
But for a small contingent of Jews living in Dallas, another “home” crosses their mind as often as Jerusalem. And just as they do every year, they will pray for Cuba as well.
“Ah, Cuba,” says Zoila Sandler, whose friends call her Sonia. With a dreamy voice and eyes to match, she describes her former home as “a wonderful, wonderful, beautiful island, with beautiful people, beautiful places to go … very friendly, beautiful schools.”
The Savariego family, about 1945 in Cuba: Coty (left), Noemi and Sam with parents Donna and Jose.
Coty came to Dallas with husband Moses Eskenazi in 1962. Now in her 70s, Mrs. Sandler chose to leave Cuba in November 1963, saying goodbye to “Old Havana,” the flora and fauna, the palm trees and the beach at Varadero, with its thick white sand and turquoise water, where each night “a million stars” covered her like a blissful canopy.
“I had a beautiful childhood in Cuba,” she says. “We were poor people. My mother often lacked the money to buy groceries, even though my father was a great working man. But life at that time was not so expensive.
“In many ways, I miss Cuba. I would love to go back, if only to visit my old house and Old Havana, where I grew up. Most of my years there were happy ones. It was there that I married a wonderful man and gave birth to our three children.”
But today, Mrs. Sandler has been a resident of Dallas for 38 years. Most of her fellow exiles who happen to be Jewish have been here even longer. Just as she does, they carry with them a litany of heart-wrenching stories.
They gave up everything or had it taken away. They arrived in Dallas penniless and overwhelmed, having to reconstruct lives torn asunder, much as their European relatives did in the wake of the Holocaust.
“We were allowed to leave Cuba with only two changes of clothing and only one pair of shoes,” says Mrs. Sandler. En route to Dallas, she and her husband had their suitcases stolen in Mexico, leaving them only with the clothes they were wearing. They also lost one of their prized possessions, the family photo collection.
What was lost
For Moses and Coty Eskenazi, the situation was much the same. They gave up a thriving dry-goods business near Havana and a newly constructed 3,500-square-foot home with marble floors. They arrived in Dallas in January 1962 with almost no money and only the prospects of a blue-collar job.
“We lost all our properties, and our bank accounts were confiscated,” says Mr. Eskenazi, 72, who went on to become one of Dallas’ most successful insurance brokers. He later became part-owner of a company that manufactured steel machinery.
The Eskenazis, shown in the late 1930s, came to Cuba in the 1920s after migrating from Turkey. Moses is seated in the front row (center); his parents are in the back row (center).
Though no one has exact estimates, the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas says the Sandlers and Eskenazis are among several hundred families of Cuban Jewish origin living in North Texas. Officials for the Miami-based Latin American Sephardic Federation say that, with a population of several thousand, Texas is home to one of the largest concentrations of Cuban Jews outside Florida, whose estimates exceed 20,000.
Mrs. Sandler says Dallas’ Cuban Jews still hold celebrations, though not as often as before. When the families began arriving in the 1960s, their children were young. Even the grandparents were still alive. Generations of bar and bat mitzvahs have come and gone, as have weddings and anniversaries.
Synagogues “did all they could” to embrace the new arrivals, says Mrs. Sandler, noting that Tiferet Israel, Shearith Israel and Temple Emanu-El all offered free one-year memberships to anyone emigrating from Cuba. But even when the Cuban Jewish social scene was at its peak, its get-togethers often included Gentiles. “We would celebrate on Jan. 28, the birthday of [Cuban national hero] Jose Marti,” says Mrs. Sandler, “and we would celebrate on May 20, which marks Cuba’s independence from Spain. And we still do that.
“Our celebrations included Catholics, Protestants and Jews, as well as black people, Chinese people, Hispanic people. The one thing we all had in common was being from Cuba. But many of the older people, they [died], and the younger people, instead of being 14 or 15, are now 51 or 52.”
Even today, most remain united in a feeling of collective bitterness toward the Marxist regime of Fidel Castro, who seized power in the revolution of 1959, toppling corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Castro government soon began seizing all private land holdings as well as businesses and bank accounts. Churches and synagogues suffered, too, with many shutting their doors for good.
Though never accused of anti-Semitism, Castro was, say the exiles, intolerant of religion as a whole, as was the Kremlin that financed his efforts until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Castro’s critics contend that, until he allowed the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, churches and synagogues were forced to operate largely in secret.
But since then, the situation has changed, and in some ways, changed dramatically.
Gary Weinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, accompanied a delegation of 30 civic and business leaders from Dallas’ Jewish community on a tour of Cuba two years ago.
They experienced what he calls “a rejuvenation of Jewish life in Cuba, a reconnection to the Jewish religion and a revival of Jewish culture.” The Dallas group raised more than $50,000 to provide for Cuba’s 1,800 remaining Jews “a Friday night Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner for two full years.”
“They can’t afford meat,” says Mr. Weinstein, “and they can afford chicken only twice a month.”
He, too, noticed that synagogues are re-emerging all across Cuba. And several new books examine the lives of Cuban Jews. Among the more prominent are a novel titled Days of Awe, by Achy Obejas (Ballantine, $24.95), and a memoir, The Last Minyan in Havana, by Betty Heisler-Samuels (Chutzpah Publishing, $14.95). There also is a new Web site, www.jewishcuba.org.
But old feelings are hard to shake. Mr. Weinstein says no one in the Dallas contingent who flew to Cuba two years ago had ever lived there. In other words, no one in “the funding group” who made the trip was a member of the city’s exile community. Many of Dallas’ Cuban transplants have mixed feelings or claim to have no desire to return to a land where too many bad memories mingle with the good.
Coming from a long line of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, Mrs. Sandler’s family left their home in Minsk, in the former Soviet Union, in 1929, motivated by a desire to leave behind both communism and anti-Semitism.
During the Holocaust in Europe, Cuba was a place to feel safe, she says, never knowing that it, too, would be a home she and her family would want to leave.
By 1962, she and her late husband, Manuel Sandler, had seen their lucrative family business (manufacturing a line of apparel for boys) and their bank accounts confiscated by the Castro government. They had sent their oldest son and daughter to live with relatives in 1961 and wouldn’t see them again for two years. It was “the darkest point in our lives,” she says.
Her children Benny, 52; Silvia, 48; and Fabio, 45 (who later changed his name to Fabian) were all born in Havana. For two years, however, Benny and Silvia lived apart from their parents, staying with relatives in the United States.
Mr. Eskenazi and his wife, Coty, 67, suffered a similar fate. They had just finished building a lavish new home with marble flooring throughout even in the garage! Within months of seeing it completed, they had to leave it behind.
As a member of what he calls “the counterrevolution” in his hometown of Artemisa, Mr. Eskenazi was arrested three times. On one occasion, after the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 a U.S.-backed effort by Cuban exiles to reclaim their homeland he was detained for three days, along with thousands of other dissidents.
At that point, “I saw the handwriting on the wall,” he says, and prompted by his wife’s urgings, made plans to leave immediately.
“They wanted to take our children and have them be ‘scouts,’ ” he says. “This wasn’t the Boy Scouts, you understand. Castro was taking them to be in service to his new government.”
Mrs. Sandler describes the specter of losing one’s children as “a panic” that ripped through Cuba like a plague in the early 1960s. In her opinion, that alone was the reason for so many Cubans, Jewish or otherwise, to want to leave as fast as possible.
Through the backing of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Eskenazis were flown to Kingston, Jamaica, in October 1961 and waited there for six weeks. If anything, says Mrs. Eskenazi, it made them feel a kinship with their ancestors, Sephardic Jews who had migrated from Judea in 90 A.D. to Spain to Turkey and then to Cuba in the 1920s. When they arrived in Dallas, Mr. Eskenazi took a job unloading boxcars. He routinely had to lift 100-pound bags for six days a week, earning $75 for his labor.
“After a while, they realized that maybe I was a little bit intelligent,” he says. “I quit at one point. I just couldn’t take it any longer. But then I went back and worked for another year until a good friend of mine, working for an insurance company, hired my brother Simon. For one year, Simon led Texas in selling insurance, and then he hired me and I led the nation [in sales] for two and a half years.” Eventually the Eskenazis built a home near Royal Lane and stayed there for 25 years before moving into a high-rise luxury condominium. Their children Sammy, 45 (who followed his father into the insurance business); Sara, 44; and Josie, 35 remain in the Dallas area.
Memories of a culture
As a boy of 4, Sammy Eskenazi remembers hiding in the kitchen as members of Castro’s army stormed the family home looking for his father. But despite such a grim memory, he loves shopping at La Favorita, a Cuban grocery near Bachman Lake, and buying Cuban sandwiches and pastries at Carrollton’s International Bakery.
Mrs. Eskenazi says her family still craves Cuban food, and for a recent Friday night Shabbat, that’s exactly what she cooked for a visiting nephew, who came from Turkey via the University of Richmond in Virginia. She cooked arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), black beans and fried plantation bananas, just like they make at La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Havana’s most popular restaurants, once frequented by the likes of Errol Flynn and Ernest Hemingway.
As much as he likes the food, Moses Eskenazi says his family has no desire to return to Cuba, even for a visit.
“If Castro had never come, we would still be in Cuba, and we would be happy,” says his wife. “But we love it here. Dallas is our home and always will be. We raised our children here, and now we have grandchildren here. Dallas has been very, very good to us. In our opinion, it’s a wonderful place. And it is our home.”