Irene Shaland: The Island within an Island: The Cuban Jewish Story of Survival

Cuba has been a refuge for the Jews since 1492, when conversos sought a safe haven from the Spanish Inquisition. Today, a tiny but united community of one thousand remains after more than five hundred years of history and five distinct waves of Crypto-Jewish and Jewish immigration.
The Crypto-Jewish Story
Survival is our new religion here, And we have nothing else, if not our fear. ~Rafael Campo, The Jews of the Caribbean
Conversos arrive
There is no documentary evidence regarding the first Jews in Cuba. The popular view is that the first European settler in Cuba was a converso named Lois de Torres, born Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri. An explorer and translator, ben Levy sailed with Columbus on the Santa Maria. The only synagogue in the Bahamas, the Luis de Torres Synagogue in Freeport, is named after him.
What is known is that a 15-century Spanish Jew, Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri, served as a Hebrew interpreter to Juan Chason, Governor of Murcia, a province of Spain between Andalusia and Valencia where a large Jewish population lived. Columbus expected to encounter descendants of the lost tribes of Israel during his voyages and thought that ben Levy’s knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic would be useful. To secure a job with Columbus and avoid the Inquisition, ben Levy converted to Christianity a day before sailing and thus became Louis de Torres.
After arriving in Cuba, Columbus sent de Torres to explore the island. While de Torres didn’t find any lost tribes, he did find a strange native custom of drying leaves, inserting them in pipes, burning them, and inhaling the smoke.
We don’t know what happened to de Torres. According to one version, he lived a long life in Cuba and became a wealthy landowner respected throughout the West Indies. According to another, he succumbed to tropical diseases (or was it attacks of the natives?) and died just a year after landing in Cuba. He addressed the locals (thought to be Asians) in Hebrew and spoke negatively about Christianity. As Simon Wiesenthal wrote in Sails of Hope, “After the landfall in America, the first words addressed to the natives were Hebrew.” Alternatively, some claim that he never did anything of the sort, and that his Hebrew speech is the product of novel writers.
While we know that many conversos followed de Torres and settled in Cuba, little is actually known about them and their Jewish ancestry. The records of Inquisition in the Americas document Jewish women being forcibly baptized and sent from Spain and Portugal to the West Indies, including Cuba. As Diego Colon, son of Columbus, wrote to the King of Spain in 1512, “Many maidens of Castille, conversos,” were sent to the island as wives for the settlers.
The records of the West Indies’ Inquisition include lists of suspected Judaizers. They also contain details of several trials and executions, such as the burning in 1613 of a rich landowner, Francisco Gomez de Leon, who admitted under torture to secretly adhering to his Jewish faith. His confiscated estate amounted to 149,000 pesos. Though not as aggressive as the Holy Office in Spain and Portugal, or even in other colonies, the Cuban Inquisition seemed to be interested in big money. The Jewish Encyclopedia records how, in 1636, over 150,000 pesos in gold were confiscated from three “Judaizing” Cuban landowners living in Havana who happened to be three of the richest men in the West Indies at that time.
During the 16th–17th centuries, Jews fled to Cuba from Brazil after the Portuguese re-conquest of the country. Firmly assimilated into Cuban colonial society, these Crypto-Jews exceled in trade, and by the 18th century Jewish Cuban trade, especially in sugar and tobacco, reached Jewish trading companies in Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and New York. The Holy Office in the Spanish colonies was only abolished in the early years of the 19th century, and until the end of the Spanish-American War of 1898, any religious services other than those of the Catholic Church were forbidden. What the Cuban settlers of Jewish decent wanted most of all was to blend in with the Spaniards and “disappear” into Cuba. And they did.
The most infamous Crypto-Jew of Cuba may have been…
…Fidel Castro? The notorious leader is said to have claimed on a few occasions that his own ancestors were of Jewish descent. Fidel and Raul Castro were schooled by Jesuits throughout their entire lives: first, in the most prestigious academy in Cuba, Colegio des Dolores in Santiago, and then in Colegio Belen in Havana. Historians believe that the Jesuit Order was full of Crypto-Jews. Patrick Symmes in his remarkable study, The Boys from Dolores, quotes Castro’s classmates recalling how young Fidel refused to buy into the 1930s youth fascination with Hitler and Mussolini because they were anti-Semitic. Fidel explained that he could not be “against the Jews” since he was one himself, descended through his grandmothers from the Jews of Spanish Galicia and the Canary Islands.
That said, after rising to power, Castro’s alleged ancestry didn’t prevent him from arming and training terrorists who murdered Jews, deploying Cuban troops to Syria who attacked the Jewish State during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and exploiting the United Nations to delegitimize Israel with crude Holocaust analogies and allegations.
The 20th-Century Jewish Story
To Be Cuban and to be Jewish is to be twice survivors. 
~Maritza Corrales, The Chosen Island
Americans are coming
So who were the first “real” Jews to settle the island? Americans.
Attracted by investment opportunities and the promise of wealth, American Jews arrived after the creation of the Republic of Cuba under American patronage in 1902. Some were active supporters of Jose Marti, ideologist and hero of the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain. Most, however, cared little about Cuban history or politics, spoke only English, did not want to mix with the locals, and saw themselves as first and foremost Americans.
These northern newcomers accordingly sought to replicate their American life in Cuba. They built American-style houses, schools, synagogues, and social clubs, and in 1904 they founded the first synagogue in Cuba, a reformed Union Hebrew Congregation. Then, in 1906, they acquired a plot for a Jewish cemetery. These two events are often considered the official beginning of the Cuban Jewish community, which was, to be precise, an English-speaking Cuban-American Jewish community. American Jews, who constituted a tiny fraction of the Cuba’s population, succeeded in creating their own comfortable corner on the island.
Sephardic wave
Sephardic Jews from Turkey came next.
Mostly men who were fleeing forced conscription during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, these Ladino-speaking Sephardim had a relatively easy time assimilating to their new home. Many made their living as small business owners or itinerant peddlers scattered around the island, but the largest group settled in Havana. In 1914 the Sephardim established their own communal organization, Shevet Ahim, and in 1918, as an auxiliary to Shevet Ahim, Sephardic women founded the first Jewish women’s charity on the island, La Buena Voluntad, to care for widows and orphans. Sephardic immigration lasted throughout the 1920s, and these newcomers built a secure corner on the island that was firmly rooted in Jewish traditions.
“Polacos” come to Hotel-Cuba
Escaping the escalation of rabid antisemitism and violent pogroms in Russia and Poland, Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive in Cuba in the beginning of the 20th century. The locals called them “Polacos” (Poles) even though many were not from Poland.
If the Sephardim felt at home in Cuba, the Ashkenazim saw their time on the island as only a brief stopover before entering the United States. Even the very name for Cuba became Akhsanie Kuba, or “Hotel Cuba,” in Yiddish. The majority of these “transit” Jews who arrived before 1924 were indeed able to immigrate to America. But in 1924, when U.S. immigration laws stiffened, the Cuban loophole was closed. As Ruth Behar, a renowned cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan and a Cuban Jew by origin, noted in An Island Called Home, in Cuba “temporary” often means “permanent,” and the Jewish Cuban “hotel” thus became a home.
The economic decline of the late 1920s and the revolution of 1933 were followed by a Cuban nationalist revival. Native workers were granted priority over new immigrants in the job market and, soon enough, antisemitism came along for the ride. Instigated by the Cuban nationalists in cooperation with the Nazi German Embassy in Havana, antisemitism and xenophobia played a significant role in the famous 1939 case of the transatlantic liner St. Louis. This ship with its 937 passengers on board, mostly refugees from the Third Reich, was not allowed to disembark in Havana, even though the passengers possessed landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration. Not having any choice, the St. Louis turned north, brushed the Florida coast ̶̶ the passengers could see the Miami lights at night ̶ before turning back to Europe.
Escaping the Holocaust: Cuba as a safe haven
The fifth and last wave of Jewish immigrants in Cuba brought European refugees and survivors of the camps prior to, during, and after World War II. However, less than 15% of this wave remained in the country.
After the war, Cuban Jewry remained divided into three large sectors: Americans; Ashkenazim, mostly of Eastern European descent; and Sephardim. Each community continued to function as a separate entity in their secure corner of a larger “Jewish island” within the island of Cuba, each comfortable with its own cemeteries and services, needs and desires, attitudes and expectations.
Castro, the Jews, and the Jewish State
Exile is less a location than a method of unfolding, lyrically – unpacking one’s baggage of languages, influences, troubles, and odd biographical facts…
~Jose Kozer, Jewish Cuban poet.
Al Ano de la Liberacion and El Triunfo
Just as Fidel re-drew the map of Cuba after his victory, he recalculated the calendar. The year of 1959 became Al Ano de la Liberacion, the Year of the Revolution, and the years that followed were called El Triunfo, the Epoch of Triumph.
For the Jews of Cuba these events fueled an exodus from the island, and by the early 1960s, the Jewish community of Cuba had almost disappeared. In the words of Ruth Behar, whose family fled to the U.S., “they departed with the urgency of a people who believed the sea parted only long enough to let them go…the dissolution of the community was swift like a lit candle snuffed by the wind.” Unlike in the Soviet Union, Castro’s domestic policies tended not to be anti-Semitic. The gravest threat to all Cubans, including Cuban Jews, was the revolutionary implementation of socialism ̶ “Socialismo or Muerte”; “Socialism or Death” as Castro and his comrade Che Gruvera termed it ̶- that entirely destroyed the Cuban economy. Entrepreneurs and the middle class were wiped out, which of course meant that many Jews lost everything.
All Cubans who fled the catastrophe being inflicted on their country were declared traitors and the enemies of the revolutionary State. Out of nearly 15,000 Jews, less than one thousand remained. Those thought to be religious activists were sent to labor camps created specifically for religious people, gays, exit applicants, and political dissidents. The new Constitution stated that any religion was illegal as a manifestation of counter-revolutionary attitudes and actions. Most synagogues and Jewish schools were closed or abandoned, and as the totalitarian state asserted itself, the Jews had to – once again – assimilate and adapt. They were not Jews anymore, but Cuban citizens and comrades. And like the rest of the Cubans, they had to get used to poverty and rations, revolutionary atheism and fear of political persecution. They also had to face ferocious anti-Israeli propaganda, including anti-Semitic cartoons in state-controlled media, especially after Castro broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973.
The Holocaust
All that said, even when Castro expressed the most vicious hostility toward Israel and attacked that country with insulting and falsified references, this supposed descendant of conversos always blasted Holocaust deniers. Writing for The Forward after Castro’s death, Arturo Lopez-Levy emphasized the fact that Fidel’s political career began at the University of Havana, where Castro became close to the Cuban People’s Party and its leader Eduardo Chibas, who was then president of the Committee for Hebrew Palestine and supported the creation of the Jewish state. For young Fidel and all through his long life, the Holocaust would be a supreme example of human suffering. In his 2010 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published in The Atlantic, Fidel stated: “Jews are blamed and slandered for everything…I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.” On the other hand, books by Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anne Frank, among many others, were banned, and anti-Israel propaganda pieces were widely published. Cuba hosted training camps for Palestinian terrorists and trained and equipped terrorists in the Middle East. It is known, for example, that Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal found safe haven and support in Castro’s Cuba.
The State of Israel
In the 1940s, Castro and his closest comrades became friends with the Cuban division of Hashomer Hatzair, the Cuban branch of the socialist-Zionist movement. After Castro severed relations with Israel in 1973, those of his former Hashomer Hatzair friends who immigrated to Israel became passionate advocates for their government reestablishing ties with Cuba. Prior to the Yom Kippur War, when Castro’s forces fought against Israel, these ties had been strong and greatly beneficial to Cuba. Back in 1960, Fidel appointed his friend Ricardo Wolf, a German-Cuban Jew by origin, to the post of the Ambassador to Israel. Wolf was among those few Jews who supported Castro’s revolutionary activities financially. After the revolution, Wolf, as an Ambassador to Israel for over a decade, developed important economic, scientific, and educational ties between the two governments.
Some analysts believed that Castro’s break-up with Israel was done under pressure from the Soviet government. Lopez-Levy argued instead for the pressure of Castro’s own political ambitions. Aspiring to become a leader of the influential Third World coalition of Arab and African countries called the Non-Aligned Movement, the non-negotiable condition for leadership was severing ties with the Jewish State. His decision was announced at a group summit of the group held in Algeria in September 1973.
Founded by Sephardim in 1924, the synagogue at Santiago, Cuba, was closed sometime after the Revolution. Re-opened in 1996 to serve its community of 90 or so members, the doors were locked when visited in March 2017. The last Jewish family purportedly left for Israel (Photo courtesy of Alex Shaland)

The kosher butcher shop of Havana
Purportedly protected by a 1962 personal letter from Fidel Castro, this tiny shop survived through the years of government-imposed rationing and atheism. The store is located in the heart of the former Jewish neighborhood on Calle Cuba, around the corner from the only Orthodox synagogue in Havana – Adath Israel. The shop is said to have never stopped supplying kosher beef to the Jews of Havana: two thousand pounds of it were distributed every month, year after year, to all registered members of the Jewish community. That generally amounts to three-quarters of a pound of meat per person three or four times a month. Why were the Jews of Havana singled out for this luxury? Was it because Castro’s revolution had destroyed the Jewish community of the country, and he wanted to show his good will to the few Jews that remained? Or was it because of his supposed Jewish ancestry?
[SIM Editor’s Note: It’s also possible that the entire story of the kosher butcher shop was a piece of Castro’s propaganda. Journalist Seth Frantzman has noted how, in 2006, an Israeli diplomat revealed details of a failed 1994 attempt to provide Cuban Jews with Kosher meat, “‘Do you want to make my people anti-Semitic?’” Castro asked. “‘We have the practice of allocating 150 grams of bread a day, but the Jews in Cuba would have meat? [The people] will have a horrible hatred for them.’”]
Miracle of Survival – The 21st-Century Story
…A shape-shifting island, a little of everything, with something everywhere…
Patrick Symmes, The Boys of Dolores.
The new century began for Cubans almost a decade earlier than for the rest of the world. The Soviet Union, that ever-watching, paying-for-everything Big Brother, had collapsed in the early 1990s, sending the state-controlled Cuban economy into a tailspin. The deep economic crisis was defined first by a near-total breakdown of the transportation system and agriculture. Since 1959, Cubans learned what the Jews knew for two thousand years: what it takes to stay afloat. No gasoline or diesel fuel for cars, buses, and trucks? Fidel imported cheap bicycles from China and distributed them to his people. Or Cubans went back to that ever-reliable mode of transportation, the horse and the cart. No meat? Try dry mullet instead, or soy protein. In his Boys of Dolores, Symmes quoted Cuban exiles in Miami who called this ability to survive under any circumstances doble cara, or double face. You say one thing in private but another in public; you live with dissent and conformity at the same time. Doble cara is a survival tactic, a strategy of adaptation. And the Jews of Cuba excelled in it. Like all other Cubans they were waiting for a miracle.
That miracle was a doble cara of the Cuban government. Even as he blamed Americans for everything, from the breakup of the Soviet Union to disappearance of lard, Castro shifted Cuba’s economy from dependence on the Soviets to dependence on tourism, especially American tourism. As usual, Castro’s government began the shift with magic words: in 1992 the Constitution was amended to call Cuba a “secular” as opposed to the former “atheist” state. Also, those Cubans who immigrated after 1959 were no longer enemies of the people but instead were now called comunidad en el exterior, or community in the exterior. The new policy of reconciliation with religious groups was launched, and a new law permitted even Communist Party members to participate in religious observances. Going to a synagogue or church was not punished with severe repercussions anymore. The Cuban people got their Christmas back, and Cuban Jews could again be Jews. Adath Israel, the only Orthodox Synagogue, houses the butcher shop and mikveh, Havana, Cuba, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Alex Shaland)
Adath Israel, the only Orthodox Synagogue, houses the butcher shop and mikveh, Havana, Cuba, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Alex Shaland)
The Jews of Cuba Today
Under Castro’s communist regime, most Jews, like other Cubans, had separated themselves from religion. Most were born into mixed marriages and, in turn, married non-Jews.
But Jewish life, though severely restricted, never ceased. It was kept afloat by surviving family memories and by the participation of older people in their dilapidated synagogues. Three synagogues survived in Havana after the revolution: Adas Israel (orthodox), Centro Sephardico, and the largest in Havana, and Beth Shalom or Patronato (conservative). The Castro regime allowed the Canadian Jewish Congress to provide the Jews of Cuba with wheelchairs and Passover foods.
Then, during the first decade of the 21st century, something amazing happened. After the unrelenting pressure of communist Cuba had finally been eased, and Cuban Jews could breathe, a bit, again, the Jewish community of Cuba reinvented itself. Five hundred years of history and five waves of immigration had thrown together Crypto-Jews, American Jews, Sephardim and Eastern European Ashkenazim, and these different Jewish communities never coalesced into a single whole. But the political and social pressures of 20th century Cuban Jewish life produced a remarkable achievement. Today, a tiny remnant of the tiniest of the tiny minorities on the island has survived, after half a millennium of struggle, powerful not in numbers, but in spirit, and with a shared sense of Jewish identity.

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