By BERNIE BELLAN The history of Cuba’s Jewish community is quite an interesting one. According to Wikipedia, “more than 24,000 Jews lived in Cuba in 1924, and still more immigrated to the country in the 1930s. Following the 1959 communist revolution, 94% of the country’s Jews emigrated, most of them to the United States. In 2007 an estimated 1,500 known Jewish Cubans remained in the country, overwhelmingly located in Havana.”
I’ll get into my review of a book set in Cuban in the 1950s later, but first I wanted to provide some background about the very important role that Canada has played in helping the Cuban Jewish community, especially since 1973.
Following are some excerpts from past issues of The Jewish Post that will provide the reader with a basic understanding of how helpful Canada has been to Cuba’s Jewish community:
From the Nov. 24, 1983 issue: “Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) will send $30,000 worth of religious articles and supplies to the Jewish community of Cuba, the World Jewish Congress has announced here. Ever since the U.S. severed relations with Cuba in 1960, the CJC has looked after the needs of Cuban Jews” (emphasis mine).
From the November 17, 1999 issue, headlined: “Canada played key role, helping Cuban Jews emigrate to Israel”:
I, myself, wrote the following: “On October 11, the Globe & Mail broke a story in this country headlined ‘Canada aids Cuban exodus – Secret transit of Jews has gone on 25 years.’ “
That story went on to detail how Canada had facilitated the emigration of some 400 Cuban Jews to Israel, beginning in 1973. (Cuba broke off diplomatic relations with Israel at the time of the Yom Kippur War.)
Subsequent to that story I was able to interview Lloyd Axworthy, who was Canada’s Foreign Minister at that time. I asked Axworthy about Canada’s role in helping Cuban Jews emigrate to Israel. He explained that, “beginning in the early 70s, we undertook to set up what we call the Israeli interests unit in our embassy (in Havana), staffed by a locally-engaged person, not only to represent Israeli interests, but also to expedite the emigration from Cuba of members of the Jewish community.
“Since it’s been in operation, there have been about 400 visas that have been obtained. What we do is simply work it from Havana to the Israeli embassy in Ottawa.”
That interview went on to explore how Canada had kept its role relatively quiet, although apparently it was very well known within the Jewish community in Cuba that if you wanted to emigrate you should approach the Canadian embassy.
As Axworthy noted during that interview, “We’ve been quite careful to keep it low key. There was no point in broadcasting it, because there are sensitivities in Cuba to such things.”
I came across another interesting aspect to the role Canada has played in helping Cuba’s Jewish community in 2013 when I learned that Canada’s then-ambassador to Cuba was someone by the name of Matthew Levin, who was an old childhood friend. I emailed Matthew in January 2013, asking him whether he would consent to an interview and he responded warmly.
He also happened to mention something else that I found quite interesting. In response to my telling him about my interview with Lloyd Axworthy many years prior, Matthew wrote in an email to me that “the connection with Lloyd Axworthy and Cuban Jews is of great interest. Coincidentally my wife is now coordinating the Aliyah program in Cuba from the Embassy.”
Alas, much as Matthew was willing to be interviewed, an apparatchik from what was then called the Department of International Affairs and Foreign Trade stepped into the mix and informed me that I couldn’t actually speak to Matthew; instead, I was told, I could email whatever questions I wanted to ask in advance.
I explained to the apparatchik that I wanted to do a folksy interview with someone who was an old friend and that emailing questions would deprive what I was wanting to do of any spontaneity. You can guess how far that went.
In any event, all this serves as a prelude to a review of a book that I actually finished reading a couple of months ago – and had wanted to review at that time. The book is called “Incident at San Miguel,” by A. J. Sidransky. Mr. Sidransky (and I did ascertain that he was a man, although it’s always difficult when you only know an author’s initials) had sent me a review copy of the book back in November, but I didn’t get around to beginning reading it until February.
After I did finish the book and emailed Mr. Sidransky to tell him how good I thought the book was – and that I was now ready to publish a review, I was somewhat surprised when he asked me to hold off publishing the review, writing “Could you hold the review for May? The book release is May 19. Right now we only have preorders for kindle to be delivered May 19.”
However, I just took a look and saw that “Incident at San Miguel” is available for pre-ordering, either in paperback on Amazon or in Kobo format.
Review of “Incident at San Miguel”
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the book itself. The foreword to the book is written by someone by the name of Miriam Bradman Abrahams, who explains that she is the Cuban-born daughter of Cuban Jewish refugees. Her family had been separated from the family that remained in Cuba for over 40 years, although some of her Cuban family had been able to visit Ms. Abrahams’ family in New York in 2001. Ms. Abrahams had long wanted to visit Cuba, she explains, but wasn’t able to do so until 2008.
She told the story of her family to A. J. Sidransky, who is a Spanish-speaking writer of fiction. Mr. Sidransky took elements of Ms. Abrahams’ story and mixed in some fictitious parts to produce “Incident at San Miguel.”
Here is a synopsis of the book: “Havana, Cuba. December 1958. Two brothers find themselves on opposite sides of Castro’s revolution. One dark night, after rescuing a leader of the revolt under house arrest, one brother finds himself hunted. The other, an influential attorney, must make a choice. Help his brother, placing the whole family at risk, or let Batista’s forces capture him. His decision will haunt them both for the rest of their lives. How far will we go to protect those we love? Based on a true story, Incident at San Miguel takes us there.”
Although I was somewhat familiar with the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s ascent to power, I was fascinated to learn that it was quite some time after Castro and his followers had taken over Cuba before he began to introduce communism to that island.
“Incident at San Miguel” begins in 1958, which was shortly before the then-dictator of Cuba, Filgenico Batista, was overthrown by Castro.
Two brothers, Aaron and Moises Cohan, find themselves on opposite sides of what is transpiring at that moment in Cuba, although, as the novel opens, we see that the brothers do get along quite nicely. Aaron is a lawyer, working in the Batista administration, while Moses is an economist who is aligned with the revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the government.
As the story develops we learn quite a bit about the Jewish community in Cuba at that time. Although most Jews would have been considered middle class, a number of them had become very wealthy businesspeople. The majority of Cubans, however, were quite poor.
In his own introduction, Mr. Sidransky provides an analysis why Jews were continually subjected to persecution by totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, writing that “As in all totalitarian regimes, there is always a boogeyman. In the case of the Nazis and the Hungarian Fascists in the 1930s and 40s that boogeyman was the Jews. In the case of communist systems, including Hungary under Soviet communism, and Castro’s Cuba, the boogeyman is the entrepreneurial or capitalist class. In the absence of a religious, ethnic, or racial minority to blame for the nations’ problems, Communism points its finger at an economic class to which it ascribes the suffering of its people and the nation.”
And, as successful members of that economic class – at least to some extent, it was hardly a surprise that Jews suffered under the Castro regime once communism became solidly entrenched as the economic model for Cuba.
But, as “Incident at San Miguel” relates, it was not at all clear what was in store for Cuba in the late 1950s. Batista’s secret police were everywhere, revolutionaries who were found out were either imprisoned or worse, executed, and despite the continued inroads that Castro’s and other revolutionaries seemed to be making, life in Havana, at least, continued in what seemed to be a normal fashion.
Moises Cohan, though, finds himself caught up in a daring plot to free a former professor of his, who is a hero to revolutionaries, and who has been held under house arrest by the Batista regime. Hence the name “Incident at San Miguel” because the particular incident in question, in which an attempt to free the professor, leads to a whole mess of intrigue as a result.
Moises finds himself on the run and seeks Aaron’s help in being able to escape. Aaron is torn between two worlds. He has been promoted to a senior position within the regime and, helping his brother would not only be a betrayal of that regime, it would be exceedingly dangerous.
Time moves on and on New Year’s Eve, January 1, 1959, the Batista regime folds and Castro’s revolutionaries march into Havana.
Mixed in with the political intrigue are the relationships the two brothers have developed with two vastly different women. Aaron’s fiancée, Beatriz, herself comes from a prosperous Jewish family, and she is perfectly at home with Aaron’s parents, Esther and Rafael.
Moises’ lover, Ana Teresa, in contrast, is a dedicated revolutionary whose first order of business is not romance, but fighting. Moises keeps his relationship with Ana Teresa a secret from his parents, knowing that they would be devastated to learn that he has taken up with a non-Jewish woman.
In time, both Moises and Ana Teresa rise to senior levels within the new Castro regime, yet their romance begins to flounder. Moises is an idealist who believes strongly in the ostensible goal of the revolution to bring about greater equality among the classes. Ana Teresa, it turns out, is a ruthless – and cynical, revolutionary, who is quite prepared to compromise her ideals if it means entrenching the new regime. When it becomes clearer, however, that the new regime wants to bring about equality by leveling the upper and middle classes, Moises begins to become increasingly disillusioned with what is happening – and with his lover.
A fascinating subplot develops when Moises happens to stumble upon a scheme whereby someone in the regime is reaping huge financial rewards through extorting Cuban businessmen, many of whom happen to be Jewish. Reading how Moises undertakes to get at the heart of this corruption introduces an exciting element of suspense into the novel.
We also learn how difficult it quickly became once the new regime was in place for Cubans to obtain exit visas. By this time Aaron and Beatriz have a young baby. The horrible dilemma with which Aaron has to deal is that bureaucrats are willing to let Aaron and Beatriz leave, but their child is denied permission.
That sets in motion a whole new set of challenges for Aaron – who would also love to be able to get both his and Beatriz’s parents out of the country. The parents, however, have a strong attachment to Cuba and are not interested in leaving the country.
I was somewhat surprised to learn that 94% of Cuba’s Jewish population did leave Cuba following the revolution – given how difficult obtaining exit visas was, but when I tried to deduce just how many individuals that figure of 94% represented, I wasn’t able to figure that out. If Cuba’s Jewish population was 24,000 in 1924, as Wikipedia says, and there was an influx of Jews from Europe in the 1930s, then the number of Jews who left Cuba following the revolution had to have been well over 23,000. How did they all get out, I wonder – especially after reading this book and learning how difficult it was for anyone to leave the country after a certain point? I’d certainly like to learn more about when and how so many Jewish Cubans were able to leave following the revolution.
Yet, in reading about the wonderful texture of life in Cuba prior to 1959 – at least for those who were able to enjoy a reasonably prosperous standard of living, such as the Cohan family did, life certainly seemed idyllic in many respects. The descriptions of the kinds of foods that are native to Cuba that the Cohan family was able to incorporate into their daily fare are quite tantalizing, as are the descriptions of the wonderful climate and the beautiful countryside.
“Incident at San Miguel” also provides many insights into the dynamics that underlay the Cuban revolution, including how much democratic ideals inspired so many of the young revolutionaries. While Fidel Castro himself only makes a cameo appearance in the book, Che Guevara plays a prominent – and altogether despicable role. While the book is a work of fiction, with many elements based on the true story of Miriam Bradham Abrahams’ family, the author has certainly done extensive research into life in Cuba in the 1950s. There are some vivid descriptions of how business was conducted – and how much corruption played a part in both the old and new regimes.
A political thriller with many romantic aspects and a vivid portrayal of a country that had so much promise had it not been exploited by one dictatorial regime after another, “Incident at San Miguel” is a riveting read.