Betty Heisler-Samuels has only warm memories of her life
in pre-Castro Cuba.
"We had the best years. We lived a slice of history from l935
to l960 when it was such a special place, and a special life,''
she recalls while sharing lunch at an Israeli restaurant in Aventura.
"We were so enchanted with the warmth, friendship and sensuality
of that tropical paradise, it was a miracle that we stuck to our
"You can imagine the culture shock my parents felt, coming from
small drab shtetl [in Eastern Europe] where anti-Semitism was a
way of life to this luscious colorful land that nourished them,
gave them complete freedom, and where for 25 years they flourished
"Then it all fell apart with the oncoming Castro regime.''
Heisler-Samuels, now the editor of a Spanish language magazine
in Miami, recently published her family memories in a book, Last
Minyan in Havana (at Amazon.com). The book is described as a novel,
but it is about 95 percent non-fiction. She changed the name of
her late first husband and she embellished her family's history
a bit, but otherwise it is true.
Heisler-Samuels, who is now married to an Israeli, returned to
Havana recently to show her daughter the land of her birth and found
the Jewish community reduced to a mere 1,000 people struggling to
"I knocked on every door at every house that my family had lived
in. And would you believe, when they heard that, they welcomed us
in and showed us around. They were such good people,'' she said.
She had been working on the book for a while, really "just playing
with it,'' but the moment her mother died, in December of last year,
she was propelled into finishing it.
"It was like a monument to my parents lives,'' she said wistfully.
"Maybe it was also a cleanser for me. It represented closure, and
I finished it in three months.''
Besides drawing a glowing picture of the tight Jewish community
that shared an almost communal life, the book paints the years before
the coming of Castro as idyllic.
Her introduction to the book traces the first Jewish presence
in Cuba as going back to Christopher Columbus, whose ships carried
many Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. One of them, Columbus
interpreter, Luis de Torres, spoke Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic as
well as Spanish.
And Heisler-Samuels writes that it was de Torres who first documented
the custom of cigar smoking. He reported seeing "many people, women
as well as men, with a flaming stick of herb in their hands, taking
in its aromatic smell from time to time.'' Although Columbus continued
his voyage northward, de Torres preferred to stay in Cuba, where
he became the representative of the oyal Spanish government.
Heisler-Samuels writes that more Jews came to Cuba in 1516 during
the first years of Spanish rule, and the presence of conversos so
alarmed the Church that a bishop sent a letter to Madrid complaining
that "practically every ship docking in Havana is filled with Hebrews
and New Christians.''
She also reveals that Cubas national hero, Jose Marti, equated
Cuban suffering under Spanish rule with Jewish suffering at the
hands of Spain. His advisor was a Jew named Joseph Steinberg. He
and his brothers, Max and Edward, organized the fund-raising arm
of the Cuban revolution, giving Marti vital financing. Cubas first
president, Tomas Estrada Palma, appointed Joseph Steinberg "Captain
of the Army of Liberation.''
One of her chapter deals with the tragic voyage of the ill-fated
ship St. Louis, carrying hundreds of Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler,
which was refused entry by the Cuban government. After her parents
shipped her off to Miami in 1960, Heisler-Samuels studied journalism
at the University of Miami. She later took writing courses at Florida
International University. She now edits a monthly magazine Entre
Nosotros and will be speaking about her book at the Miami Book Fair.
Last week, she appeared on a panel as part of the Jewish Book Fair
sponsored by the David & Mary Alper Jewish Community Center.
"Out of four generations in my family, we have lived in four countries,
truly epitomizing the wandering Jew,'' Heisler-Samuels said. "Maybe
my new grandchild will be born here and break that cycle.''
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald