WRITER RECALLS LIFE GROWING UP IN CUBA
c.2000 Hearst Newspapers
Like many Cuban-Americans, Betty Heisler-Samuels winces at the mention
of Fidel Castro. ``Abominable'' is the word she uses to describe
Cuba's enigmatic dictator.
And like many Cuban-Americans, Heisler-Samuels arrived here in 1960
with next to nothing, went to school, worked hard and built a successful
But the similarities end there. Heisler-Samuels is Jewish, a minority
within a minority in the supercharged cauldron of Cuban-American
exile life in America. She remembers a homeland not only warm and
``seductive'' _ as she puts it _ but one that extended a welcome
to her mother and father who came from Lithuania and Poland before
World War II to escape anti-Semitism and Hitler.
``It was a wonderful place to grow up in,'' said Heisler-Samuels,
59, who has just authored a semi-fictional memoir ``Last Minyan
many ways it was like growing up in a small town in the '50s anywhere,''
she said. ``Everyone knew who you were and we felt very much at
home. It was a very protective environment.''
Cubans referred to the community of 15,000 Jews as ``Polacos'' _
people from Poland. It was a benign term and many Jews who escaped
the specter of Hitler and Nazism found in Cuba a place to flourish.
For Heisler-Samuels, that world came crashing down in October 1960,
more than a year after Castro seized power. As he lurched inexorably
toward Communism and the Soviet bloc, Castro sent green-fatigued
troops to El Encanto, the Havana department store where she worked.
seized the store in the name of the government. Fellow employees
warned her to start wearing olive drab and join the union or face
a blacklist. Within days, Heisler-Samuels, then 19, was on a plane
to Miami. Her mother and father, who lost a lingerie factory to
Castro's regime, soon followed _ as did thousands of others.
Abrupt departure proved to be a wrenching experience for all fleeing
Cubans, but arguably less so for Jewish Cubans who had planted roots
on Cuban soil relatively recently. ``They were the first to leave
Cuba because they already had the experience of (escaping) Europe,''
said Rachel Lapidot, director of international division of the Greater
Miami Jewish Federation.
``They understood immediately before the others that they had to
leave right away.'' Now, more than 40 years after the revolution,
many Cuban-American Jews have reached the top-rung on the ladder
of success here in South Florida and in other places around the
nation, particularly New York, New Jersey and Texas.
George Feldenkreis, who arrived in Miami with a pregnant wife, a
one-year-old and $700 in his pocket, is now chairman and CEO of
Perry Ellis International Inc., the fashion giant with annual sales
in excess of $250 million.
Rafael Kravec in 1998 stepped down as CEO of French Fragrances Inc.,
which just acquired the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics line. Heisler-Samuels
is the publisher of a magazine, Entre Nosotros (``Between Us''),
aimed at Spanish-speaking Jews in the United States and Latin America.
there are other stories of Cuban-American Jews that are decidedly
less upbeat. Bernardo Benes, a Jewish Cuban-American who was a successful
Miami banker and businessman in the 1970s, traveled to Havana in
1978 to meet with Castro in an effort to ease tensions with the
He won the freedom of 3,600 political prisoners, earning him celebrity
status and a new moniker: ``The Cuban Henry Kissinger.''
But the Cuban-American community's leadership castigated Benes as
a traitor for sitting down with Castro. Anti-Castro radio stations
in Miami turned disapproval of Benes into a popular cause. Suddenly
his phone calls were not returned, Benes said. The business friends
and contacts he depended on dried up.
As a result, he resigned his bank position and became an outcast
in the Cuban-American community. ``The social pressure was brutal,''
Benes said. ``It still is.''
According to Robert Levine, director of the Center for Latin-American
Studies at the University of Miami, many Jewish Cuban Americans
came to view Benes as personifying what could happen to them if
they deviated from the leadership's anti-Castro hard line. ``The
fear is palpable,'' said Levine, who is completing a book on Benes.
``They don't talk about it, but the lesson is if someone calls someone
else a Communist, you stay out of it.''
Levine says the phenomenon amounts to ``McCarthyism.''
Some Cuban-American Jews whose opinions differ from those of the
conservative Cuban-American leadership said they had misgivings
about airing their views in public. ``I have to be extremely careful,''
said one prominent business executive, who supports lifting the
40-year-old trade embargo on Cuba and who asked not to be identified.
Heisler-Samuels is willing to publicly disagree with conservative
Cuban-American leaders, especially on the issue of trade with Cuba.
She has traveled to Cuba three times, visiting old schools, synagogues
and other landmarks of her youth.
Heisler-Samuels favors lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba
not out of any sympathy for Castro, but rather because she believes
it hasn't worked. ``Trying something new may make things better,''
she said. ``People can't see CNN in Cuba, only government propaganda.
They are living in a bubble. Without the embargo, Cubans could see
how the free enterprise system works everywhere else.''
Cuba was little more than a bus stop for many Cuban Jews whose ancestors
had arrived from Europe. But Heisler-Samuels says she feels ``more
Cuban now than when I lived in Cuba. Only now, looking back with
nostalgia, do we realize what Cuba has meant to us.''
Dan Freedman can be reached at 202-298-6920
or at the e-mail address email@example.com