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BOCA RATON, Fla. 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 business.

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 in Havana.''

``In 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.

They 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.

But 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 United States.

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