The Story of "Hotel Cuba," an original videotape
by Robert M. Levine

During the early 1980s, I met a young rabbi, Jeffrey K. Salkin, who had come to Miami as an assistant at Temple Israel. One day he told me that he had met in Miami Beach with a group of Cuban-Jewish teenagers, whom, he had been told, were undergoing identity problems, because the local Cubans rejected them because they were Jews and the local Jews rejected them because they were Cuban.

I met with them several times and, as it turned out, the story proved to be exaggerated. The kids were doing just fine. But then I asked them about their parents and grandparents--most of whom had come to Cuba in the 1920s or earlier from Eastern Europe, Turkey, or Morocco--they replied that they know almost nothing about their experiences on their adopted tropical island only 90 miles from Florida's shores.

Intrigued by their ignorance of their family's past, I asked them if they would like to help interview members of the Cuban- Jewish community in South Florida. I subsequently recruited other volunteers to start an oral history project about Cuba's Jewish community before 1959. Working with a colleague at Florida International University, Mark D. Szuchman, born in Havana to Polish-Jewish parents and educated at Brandeis and the University of Texas, Mark and I supervised an oral history project that recorded more than 100 interviews. Our interest was not only in the Jewish community itself, but the issues of acculturation and assimilation against the background of Cuban history with the Jewish community as a case study.

Mark and I are both scholars, and we know that community history usually comes up short unless it is analyzed in the broader historical context. For this reason, we interviewed non-Jewish Cubans also, including a former WWII-era Minister of Justice. Some people in the local Cuban- Jewish community did not like this, but we interviewed them anyway.

I personally extended the research to New York (using the files of HIAS, the AJC, and the YIVO Institute), Washington, D.C. (the National Archives and Library of Congress), London (the Foreign Records Office), Israel, Venezuela, and California, where a small group of Cuban Jews had settled. By this time I had been asked by the historian David Wyman to write a chapter on Cuba for his massive book The World Reacts to the Holocaust, ultimately published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1996.

But first Mark and I decided to use the interviews, as well as a collection of more than 3,000 slides I had taken of scenes from mostly inter-war Cuba. I also became very interested in the story of the ill-fated S.S. St. Louis, and travelled to Philadelphia to interview Rabbi Meyer Lasker, who served the Reform congregation in Havana during the war years and who acted as intermediary between the Jewish community, the FBI, and the Cuban government on refugee matters.

Back in Miami, Mark and I applied for and received a $2,250 grant from the Florida Endowment for the Humanities to make a videotaped documentary from the interviews and research. Because we had so little money, we could only interview on camera about a half-dozen persons, and we could not afford a professional narrator. We had live public-domain music performed for us by faculty and students from the University of Miami School of Music because we could not pay for copyright permission for recorded music. This was a documentary made on a shoestring!

When we approached the local PBS station to ask if the completed documentary might be aired, the request was rejected even before we could send a copy of the video, on the grounds that such a low-budget film could not be "broadcast-quality." That the PBS people might have helped us upgrade it was never considered by the officials to whom we spoke. Instead, the video was accepted by WLRN, a public access cable channel owned by the Dade County School Board. The good news is that on the day of the broadcast, the Miami Herald ran a full-page story, so that more people saw our video than any program in the history of WLRN. The bad news was that it was aired at 10 pm, and the engineer on duty apparently never bother once to preview it. The result was that the voice level was too low, and the music track, so painstakingly performed for us by volunteers, was inaudible. The color was bad, and the video's ending truncated by a public service announcement.

Worse, the reaction in South Florida was on the whole negative. Because we had interviewed mostly elderly Cuban Jews whose first decades on the island had been very harsh, and because we did not emphasize the post-WWII economic success of the community, many Cuban-Jewish viewers objected to the academic tone of the narration (Mark and I, after all, are professors of Latin American history) and to the fact that our script delved into such themes as the animosity between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, the lack of interest in helping the German- speaking refugees from Nazism who came after 1936, and the fact that some assimilated Jews, committed to Castro's revolution, stayed behind although the large majority of Cuba's Jews left after 1960.

Non-Jewish Cubans, as well, were irate, for different reasons. They objected to the script's hypothesis that the reason that Jews and other immigrants fared as well as they did was that Cuban society was corrupt but that outsiders were allowed to buy in--as long as they maintained their social distance. They objected to our references to the fact that the Big Five social clubs barred Jews (as did most of the posh country clubs in the U.S. at the time), and bridled at our allusions to prejudice in Cuba against blacks. Because we did not portray pre-1959 Cuba as a paradise, the documentary was castigated.

Some audiences, however, loved it. It was screened successfully to 200 people at a showing in New York sponsored by the Sephardic Foundation there. A copy of the film was taken to Israel, where it was supposed to have been dubbed into Hebrew. A copy was sent to the Patronato in Havana. Some family members of the elderly people we interviewed--many of whom have died since the video was released in 1986--have expressed their gratitude for telling the story. And although older audiences in the South Florida Cuban-Jewish community continue to react to the video with disdain, younger Cuban-Jewish-Americans invariably praise it. In 1996, "Hotel Cuba" was broadcast nationally on the Arts & Entertainment Network History Channel.

The documentary is not available for rent but may be purchased by organizations for $80. See [Videotapes page]. The interviews and photographs from the project have been donated to the University of Miami Richter Library, where they may be consulted without restriction.