Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

Miamian's book recalls life of Jews in Cuba

By Hindi Diamond

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 Judaism.

"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 and grew.

"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 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 survive.

"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