Havana (Nov. 15)
The “Hias” (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) has been active among the Jewish refugees of Havana for the past couple of years. During the last summer the work there was taken over by the “Jewish Committee for Cuba”, a body representing several large American Jewish organizations, including the “Hias”. The work among the immigrants of Havana, or among the refugees in Europe for that matter, has never been regarded as in the nature of pure philanthropy, but as something done by a great mutual aid organization of Jews, an organization helping those of its members who are temporarily in bad circumstances. Such a mutual aid organization is, or should be, the “Hias” founded and supported by immigrant Jews and kept up for the purpose of helping other immigrant Jews, not as charity wards, but as a proud group of men and women who for the time being cannot stand on their own legs economically.
The value of the “Hias” activity to the Havana Jews can be seen by merely noting the different sorts of work which the office there does. When a Havana immigrant decides that he would be better off by returning to his original country in Europe, the “Jewish Committee for Cuba” is ready to furnish him with the necessary steamer ticket. If he decides to remain there, the “Hias” furnishes him with free medical treatment; tries to obtain employment for him in the city or in other parts of Cuba; ministers to his spiritual needs through founding synagogues and clubs; establishes classes in Spanish so that he may learn the language of the country; indorses checks which he receives from relatives in the U. S. A. and which he, being a stranger in Havana, may have difficulty in cashing at a local bank; provides him with a meal if he is out of work and hungry; and helps him in many other smaller ways.
While I was in Havana, I heard much criticism and much ill-feeling expressed towards the “Hias” and its successor, the “Jewish Committee for Cuba”, particularly against its director, Mr. Monteser. The criticism came from local Jewish leaders and from the immigrants themselves. Some of the criticism I regarded as unjustified, especially when I was told that the local office was working under a very small budget, which must necessarily limit its activities considerably. There was also the usual criticism of extravagance-I was told, for instance, that the office had purchased furniture from the local Y. M. C. A. for $2,000, that this furniture was in a very bad, decrepit condition when it was bought and that now there is hardly anything left of it. It was claimed that a communal kitchen should have been established for the benefit of the immigrants. It was stated that when an immigrant comes to the office and complains that he is sick, he is told to come the next day for treatment. It was said that Mr. Monteser had refused an offer of cooperation and consultation made to him by a committee which had been chosen among the immigrants.
The last complaint shows perhaps the situation in Havana in a truer light than any of the others, although here, just as in the other indictments, Mr. Monteser need not necessarily be adjudged guilty. What it simply shows is that in its choice of Mr. Monteser as guide and “little father” to five thousand Jewish immigrants (for such is a “Hias” director considered among them), the “Jewish Committee” made a grave mistake. Mr. Monteser speaks no Yiddish, although the mother-tongue of every one of these immigrants is Yiddish.
The lot of the Havana immigrants is bad enough, but the fate of their brothers in the Ukraine and some other countries is still worse; very few of them are homeless and hungry to the extent that they must sleep in the Havana parks or forego eating for a whole day; practically all of them have a roof over their head and enough money for two meals a day. Yet what an air of despondency! I dare say that the attitude which the local office assumes towards the immigrants, that the fact that an attempt is made to suppress their manly and womanly pride and make them feel like beggars, that the misunderstanding which exists between the director and the immigrants is much to blame for the prevalence of this feeling.
The “Hias”, as I have said before, is a mutual aid organization, not a charity institution, and should never depart from this path. It could remedy the situation in Havana by engaging a director who should speak the language of the immigrants.