Behind the Headlines a Retrospective View of Jewish Emigration from Cuba
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Behind the Headlines a Retrospective View of Jewish Emigration from Cuba

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The story in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin of May 10 by David Friedman about the current resettlement of Cuban refugees in which HIAS is playing a key role brings to mind the original exodus from Cuba which took place in the early 1960s at the beginning of the Castro regime. At that time, during President Kennedy’s administration, resettlement assistance in the United States was under the supervision of Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Abraham Ribicoff.

HIAS, together with the non-Jewish refugee agencies, was requested to establish on office in Miami. Its activity was primarily concerned with assistance to Cuban Jews, who along with non-Jewish Cubans, were fleeing to the United States, as well as to certain Latin American countries, with some Jews also going to Israel.


At the beginning of the exodus, the Cubans fled by small boats, either directly to the United States or to some of the Caribbean Islands, just as is happening now. To avoid the serious risks involved. HIAS set up a network of offices in the Caribbean area, with the help of the leadership of the Jewish communities of Curacao, Jamaica, Mexico and Venezuela, and arranged for visas and transportation for thousands of Cuban Jews.

Gaynor Jacobson, then HIAS director for Latin America (now HIAS executive vice president), played a key role in these plans. Upon arrival in the transit countries, HIAS staff helped the refugees fulfill U.S. immigration requirements. Later, when an agreement was worked out between the Castro government and the United States for regular migration processing and transportation by Pan American Airlines directly to Florida, the Cuban Jews became part of this stream of migrants.

Of the 10,000 Cuban Jews living in that country when Castro come to power, approximately 7500 to 8000 were able to leave with the help of HIAS. Most came to the United States where they were assisted in their resettlement by the local Jewish communities, with a small subsidy from federal sources.


Castro was apparently puzzled as to why the Jews were leaving, and on one occasion, it is reliably reported that he asked the Israeli Ambassador why Jews felt it necessary to emigrate, since he had nothing whatsoever against them and would have been happy for them to use their talents to help develop the new Socialist regime.

It was only after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Castro followed the Soviet line of breaking relations with Israel, that he eventually become violently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. Even so, Castro has never interfered with the religious practices of the remaining small Jewish community.

There were two basic reasons for the Cuban Jews leaving that country. First, it should be remembered that a substantial part of the Cuban Jewish population consisted of Jews who had fled from the Nazis, by obtaining Cuban visas through one means or another, but with the primary hope of eventually coming to the U.S. Because of the restrictive U.S. immigration laws, they eventually had to settle down and adjust to the economic and social situation in Cuba, with help from the Joint Distribution Committee.

Secondly, as Castro changed his regime to a strict Communist society, the vast majority of Jewish families did not wish to live under such circumstances, and especially did not wish their children to be indoctrinated in the Communist oriented educational system.


The writer recalls meeting the 2000the Cuban Jewish refugee to be resettled by HIAS, upon arrival at the Miami Airport. This family consisted of a middle-aged couple and their young teenage daughter. When the father was questioned as to what happened to his family over the years, he stoically described how he and his wife had managed to escape from Nazi Europe, leaving behind all their possessions and fled to Cuba, and how, with the help of JDC, he established a small business in Havana to support his little family.

Because they were unwilling to live under the Communist regime, they had now abandoned everything once again to start a new life in the United States. All this was described in a calm, emotionless manner, until at the very end of the recital, he explained that after the Cuban customs officials secreted their baggage and their persons, at the very last minute, the officials took away his wrist-watch. Then he suddenly burst into tears.

It was as if he had mustered all his strength to face up to the hardships of this double emigration, but could not accept this last expression of human indignity.


There was, however, one material possession which the Castro regime could not take away from some of the Cuban Jews. Those, who for ideological reasons, had purchased State of Israel Bonds had only to identify themselves upon arrival in the United States or other free countries and their full rights to such bonds were immediately restored.

The proceeds helped them to re-establish their lives or could be kept as part of their savings. Thus, despite the fact that a majority of the Cuban Jews chose to come to the United States for understandable reasons, the existence of the State of Israel helped many to rebuild their lives in America and other free lands.


One final thought: as Cuban refugees poured into Florida during the 1960s, local government officials and many business and ethnic groups complained bitterly that this placed an unfair burden on southern Florida. Consequently, the federal government paused in massive aid for public schools, job placement and other social services.

However, within a few years, the Cuban refugees took over and rebuilt huge run-down sections of Miami, creating new jobs and prosperity, and helping Miami and Florida to become a flourishing Latin American economic and cultural center.

REMINDER: There will be no Daily News Bulletin dated May 26 due to Memorial Day, a postal holiday.

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