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History

The lesser-known fate of Jewish refugees in Cuba

Ursula Krechel's prize-winning novel "District Court" illuminates a previously little-known chapter in 20th-century history: The exile of Jewish refugees in Cuba. DW talked to Michael Zeuske, an expert on Latin America.

DW: It is estimated that around 75,000 German-Jews immigrated to Latin America between 1933 and 1945. The largest group went to Argentina. But Cuba was also a destination for refugees. What was Cuba like at that time? It was long before Fidel Castro!

Michael Zeuske: Back then, Cuban society was already very progressive, especially in the mid-Batista period. Fulgencio Batista came to the fore in the revolution of 1930-33, and was then - carefully formulated - the gravedigger of the revolution of which he was a part. From 1936, he was the one pulling the strings behind every president. It was a starkly Americanized, urban society that reflected American modernity - you can still see that today in Cuban cities. Until the mid-1960s, these cities were more modern than any German city.

From 1936-7, Batista then, with the anti-Hitler coalition, shifted to constitutional and socially relatively progressive positions. That meant, he involved the Communists, devised a new constitution, brought schools and medical care to the country, brought wage conflicts under control, there was an advanced workforce and middle-class in the cities. In addition there was even American modernity, probably the most modern of the modern, that existed in large cities outside of the USA.

How did people in Cuba deal with the immigrants from Germany?

Not especially well. It is very well described and reflected upon in Ursula Krechel's book. Cuba was an "adjacent territory," so to speak, an additional part of the USA. As such refugees believed that they would get preferential treatment for a visa for the United States if they moved to Cuba. And maybe people tried to use that. But later it became harder in two ways. Firstly, they tried to keep the masses, especially Jewish refugees from Germany, at bay. That was the problem with the ship "St. Louis," which was sent back.

Secondly, it was a very corrupt society, especially in the late-Batista phase at the end of the 1940s and then in the 1950s, and people - as is described in the book - had to pay a lot of money. Jewish refugees often chose Cuba because it was a waiting room for the USA and other places such as Mexico or Colombia. But there was a large number of Jewish émigrés for whom it wasn't just "Hotel Cuba" - there's a book about that with that very title - but who actually then settled there.

Ernest Hemingway and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro exchange pleasantries at seaside after Castro won the individual championship in the annual Hemingway Anglers Tournament on May 15, 1960. Castro caught five fish weighing 286 pounds to take the crown. Hemingway had a bad day failing to land any.

Fidel Castro und Ernest Hemingway exchange pleasantries after a fishing tournament

The case of the "St. Louis" was spectacular: It set sail from Hamburg for the US with over 900 Jewish refugees on board in the direction. It wasn't allowed to dock in Cuba. In the end, the ship was forced to return to Europe. Was there collaboration between the Cuban and Nazi authorities? Were Nazis a visible presence on the island?

I don't know if you could say that. I've researched the files on German-Cuban relations at the German Foreign Ministry. Of course there were negotiations. Batista tried to increase his room to maneuver with regards to the USA through deals with the German Reich. There were deals done on sugar deliveries. So, one can assume that there was contact or some sort of schemes.

It wasn't just persecuted Jews who fled to Cuba, but also refugees fleeing political persecution, communists for example. What kind of experience did they have?

Germans were first of all interned - and this is described very well in the book. That became even more extreme because of the situation in the USA, where there were blacklists. They were interned on the Isla de Pinos [editor's note: today the Isla de la Juventud], the second largest Cuban island. And then they would also be released, especially if they could pay money. Then they could live a normal life, to a certain extent, in Havana society.

So you have someone - like Krechel's protagonist Richard Kornitzer - a Berlin lawyer, threatened and persecuted by the Nazis, who arrives in a completely alien culture in Cuba.

Yes. Urban culture was heavily influenced by the Andalusia, Spain, even more so among freelance professionals. Cuba had always emphasized Spanish as a pillar of its culture. That's partly still true today, especially among middle-class professionals like lawyers. Then there was the Americanized part of society, relatively wealthy, with a high per-capita income, very technologically advanced with telephones, houses, cars, TVs, a high concentration of doctors - all American standards.

How is the fate of refugees from Nazi Germany in Cuba remembered?

First and foremost, it is the Ashkenazi Jews who joined the Communist Party and played a significant role there, who are remembered. Even today, they are distinguished from the Batista era, the era of dictatorship and corruption.

A German author writes a novel in which Batista-era Cuba plays a significant role - how do you feel about that?

I think it's amazing. And unusual. Naturally, we should know a lot about Cuba in Germany, that's in my own interest. But Cuba in the 20th century has an extremely interesting history, because its society is so heavily affected by trans-culturation. That is by European influences that combine with African influences, new forms of music, new forms of socialization, American modernity with Spanish roots, with émigrés, who as whites came into a society in which 70 percent of people were mixed-race or black, which was a very racist society - that doesn't really come through so strongly in the book, because it is situated in an urban, white, upper-middle class environment.

Historian Michael Zeuske

Michael Zeuske lived in Cuba with his family in the 1960s

You lived in Cuba with your family at the beginning of the 1960s, a year after the Cuban Crisis, the 50th anniversary of which is taking place as we speak. What personal memories do you have of Cuba?

It was extremely interesting. A society that had come directly out of a revolution, that was extremely euphoric and very much on a high from the revolution. With political leaders, who were very young back then, Fidel Castro was 33 years old, Che Guevara was still in office as a minister. Then I came from the postwar society of the German Democratic Republic, where, in contrast to Cuba, one had very different concepts in mind - of coldness, ruins, deprivation, the absence of southern fruits. And all of that could be found in Cuba. Until the middle of the 1960s, Cuba was still a fully functioning, American consumer society. And then a young man from East Germany arrived, lived there, went to school - it was simply exciting!

Fidel Castro has withdrawn from politics - will he remain a legendary figure of the 20th century?

I think so. It wouldn't be fair to just see him as a dictator. I don't need to defend him, however: Fidel Castro is one of the great figures of the 20th century. He led his country through a 50-year blockade by the USA. In the 1970s he was the leader of the non-aligned states, he led the southern hemisphere in conflicts with northern industrial countries and played an extremely important role worldwide.

Circa 1960: The Paseo de Marti (formerly Prado Boulevard), the dividing line between old and modern Havana.

The Paseo de Marti (formerly Prado Boulevard), the dividing line between old and modern Havana, circa 1960

Things are now beginning to change in Cuba. There is the possibility to travel. Do you see a danger that the country could fall back into the role of a US colony?

I would only see that danger if there was an abrupt change of regime. That's the biggest difficulty for Cuba anyway - to implement economic reforms and strengthen participation without the system collapsing. I don't think anyone would wish for that, even in the US. Because then there would be a wave of refugees and similar developments. From an internal Cuban perspective there's no real danger, because the reforms, comparable to Vietnam, have encouraged very dynamic development. I hope that President Raoul Castro holds out for another three to four years, so that the reforms can become well anchored.

Michael Zeuske is a professor of history in the department of Iberian and Latin American History at the University of Cologne. His latest book, "Kuba im 21. Jahrhundert. Revolution und Reform auf der Insel der Extreme" is published in German by Rotbuch.

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