In 1938, 12-year-old Esther Levin travels alone from Poland to the port of Havana to reunite with Abraham, the father she hasn’t seen for three years. Along the way, she compulsively writes letters to her younger sister Malka, whom she desperately misses. But not a single letter is sent.
Right from the start, there is something intriguing about the middle-grade book “Letters from Cuba.” As its title implies, it is an epistolary novel, inspired by author Ruth Behar‘s maternal grandmother’s story.
The real-life Esther Levin made the journey from Govorovo, Poland, to Cuba in the interwar period. Her father’s plan was to make enough money for passage for the rest of the family. The determined Esther managed to convince her parents to allow her, as the eldest child (but not son), to be the first to join her father.
In the novel, Behar fills in her family lore’s blanks as Esther writes Malka about everything that happens to her in her new home of Agramonte, a sugar-producing town in the Cuba’s rural, tropical interior where their father had moved three years earlier to try to make a living after losing his business in Poland.
Accustomed to living only among Yiddish-speaking Jews, Esther now finds herself among new neighbors of Spanish, African, and Chinese descent. They introduce her to their heritages, and she invites them to learn Jewish customs from her.
Esther excitedly tells Malka about discovering a talent she did not know she had. With the support of her father and kind Agramonte neighbors and Jewish merchants in Havana, she develops this talent (no spoilers!), thereby helping her father make more money — and more quickly — than he had as a peddler.
Esther saves her letters in diary-like fashion to give to her sister when she arrives. They help Esther process her new experiences, and give her hope that she will be reunited with Malka and the rest of her family before time runs out for Jews to escape Europe before World War II erupts.
In many ways, the fictional Esther Levin’s arc hews closely to Behar’s grandmother’s life. However, the author deliberately deviated from the facts for some key plot points.
Although the real Esther did indeed travel on her own to join her father in Cuba, she was older (around 16 or 17) at the time. In the book, Esther arrives in late 1938, as the Nazi Germany threat looms over Europe and Jews experience increased antisemitism. By contrast, Behar’s grandmother actually arrived in Cuba a decade earlier, in the late 1920s.
“It was important to me to set ‘Letters from Cuba’ in the late 1930s, because people make an automatic association between Jews, Cuba, and the MS St. Louis. I wanted to dispel some misconceptions,” Behar said.
The MS St. Louis was a German ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany that arrived at Havana Harbor on May 27, 1939. The Cuban government refused the passengers permission to disembark.
The US and Canada also refused to provide the Jews refuge, and as a result, the ship turned around and sailed back to Europe. Great Britain took in 288 passengers, but the rest returned to continental Europe, where the vast majority of them were murdered in the Holocaust.
In the book, the fictional Esther’s family arrives at Havana on one of only two ships that did make it through in 1939.
While many know about the MS St. Louis — infamous ship coined the “Voyage of the Damned” — fewer are aware that Cuba was generally more welcoming to Jews.
In 1924, the US enacted the Johnson-Reed Act, which severely limited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, among other parts of the world. As a result, many Eastern European Jews instead found their way to Cuba in the period between the two world wars. Jews from the US, Germany, Belgium and the former Ottoman Empire (Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Syria) also made the Caribbean island nation their home in the early part of the 20th century.
“By the late 1920s there were between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews in Cuba,” Behar said.
She wanted to deliberately make the point that a considerable number of Jewish immigrants and refugees were welcomed in Cuba. Behar’s grandmother’s entire extended family (aside from her grandmother Hannah, who chose to stay behind and was killed in the Holocaust) made it to Cuba by the mid-1930s.
Jews generally found safe haven and acceptance in multicultural Cuba. However, Behar conveys in the book that Nazism and antisemitism had even reached the faraway Caribbean by introducing a character who terrorizes Esther and her father in Agramonte.
Behar previously addressed the theme of immigration in her award-winning 2018 book, “Lucky Broken Girl.” Similarly aimed at readers ages 8-12, that novel was based on her own experiences moving as a young girl to the US from Cuba in the 1960s, following Fidel Castro’s ascent to power.
“My grandmother’s story seemed a natural place to go next,” said Behar.
A cultural anthropologist by training and trade, Behar told The Times of Israel in an interview from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that she had always wanted to write fiction, but had put it off for years. Her success with “Lucky Broken Girl” proved she had a knack for it, and encouraged her to tackle another narrative for young readers with a strong female protagonist.
An expert on Cuba, Behar has traveled to the island nation countless times over the last 30 years. She did, however, do some specific field research for “Letter from Cuba.” She visited Agramonte again in December 2018, wanting to understand the place better.
“I stayed with a local family for a few days in a humble house in the countryside. I met with local historians and elders, and visited the ruins of sugar plantations. I made sure to be there for the bembés [ceremonies of African dances of religious origins],” she said.
Behar also reflected on how Jewish residents of such remote towns adapted to their surroundings, yet managed to maintain their Jewish practice — a constant thread throughout “Letters to Cuba.”
By the end of the book, it is clear that within only a year, Esther, now fluent in Spanish, has adopted Cuba as her new home, and is looking only ahead.
Esther, like her real-life counterpart, eventually ends up in Havana, where she can be part of a larger Jewish community.
Behar’s grandmother Esther and grandfather Maximo moved to the capital in the mid-1940s after they won the lottery. The couple opened a lace shop in the capital. There they raised their children, including Behar’s mother.
“My parents’ generation felt totally Cuban, but at the same time enjoyed a Jewish community with all the institutions like Jewish schools, synagogues, a Jewish community center, and a cemetery,” she added.
Behar said she was certain that had the Revolution not occurred, her family and most of Cuba’s other 15,000 Jews would still be there. (The number of Jews remaining in Cuba today count in the hundreds, with many leaving for Israel and the US for better economic opportunities.)
“They were expecting to stay. They were happy there and found a peaceful life,” Behar said.
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