A Kaddish in Havana

Under a blinding Havana sun on March 14, 2024, two dozen or so tourists, Americans and two Australians, along with their Cuban tour guide, recited kaddish, calling to memory Bella Terner (in Yiddish, Beyla), a Polish Jewish woman who arrived there in the mid-1930s. The custodian of the Jewish cemetery, neither a Jew nor an English speaker, identified her burial place in the cemetery’s thick record book, made up of columns of handwritten entries, in alphabetical order. Our group, a Jewish humanitarian mission to the island, followed him to the plot of land where Bella lay buried.  

I was one of those reciting Kaddish. I had come to Cuba long fascinated with it and in search of Bella, and was overwhelmed with emotion when I saw her name, hewn in Hebrew on the substantial tombstone, engraved with the date of her death in 1978. Also in Hebrew were the words, an “honest and decent woman.” 

I have no idea who had paid for the marker or who chose those words. 

It seems unlikely that any Jew still living in Havana could have had contact with Bella, born in 1905 in a town, Ustile, then part of the Russian Empire— a town where Igor Stravinsky had a home. She and her husband moved to Cuba in the early 1930s in search of economic opportunity.

Since her death at the end of the 1970s , the Jewish population of Cuba dwindled dramatically. At its  height in the 1940s the population was almost 25,000. It was no more than 1,000 in the early twenty-first century. Jews, like other white and affluent Cubans fled the revolution of 1959, fearing for their position under a Marxist regime. Waves of Jews left in subsequent decades, mostly for Miami and Israel, leaving an ever-shrinking Jewish community, including Bella and her husband Jaime –Hayim.  

They refused to leave, declaring Cuba their home and its people their neighbors and friends. Maybe they had chosen Cubain the first place because Hayim had relatives there already. The tombstones of multiple Terners can be seen in the cemetery.  They may have opted for Cuba because of restrictions on immigration to the United States following passage of the 1924 National Origins Act. Arriving with little, they became owners of a workshop that produced tourist goods, castanets, maracas, drums, purses, wallets, belts and other items emblazoned with the words “Cuba” and “Havana.” 

But none of the visitors that broiling day in March, 2024 knew any of this, except for me and my daughter Shira who accompanied me. 

Bella was my aunt. I came on this trip partly to find her grave and reconnect with my family history. Find her I did, and surprised myself with the deep emotion that overwhelmed me. 

Bella had stoked my childhood imagination. I never met her, but every Hanukkah, my sister and I received a package from her, marked with a Havana address: Calle Luz, in the heart of today’s historic district. From inside the brown paper wrapper we pulled out products from her factory. I swaggered around with my alligator purses; they had little heads and beady eyes on the clasps. 

A stream of her letters arrived for my mother with colorful stamps and Spanish words. Now and then, she wrote some sentences in Yiddish to me and my sister. I often scribbled back my own.  

Her letters and the presents filled me with a fascination for Cuba. When I heard it mentioned on the news, my ears perked up. A devoted fan of “I Love Lucy,” I had a crush on the fictional Ricky Ricardo, portrayed by Desi Arnez, who performed with his Cuban band.   

This story begins in the 1930s in Ustile, an eastern Galician town. As a young woman, Bella would have experienced the war, occupation by both Russian and German armies, the creation of the Second Polish Republic, and the economic stress of the new nation in the 1920s followed by the devastation of the worldwide depression starting in 1929. 

Her parents, Benjamin and Haya Eichenbaum, were business Jews, both modern and religiously observant. They traded in fabrics, beer, and dairy products. They lived well with their four children, Ita, who would become my stepmother, then Bella, Brandel who brought Cuba into our Wisconsin home when she came to Milwaukee in 1960, and a brother Fischel –Ephraim—who, like his parents, perished in the Holocaust. Bella married Hayim Terner, who from the stories, could not get a toe-hold in the new troubled economy of Poland. The couple, who had no children, moved to Cuba to improve their lot.

Their expectations for a good life came to fruition, benefitting from the tourist trade streaming to Havana from the United States. They participated in Jewish life in Havana. Hayim’s name appears on a plaque, still mounted in the Patronato, the Ashkenazi synagogue, as a major funder. She belonged to Cuban WIZO, the women’s Zionist organization, as well as a local Yiddish theater. According to my mother, she contributed articles to Havaner Lebn, a Yiddish magazine, “Havana life.” Bella wrote an essay for the yizker book which memorialized Ustile, published by a world-wide committee of people from that town in the early 1960s.  (I used details from her reminiscence for my book of 2001, Hungering for America. In her piece she described Sabbath foods and food practices in her childhood home.) 

The young family in Ustile

Shortly after she settled down in Cuba, Ustile was brutally destroyed. The rest of the family had stayed put and found themselves vulnerable to the German onslaught which began for them on the morning of June 22, 1941 when Germany launched a powerful bombardment of the town, and within hours captured it. As they did elsewhere, the Germans transferred the Jews to a ghetto and impressed them into slave labor.  At various times, the German occupying army herded Jewish youth, maybe Fishel among them, to a ravine near the Jewish cemetery, and shot them all. And in the fall of 1942, they shipped the remaining Ustile Jews to the larger ghetto in Volodymyr, the city that Ita called Ludmir. In a few short weeks, they took most of the still surviving Ustile Jews, along with those from several neighboring villages, to pits, forcing them to dig their own mass grave, and shot them all. 

Not all. Despite enduring what the French memoirist, Father Patrick Desboils called, “Holocaust by bullets,” in the region historian Timothy Snyder labelled “the bloodlands,” Brandel and Ita survived in hiding, sheltered by a local Pole, possibly someone who knew them from before. Ita always described that period as a time when they lived in a grob, a pit, eating the scraps of food left out by their Polish rescuer. Years later, when I suggested that she submit his name to Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentiles, she spat out that he was a pig, a hazir. She offered no details but I assume he exacted sexual favors in payment of their safety. 

Upon liberation they made their way to a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, and then, via Paris to Havana, to live with Bella. Of those years I know nothing except that a Ustile townsman, Howard Weinshel who had moved to Milwaukee in 1922 commented in his autobiography, A Twentieth Century American Journey, that sometime in the late 1940s he visited Cuba and dropped in on Bella. Ita and Brandel ran away and hid in their bedroom when he showed up. They were so traumatized from their wartime ordeal, they did not want to meet anyone, even an old friend from back home. 

Ita would reunite with Howard shortly thereafter. In 1950 she left Cuba. Knowing Ita as I would sadly come to do, she no doubt had some terrible fights with Bella and more likely than not, spewed forth tirades of ugly and harsh words. As I experienced life with Ita, she expressed resentment against any Jews who had been removed from the horrors she had faced.

 Ita came to Milwaukee on a six-month visa, where she was set up with father, Moshe –Morris—Schwartzman. My mother, Esther, had recently died. Ruth Orenstein, Howard’s sister, made a match between him, a single parent of two children, (me, 3 years old, and my sister, 5) and Ita, a stateless person in danger of being deported. Marrying an American citizen offered her a chance to stay in the United States. And presumably my father found it hard to cope with being a sole caregiver and grieving widower. The two agreed on this decidedly non-love match. 

Theirs would be a bitter and unhappy marriage. But despite the difficulties and stress, the yelling and silences, the absence of fun and affection, I perked up at the chance to learn about Cuba. The letters from Bella, the trinkets on which the word “Havana” appeared along with drawings of palm trees, drew me into a romance of a far-away place. I imagined Bella as far nicer than Ita. She had to be kind and generous because she sent me gifts. 

My Cuban exposure deepened in 1960 when Brandel came to Milwaukee. We went to the train station to meet her. I had a mental image of Carmen Miranda, a basket of fruit on her head. She was not obviously at all like that, but rather a Jewish lady in her 50s who wore a gray coat. 

Fantasies aside, Brandel had much to say about Cuba. While she decided not to live under a Communist government, she described the rampant poverty of Bautista’s Cuba. And she taught me Spanish words and phrases, further wrapping me into the Cuban story. 

Over that decade Cuba continued to be in my thoughts, what with the news of the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro’s flamboyant appearance at the United Nations, and then the missile crisis, which seemed to us high school students the prologue to our imminent nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union. Like many of my leftist friends at the University of Wisconsin, I carried around for a while Regis Debray’s, Revolution in a Revolution, a book extolling Che Guevara, and I even toyed for a brief moment with the thought of going to Cuba with the Venceramos Brigade to cut sugar cane.  

In the course of all this Ita kept urging Bella to leave Cuba for either the United States or Israel. Bella refused, steadfast to the end. The people she lived among, both from the Jewish community and her non-Jewish neighbors she said were her friends. They supported her after Hayim-Jaime died in the early 1970s.  I never got the sense that she harbored any well-defined political views, but rather she had come to Cuba, made a home, and made peace with the new order.

She shared in her letters details of food shortages, results of the harsh United States embargo. Because she and my mother corresponded only in Yiddish, her letters may have evaded censorship, or possibly, the censorship may have been more an American myth than a lived reality. Either way, in one letter she told of the difficulty getting matzah during Passover and in another she dropped into her Yiddish prose, a biblical Hebrew phrase, “va yehi ra’av ba-aretz,” or, “there was a famine in the land.” She reported that the government had nationalized the factory. 

After her death in 1978 those same neighbors, presumably all non-Jewish, went through her apartment, collected her valuables, diamonds, gold, pieces of jewelry with precious stones, and watches. In the 1980s they put Bella’s belongings into the hands of a lawyer in Israel who then sent them to Ita. 

So after decades of fantasizing about such a trip, I went to Cuba in March, 2024. I found myself in the synagogue and saw the large bronze tablet in the lobby with the names of the donors, including Jaime Terner. I went into the social hall in the basement where I stood on a platform with a piano on it, recognizing it as the same spot on which Bella stood, as chronicled in a photograph I have. She stands poised in front of a microphone, either singing or declaiming. I sat on a bench in the synagogue during a Friday night service and found myself, a cynic to the core, moved to tears thinking that Bella might have sat there, welcoming the Sabbath as I did.  

And I stood with my fellow tourists in that hot cemetery, all gathered around the grave of someone who probably had never had kaddish recited for her over the course of the many years since her death. We all picked up stones to place them on her grave to tell her, and anyone who might pass by, that she had been remembered.  

I think of her not just as the source of my wallets and maracas, but as a hero of the revolution, someone who stayed when so many of her peers left. I felt her as someone who came as an immigrant to a new land, prospered, helped build a community, and remained, despite everything.