The organized Jewish community in Cuba lasted about 50 years during the first half of the 20th century and was composed of three essentially separate groups, the North Americans, the Sephardim and the European Ashkenazim. Together they built a vibrant Jewish community that grew from a parlor meeting of 11 North American Jews in 1906 founding the first synagogue in Cuba, the United Hebrew Congregation, to an extensive network of schools and synagogues throughout the country. During the years between 1906 and 1959, the number of North American Jews residing in Cuba never exceeded 300, representing 70 families. Their presence in Cuba, even though small in number, was a significant one, given their financial and political resources.
[This article first appeared in AVOTAYNU Volume XXII, Number 1, Spring 2006]
In 1959, after the Castro Revolution, all this came to an abrupt end. Today fewer than 2,500 Jews remain in Cuba. More than 10,000 Jews left, most resettling in the Miami Beach, Florida, area, where they re-established their specifically Cuban infrastructure and rebuilt their business fortunes. Many, originally from Europe, had been denied entry to the United States before World War II. As “Cuban refugees” fleeing a Communist Cuba, they now found the haven in the United States they previously were denied.
My grandparents were part of the North American group. In tracing their history, I learned about the Jewish history in Cuba and found resources for tracing it.
Jews began to settle on the island not long after Cuba gained independence from Spain, starting with the United States occupation of 1902–09. Primarily Turkish and Syrian Sephardim arrived first. They viewed their migration to Cuba as permanent and sought to establish roots in their new home as quickly as possible.
Large-scale Ashkenazi immigration began in 1920 when thousands of Eastern European Jews started to arrive in Cuba. Initially Cuba was only a transit point on the way to the United States. Most of the immigrants, who arrived between 1920 and 1923, had left Cuba by 1925. Before 1924 many new arrivals emigrated to the United States within a few months of landing in Cuba. Steamship companies, faced with loss of steerage-class revenue, began to publicize in the European Yiddish-language press Cuba’s lack of immigration laws and Cuban officials’ practice of permitting anyone disembarking in Havana to remain. Because U.S. immigration laws did not restrict immigration from Latin America, persons remaining in transit in Cuba could re-emigrate to the United States after a year’s stay. A total of 24,000 Jews, the equivalent of about five percent of the U.S. Jewish population, had passed through Cuba by the end of 1924. Yiddish speakers among them called the island Akhsanie Kuba (Hotel Cuba), considering it a temporary home until they could enter the United States, only 90 miles away.
Although the Sephardim never established lasting relations with the American Ashkenazim in Cuba, they did blend to some extent with the developing Eastern European Ashkenazi community of the 1920s.
In the years my grandparents lived in Cuba (1928–38), the North American Jewish community effectively remained a United States enclave. Many North American Jews saw Cuba as a site of temporary settlement and intended to commute between Cuba and the United States after setting up small factories, retail stores and import-export firms on the island. In the years before World War II, the lives of the small community of English-speaking American Jews paralleled those of other members of the rather large foreign colony of businessmen, entrepreneurs and administrators from the United States, Canada and Europe. As an exporter of agricultural products and a tourist playground, Cuba was a colonial dependency run by an elite, partially Cuban and partially foreign. The American Jews fit comfortably into this elite. They often sent their children to schools in the United States. In Havana their children attended the Ruston Academy. They traveled back and forth with ease.
In the years leading up to World War II, the three Cuban Jewish communities lived largely separate lives, both institutionally and socially, in part because of cultural and linguistic differences. The North American’s common language was English; Sephardim spoke Ladino; and the European Ashkenazim’s mother tongue was Yiddish. In contrast to the wealthy and sophisticated North American Jews whose settlement in Cuba was motivated primarily by business interests, the other Jews arrived in Cuba as poor immigrants with uncertain futures.
At the start of the 1920s, conditions in the non-North American Jewish colony were fluid, with almost all seeking temporary jobs to earn money for food and lodging before emigrating to their intended destination, the United States. Jewish immigrants were left with the choice of either working in Jewish enterprises or engaging in independent trade. Peddling represented the line of least resistance and offered a way of getting into trade. Seeking jobs in a totally alien milieu, the new arrivals also turned to Jewish enterprises. North American Jews, some East European Jews and a handful of Sephardim started workshops and small factories that eventually revolutionized the production of cheap clothing. Among these immigrants, shoemakers were most numerous, with the tailors second. There were also carpenters, painters and other artisans.
Incorporation of Jews into the Cuban economy produced important change. Prior to their arrival on the island, industry and trade had been held mainly in the hands of Spaniards. Competition was insignificant, and consumers, having no choice, were compelled to pay high prices. Merchants saw no challenge to their comfortable and lucrative existence. But the arrival of ambitious young men content with small profits enabling them to build up their own existence shook the assured position of many a merchant. New articles made their appearance on the market and sold at cheaper prices than those previously imported. Even the prices of imported articles were reduced. The former trade leaders had to find ways and means to keep pace with the new developments. The young immigrants proved themselves shrewd competitors. After a comparatively short time, they succeeded in gaining a foothold even in Havana’s main trade thoroughfares, Bernaza and Muralla Streets. Many of the wealthy Jewish businessmen, who came to own the largest stores on Muralla and Bernaza Streets, began their careers peddling cheap wares such as Eskimo ice cream pies, neckties and underwear.
In 1924, thousands of immigrants suddenly found themselves compelled to stay in Cuba. In that year, the U.S. Congress enacted a new Immigration and Naturalization Act, stiffening U. S.immigration laws and closing the Cuban loophole. Thousands continued to arrive in Cuba. Jews who had hoped to live in the United States now found that they had to remain in Latin America permanently. Some in Cuba emigrated to other Latin American countries. Some entered the United States illegally or by marrying United States citizens. The rest chose to make their America in Cuba. In 1925, about 5,200 Ashkenazi, 2,700 Sephardim and approximately 100 North American Jews lived in Cuba.
Immigrants from Eastern Europe who remained in Cuba proved adaptable. Some became successful businessmen in no way inferior to the English-speaking North American Jews. Yet real understanding between the two communities was lacking. The European newcomers had gone through World War I, German occupation and the Russian revolution. To them Jewry was a nationality with its own language (Yiddish) and culture. The Americans were spared by World War I and postwar developments; they tended to perceive Jewry as a religion. The former were dynamic, inspired by (perhaps fanciful) plans for the transformation of the world and of the Jewish people; the latter were conservative with little tolerance for Jewish political activism. The former were eager to solve world problems; they were noisy and dissatisfied. The latter were preoccupied with their flourishing businesses and preferred calm reasonableness and respectability.
North American Jews in Havana were prone to go slow politically, while the younger immigrants from Europe knew no bounds. The North American Jews preferred to avoid the light of publicity and believed in personal contact with influential Cubans, rather than in noisy demonstrations. This resembled the pattern for relations in the United States between the established early 19th-century North American Jewish communities and the arriving Russian Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century.
A leading member of the United Hebrew Congregation contended that relief work for the benefit of the immigrants made extreme restraint and the greatest possible modesty in behavior imperative. In 1937, when plans for a public protest rally against anti-Semitic violence in Poland were under discussion, he opposed the demonstration and wished to confine the protest to the adoption of a resolution. Thus, he maintained, the impression would disappear that Jews were fostering disorder in Cuban public and economic life. The East European Jews, he complained, would not appreciate this viewpoint. The demonstration was held.
Tracing the Epsteins in Cuba
I had always known that my mother’s Epstein family had lived in Havana, that she had gone to an American high school, had commuted part of the way to school by boat and that her father’s company made underwear. But, I knew little else. My mother had long since died before I began my research. As I was to learn, her family was typical of the American Jews in Cuba.
Fortunately, a cousin had a photocopy (clue #1) of an article that had appeared in an English-language Cuban newspaper, The Havana Post, some time in the late 1920s prior to the Epsteins relocation to Cuba:
American Firm to Manufacture Products Here; Aetna Knitted Fabrics Company Will Establish Plant in Guanabacoa. Samuel Epstein, member of the Aetna Knitted Fabrics Company 446 Broome Street, New York, now is in this city completing plans for the occupying of the premises rented by them near Havana. This factory is located in Guanabacoa, and Mr. Epstein is expecting the arrival of some $75,000 worth of machinery this week. This firm, which is a large and important one with branch factories in Mexico City, Toronto, Canada, and Sydney Australia, will start the manufacturing of men’s and ladies’ underwear, shawls and scarfs [sic]. They also will weave the cloth on some special machines that they are bringing down for the purpose.
Mr. Epstein stated that they planned to be able to give work to some 200 Cuban girls and men in their new factory, and they have located in Guanabacoa on account of its proximity to Havana and the facilities they have there for securing the help they need.
Mr. Epstein and Mr. Beers, of Beers & Company [a Havana realty company founded in 1906 that handled both residential and commercial properties] called upon the mayor of Guanabacoa, and he assured them of all the help and encouragement in his power, including several years free of taxation, with the promise that the majority of his help would be Cuban people, whom Mr. Epstein assured him would be employed. They expect to have the factory under way and working about the middle of October. Mr. Epstein’s brother and two sons are joining him this week and every effort will be made to get the plant going with as little delay as possible.
So my grandfather, Samuel, and a brother were in Cuba together.
In addition, my brother had a playbill (clue #2) from the Ruston Academy in Havana that listed my mother as one of the students helping with the scenery. With these two clues and an old partial family tree, I started to unravel the entire story. I connected with several Epstein relatives all over the world and came to a better understanding of what Cuba was like for Jews during the pre-Castro era.
Here is how I did it and some of what I found. The New York City Archives has the incorporation certificates for many businesses, including that of my own family. In the 1910s and 1920s, before relocating to Havana, Samuel Epstein and his brother, Philip, were in business together in New York City. A 1924 County of New York business certificate gives Aetna Knitted Fabrics partners as Samuel and his brother Philip Epstein. They also were in business earlier as the Aetna Yarn Company.
I wrote e-mails to trade associations in Mexico City, Toronto and Sydney, asking about a company called Aetna, but learned nothing. Next I tried another path in Toronto. From an old handwritten partial family tree, I knew that one of my grandfather’s nieces had relocated to Toronto after 1920. According to the 1920 U.S. census, her husband Ben Gitter had been in the hat business in New York City. The Toronto Public Library will answer up to three simple research questions a day at no cost. In spring 2004, I asked, “Starting in 1920, is there a so-and-so in the Toronto City Directory?” For several successive days I asked this question (three years at a time), always getting positive responses. A Ben Gitter was still in Toronto. Then after of few days of such inquiry I learned that he was now in business again (clue #3) and that his business, Majestic Laces, had existed until the 1960s.
The library said that was the only information they would provide for free, so I returned to the Internet. I tried business telephone listings for hats in Toronto. No luck. I tried again searching for millinery businesses and found the names of two companies. Neither had the name I was seeking, but I called one of them just the same. The receptionist volunteered that her firm had been in business for more than 50 years, and possibly someone there might know of my company. I faxed them what I knew. That very afternoon, I received an e-mail with clue #4—the current name of the company and its website URL. Back to the Internet. The website said the president had the family cousin’s name. I immediately called him at work.
Success! He was indeed my relative. There is a large Epstein presence in Toronto, and, best of all, he told me that he planned to visit Boston, where I live, the next week. One week later my relative from Toronto arrived. He brought a valuable gift. My cousin had made a new videotape interview of his Toronto family telling about their early days and about the family businesses.
This is some of what I now learned: The family’s worldwide businesses started from Hub Knitting Mills, incorporated in 1916 by my grandfather’s elder brother James Epstein and his son, Morris Epstein. Hub Knitting Mills operating in New York did business with Canadian manufacturers, which were slow to pay their bills. Morris went to Toronto to collect the money owed his father. Morris saw that there was a large, excellent and untapped opportunity for knitted fabrics manufacturing. He convinced his father to back him, and they created Ontario Silknit. James closed Hub Knitting Mills, transferring equipment to Toronto, and retired. Ontario Silknit became the first of a worldwide network of family-owned and operated knitted goods manufacturers. By 1925, Morris had relocated his family permanently to Toronto. In 2005, the family is still there.
Clue #5. The family worldwide business name was Silknit, not Aetna. What could I learn about the Cuban operations? Well, maybe my grandfather or his brother Philip needed passports. Although travel between Cuba and New York in those days did not require a passport, maybe….
Clue #6. I located no passport application for Sam, but did find one for Philip. By the date it was made, the U.S. State Department was the keeper of these archival records. After payment of a $45 fee, they sent me a copy of the application. What a copy—a 50-page file on Philip! The file explained in detail that as a naturalized citizen, Philip Epstein needed permission from the United States Consul in Havana to remain in Cuba after November 1933. He had been in Cuba since 1928. According to a 1907 United States naturalization law then in effect, naturalized citizens could not reside continuously for more than five years outside the United States without risk of losing their citizenship (called expatriation) unless a State Department officer waived the requirement. The law stipulated the conditions. Philip and the United States consul in Havana had difficulty in agreeing to a waiver. For this reason Philip’s case caused a significant amount of correspondence, which is still on file at the State Department office. Philip wanted to sell his business share to a buyer outside the family. In 1933 a revolution was waging against the Machado dictatorship. Philip needed extra time to sell his business shares.
Initially refused, an extension eventually was granted. In the file, supporting the extension were letters—most importantly the clue of clues, a letter on my grandfather’s company stationery to the U.S. consul. My Uncle Saul was company president and Philip Epstein’s son was treasurer. Moreover, the family company was incorporated in Cuba under the name Sedanita de Cuba, S. A. not Aetna (Seda, Spanish for silk, and the Spanish nita ending which sounds like knit). I saw the addresses where Philip lived; the factory was located to the east of Havana across the bay in Guanabacoa.
This started me on a reading spree to find out more about the Cuba of my family. Early in March 2005, I visited the Cuban-American Synagogue in Miami Beach. They had sponsored a 1996 book by Margalit Bejarano based on her doctoral thesis. In Spanish, it contains a wealth of oral histories. Several of the people interviewed attended Ruston Academy and were close in age to my mother (younger) and most importantly, still alive.
Again back to the Internet.
Clue #7: One of the persons interviewed, Jim Knopke, was living in Miami Beach. Margalit Bejarano’s book mentions that he went to Ruston Academy and in 1996 he was still living in Miami. Using Internet white pages, I found his telephone number and called Jim.
He vaguely remembered a Jeanne Epstein, “Did she have red hair?” My mother had auburn hair when she was young. He was the first person I ever knew who had known my mother as a kid! Unfortunately he did not remember Sedanita (he was in the sugar business), but he put me in touch with another Jewish Cuban expatriate living in Houston, Texas, who might know something.
I called. “Yes, I know the name.” She asked, “Do you know the Brandon family?”
She suggested, “Try contacting my Brandon classmate living in Florida. The Brandons owned Sedanita.”
Final and Confirming Clues
Earl Brandon in Florida was born in 1918 in New York City and moved to Havana in 1924. Brandon’s elder brother David, born in 1907, was a squash buddy of my Uncle Saul (also born in 1907). When he lived in Havana, my uncle, like my mother, was a redhead. His nickname was Eppy. Brandon recalls them both.
I cannot confirm my grandfather’s original business plans. The Epstein family’s Silknit business model means it is probable that my grandfather would have remained in Cuba indefinitely had he not become so seriously ill that he was forced to sell his business interests and return permanently to New York in 1935 or 1936. My grandfather died a few years after his return. His son, my Uncle Saul, apparently remained in Havana in the business until 1938.
When my grandparents returned to the United States, Sedanita was sold to the Brandon family. My wife and I visited Brandon in May 2005. Brandon showed us his family tree and accompanying memoir written by his father. In the memoir his father wrote:
The chairman of D. I. Stern, New York City financier, helped Brandons take over a going underwear knitting plant in Guanabacoa called Sedanita de Cuba, the proprietors being various members of the Eppstein [sic] family. This business held forth excellent possibilities. Mike [Brandon] was given charge of Sedanita in which he invested a nominal sum which multiplied handsomely when he needed it.
Brandon is the anglicized version of the Portuguese surname Brandao. The Brandons and their Maduro cousins are linked to Sephardic families with the same name throughout the Caribbean. Originally from Portugal, they escaped the Inquisition to safety in northern Europe and later to the New World. The Maduros came to the Americas from Holland; the Brandons came from England. The Brandon or Brandao family name has figured prominently in the annals of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry in Amsterdam, Curacao, Jamaica, London and Panama.
David Henry Brandon was born on September 26, 1855, in Philadelphia and died on August 10, 1903, in Panama City, Panama. In 1879, he married Judith Maduro, daughter of Solomon Maduro and Esther Piza Maduro in Panama City, Panama. Judith Maduro Brandon was born August 9, 1862, in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and died on March 1, 1940, in Havana.
After the death of David Henry Brandon and the marriages of his eldest daughter and eldest son, his widow moved to New York City with her 10 younger children to live close to her late husband’s relatives. Ellis Island records for the Brandon family, dated May 30, 1906, list Judith Maduro Brandon (widow, age 43) and several children en route to her brother-in-law Isaac Brandon’s residence in Manhattan. Because she was born in St. Thomas, Judith Brandon’s nationality is listed as Danish. Her family had lived in the Virgin Islands for many years before her marriage. Although the children all were listed as Panamanian citizens, they were entitled to United States citizenship because their father had been born in Philadelphia. In the 1700 and 1800s, many Brandons had moved about the Caribbean—to Barbados, Curacao and Jamaica—and to cities in the United States (Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia). In later years, many of David Henry Brandon’s sons carefully ensured that their children would be U.S. citizens by residing for a time in the United States, particularly at the time their children were born.
The Brandon’s Cuban connection began in the 1920s with Earl’s father, Jacob, son of David and Judith Brandon. Jacob suggested to this brothers that Cuba offered good business opportunities. They agreed and moved to the island where the family prospered. The Brandon brothers created a holding company called Standard Mills of Cuba. Many of the Cuban businesses of this period were based on family connections, which meant reliable partners in other cities and countries. Among the four textile plants owned by the Brandon family were Robrand, Sedanita, Textilera Corona, and General de Tejidos. Stockholders included family members and Cuban nationals.
They purchased Sedanita from the Epstein family sometime after 1933. After Brandon’s uncles purchased Sedanita, they moved the factory to the small town of San Jose de las Lajas, 17 miles southeast of Havana. The town is a commercial center in the dairying and sugar-growing region. Initially, Mike Brandon managed Sedanita. The Sedanita name was still in use in 1960. Sedanita did about $500,000 business per year in 1960, when it was closed down by the Castro regime. Another Brandon brother later took Sedanita over from Mike, who sold his shares and moved from Cuba to Long Island, New York. In the last pre-Castro 1958 Havana telephone book, there are entries for Brandon and Company and Sedanita Textile in the clothing business at 213 Muralla Street. In 1958, this street was the location of many retail shops, so possibly this was a retail shop or outlet for Sedanita clothing.
The small American Jewish group almost completely segregated itself from other sectors of Cuba’s Jewish community. The Brandons were notable exceptions. They played major roles in institutional Cuban-Jewish communal affairs. Earl’s father, Jacob Brandon, was the most active family member. He headed the Cuban branch of the Joint Relief Committee that aided the hundreds of Jewish refugees in Havana fleeing the Nazis. Jacob Brandon also served as president of the Havana B’nai B’rith Lodge. On February 24, 1940, President Laredo Bru knighted Jacob Brandon with the Order of Merit Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. President Bru cited Brandon’s services to the entire Cuban community as executive director of the Joint Relief Committee that enabled Cuba to accept extraordinarily large numbers of Jewish refugees within a short time with no serious problems. According to Bru, “The Joint Relief Committee had brought great honor to the Cuban nation.” The Brandons are also distant relatives of Noble Brandon Judah, United States ambassador to Cuba from 1926 to 1930.
Brandons served as officers in the United Hebrew Congregation. Always an English-speaking congregation and identified with North American Jews, United Hebrew officially joined the [Reform] Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1951. In September 1956, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its founding, their Anniversary Journal assessed the future:
English-speaking Jews in Cuba are still a minority, but it is evident that a considerable number of youthful co-religionists, especially those who have had a bilingual education, favor our services and are likely prospects for future membership. Moreover, the Jewish population in Cuba is steadily increasing, and the constant influx of the new industries, many of which are operated by Jewish investors, betokens a bright future for the United Hebrew Congregation.
The United Hebrew Congregation did not survive. The entire Havana Jewish colony became virtually extinct after 1959 when Castro assumed power. By 1961, most of the congregation’s membership had fled Cuba. Jews who lived in Cuba during the decades before Castro had come to regard the island as a friendly harbor in which they could build comfortable lives for their families without the pressures faced by Jews in Latin American countries where traditional Roman Catholicism was stronger or where there were too few Jews for communal life.
Cuba’s live-and-let live atmosphere rewarded persons willing to work hard and accommodate to society’s unwritten rules. Jews rarely experienced anti-Semitism in Cuba, and they found their non-Jewish neighbors to be friendly. They did not aspire to political or bureaucratic offices, and they did not seek to enter the professions or universities, banks, corporations, or the government. Rather, virtually all Jews in Cuba engaged in commerce. They socialized with other Jews, supported Jewish community organizations and encouraged their children to do the same. Before 1959, they supported whatever government was in power. Whenever problems arose, they dealt privately through emissaries or through spokesmen for Jewish organizations. Earl Brandon says:
Those of us who lived in Havana before Castro will remember with pride and joy the great ambiance of that city. And after 45 years, many of us laugh and cry, remembering what was then the Paris of the New World.
Additional Reading About the Cuban Jewish Community
The following four books tell a much more detailed story of the Ashkenazim and Sephardim fleeing persecution who found refuge in Cuba, and the small but influential, business-oriented North American Jewish colony.
1. Robert M. Levine, Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993). This was the first detailed book to chronicle the successive waves of Jews from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Germany that flowed into and through Cuba during the 20th century. The book focuses on the interwar years when Cuban visa officials permitted thousands of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Germany to enter Cuba, even against the wishes of the U.S. State Department. Levine not only surveys the history of an immigrant group, he also illuminates the nature of the tropical society to which they came.
2. Margalit Bejarano, La Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba: La Memoria y la Historia [in Spanish] (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1996). This book is based upon Bejarano’s doctoral dissertation, oral histories of Jewish refugees from Castro’s Cuba living in the Miami, Florida, area. Substantiated by research, the book recounts the collective memories of Cuban Jews from the beginning of the 20th century until the Castro revolution. The main subjects are immigration and economic adjustment, organizational patterns, Holocaust refugees (including the St. Louis affair), establishment of the State of Israel, years of economic and communal prosperity under Batista and the trauma of the Castro revolution.
3. Maritza Corrales Capestany, The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba (Chicago: Salsedo Press, 2005). This book about the nature and functioning of Jewish life in Cuba during the past four decades recounts the lives of 36 men and women who did not leave Cuba. They explain their motives for remaining. Three sets of interviews are presented: The first emphasizes the ideological leanings of the pioneer immigrants and their descendants as Communists, Zionists and/or revolutionaries. The second chronicles primarily Sephardic Jews living outside Havana. The third portrays the immigrants and the first generation born in Cuba, whose permanence has been decisive in the continuation of Jewish life on the island after 1959.
4. Jay Levinson, The Jewish Community of Cuba (Nashville, Tenn.: Westview, 2006). Levinson describes the Cuban Jewish community in its Golden Age—how Jews fleeing from persecution abroad found refuge in Cuba, adjusted to a new country and built a vibrant Jewish presence in Cuba; how there were essentially three Jewish communities in Cuba; and how sociological, linguistic and cultural differences changed at different periods of time, but always separated them.
For a general overview, see the section on Cuba in “Caribbean Basin,” Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004), pp. 261–78. Much of the economic and political information in this article comes from “Jews in Cuba,” by Boris Sapir, published in the Jewish Review, July-September 1946, pp. 109–44.