So we went to Cuba. Big deal, you say? Everybody’s going to Cuba. It seems not a single U.S. institution, big or small, isn’t arranging tours and oh yes, cruises, too. But our trip was different. My husband, Boris, had left his native Cuba pre-Fidel in 1956, to continue his studies in Miami, returning home for family visits. On his last such trip in 1959, he decided that not only did he have to leave Cuba permanently, his family —mother, father, sister, brother-in-law and infant nephew — had to as well.
Boris hadn’t been back since — for decades, visiting seemed impossible —but in June, that changed with a long discussed family trip. And while I could write volumes about the equally joyous and heartbreaking week we spent there, for this piece, I’m focusing on our Jewish family-related experience.
Our first step into the past was a visit to the Jewish cemetery where Tio (Uncle) Ela and Alberto Aronson, one of my father-in-law’s employees who was a second father to Boris and his sister, Marta, are buried. When we arrived, we encountered the padlocked gate to the cemetery and felt that we were the only people around. But Alex, our beloved guide who — along with Victor, our driver — enriched our trip many times over, trotted off and returned with the caretaker who opened the gate, showed us the handwritten directory of the cemetery plots and noted — perhaps by way of explanation for why the cemetery had appeared closed — that there had been only two burials here the year before. We were moved, not only by our two family gravesites, but also by a Holocaust memorial that contains pieces of soap the Nazis made from victims’ remains.
From this place of mourning, we went to places where life was celebrated in Boris’s time there and in some cases, still is. While Tio Ela’s store and residence no longer stand, the building that had housed Tio Lazaro’s store is still there. Fortunately, the place we had been yearning to see most for so many years, Boris’ father’s store,
El Encanto de Marianao, and the family’s home above it, were still there. Granted, plenty of modifications had taken place through the decades, but the store’s name remained faintly etched in the façade. After we’d soaked in the experience of simply standing outside a place that had loomed so large — for so long — in family lore, Boris went into the onetime retail store, now occupied by an ice cream shop and spoke to the woman who was working there. He learned, among other things, that quite a rumor circulated about the Kozolchyks after they left. They had reportedly buried the family
fortune under the store’s floor and some people tried to dig it out. Alas, much to the dismay of the hole diggers, there was no buried fortune; the hole is still there, covered by a chair, presumably so customers don’t trip.
With some reticence, we approached the stairs to the residence. Boris certainly didn’t want to impose upon the current occupants. But we were right there, where he’d not only grown up, but lived all the way through his law school years. Alex to the rescue once again … “Come on, Boris. Follow me. It’ll be fine.” And we did exactly that. We were greeted warmly by Olguita, who lives in the apartment at the top of the stairs (the original home is broken up into several apartments with some jerry-rigged additions). She remembered the aforementioned Alberto who had lived with the family in this home. The home looks much as it did when it was built in 1941 including some of the original furniture that was in Boris’ childhood bedroom. Just as Proust’s Swann had his madeleine that triggered a torrent of memories, Boris’ madeleine was not a cookie dipped in tea, but instead the green and black tiles in the bathroom. Boris had been a young boy when the building was under construction and he remembered his mother arguing with the builder that she wanted those tiles. He told her they matched nothing else; she won. The staircase, too, proved its own memory catalyst, with Boris suddenly remembering that he used to be able to tell exactly who was heading upstairs by the particular footsteps. After attempting the impossible — absorbing and assimilating every tiny detail of this place into our collective consciousness — we thanked Olguita for her graciousness and forced ourselves not to overstay our welcome.
The Kozolchyks were the largest Jewish family in Cuba; my father-in-law had eight siblings, all of whom had homes here before the revolution. And most of these could be found within the lovingly dubbed ghetto: a series of attached homes bought by Tio Zalman, with — of all things — lottery winnings. We were amazed to spot a painted- over mezuzah on one of the doorposts and the nail hole outline of a mezuzah on another.
Riding a wave of overwhelming nostalgia, we went to our next destination, the Patronato de la casa de la comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, the equivalent of a federation and home to Templo Beth Shalom synagogue, where my beloved in-laws had been among the founders. Marta married Oscar Olchyk in the shul in the last Jewish wedding in Havana before Fidel came to power.
We were invited to meet the vice president of the Patronato, Adela Dworin. When Boris introduced himself, she said, “Of course, the Kozolchyks of Marianao. Your father was one of my father’s clients,” and shared the details of the relationship. She asked if we knew her cousin, Dr. Milton Dworin, who had lived in Tucson for many years; and indeed we did. Milton was a wonderful man, active in the community and a member of Anshei Israel. Little did we know during his time in the Old Pueblo that his gutsy, dynamic cousin was busy holding what remained of Cuba’s Jewish community together. Early on, after Castro came to power and met leaders of different faith communities, she invited him to a Chanukah party. When he asked what Chanukah was, she told him it was a “celebration of a revolution.” He went to the party. They met again 15 years later and he told her she hadn’t changed. She boldly replied, “You look good too … and we’re both liars.”
Another favorite story from that visit: An American man, who according to Adela, wore a ratty old tee shirt, visited her at the Patronato one day and asked if there were any projects that needed doing. When she told him yes — she could use help sending a Cuban delegation to the Macccabi games — he asked what that would cost. She responded that she was still short thousands of dollars. He said he wanted to donate. When she asked how much, he answered, “all of it,” to which she replied, “If you’re so rich, why are you wearing such an old shirt?” Well, Steve Tisch, owner of the New York Giants, apparently took no umbrage and donated as promised.
Adela invited us to Friday night services at the shul, adding, “We don’t have a rabbi and members lead the service.” Of course, we accepted in a heartbeat.
The Shabbat service was beautiful. Different people around the synagogue were assigned to lead different parts of L’cha dodi. My favorites were the local teenage boys sitting together who obviously loved being there. At one point, all the kids were summoned to the bimah, and they reflexively put their arms around one another as they led Ashrei. Seeing our granddaughters at the end of that gorgeous human chain was one of the most emotional moments of the trip.
Epilogue: On our way home, in the packed, chaotic airport, our daughter Shaun and granddaughter Sigal were in the women’s restroom. An American Jewish woman who heard my granddaughter’s Hebrew name, went right over to them and started chatting. Among the many things they talked about was the fact that this woman had seen a documentary made by a Cuban Jew and wondered if Boris knew him. Naturally, he did; they went to the University of Havana law school together.
The end … or perhaps the beginning.
Billie Kozolchyk is a longtime Tucson resident and community activist.