This Oral History is copyrighted by the Interviewee
and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of
Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
All rights, reserved.
This oral history may be used for research,
instruction, and private study under the provisions
of Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of United States
Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section
107) which allows limited use of copyrighted
materials under certain conditions.
Fair use limts the amount of material that may be
For all other permissions and requests, contact the
SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewee: Aaron Kelton
Interviewer is Julian Pleasants
Date: March 8, 2000
P: It is March 8th, 2000 and I am speaking with Aaron Kelton. Mr. Kelton, where
and when were you born?
K: Havana, Cuba.
P: And what year?
P: Tell me about your parents.
K: My father was born in Lithuania [and] was a Litvak. My mother was born in
Romania. They both went to Cuba, where they met. They actually met in Cuba in
1923. The reason for going to Cuba was, really, that was not the end. They
wanted to come to the States, where they all had family. My father had two
brothers, and my mother had a cousin. But, while they were traveling to Cuba,
the immigration laws changed in the States [to] the quota system. They decided
to go to Cuba because it was the closest place to the States, and they figured to
wait until the visas came. They would stay in Cuba. They actually remained in
Cuba. The visas took longer than they expected. They met each other. They got
married. They had children. So they got established there. My mother died in
Cuba in 1963, two years after we left, and my father died here in the States in
1965, six months after he got to this country, through Mexico.
P: Why did your mother leave Romania?
K: The same reason. You see, Romania at that time was also like part of Russia,
the same way as Lithuania. The pogroms were not only in Poland. They were all
places, and the way my mother was living, it was misery. The family was very,
very poor. Sometimes in the winter, with the tremendous cold they had there, all
they had for dinner was a piece of hard pumpernickel bread and a cup of tea.
They did not have anything else, leaving the country. She had a cousin in the
States. You have to remember, the States are the golden land. That is a reason.
Both of them, when I think what it meant to the family, because, you see, they
really burned their boats when they came. There was no return. It is different in
our situation, like I will tell you a little later. When they left Lithuania, when they
left Romania, there was no going back and there was no knowledge of what was
going to happen to the rest of the family.
P: Did she go by herself?
K: No. She was young. Her aunt, Dante, took her because she had a son. She took
her to Cuba.
P: How old was she?
K: My mother was probably in her twenties. The funny thing is, Dante, my aunt, she
did not speak a word of Spanish, so we would talk to her in Spanish and she
would talk to us in Yiddish. That is the way my brother and I learned Yiddish. She
stayed in Cuba many years, and then she came to join her son in Philadelphia.
P: When your mother came, how difficult was it to get out of Romania, and how did
they proceed from Romania to Cuba?
K: I honestly do not know. These are facts that they never wanted to discuss. It was
not a matter of, they were happy in Cuba and that was it. I think they wanted to
forget whatever happened before. There is no doubt about that. I think that from
Lithuania, my father actually was a barber in the Russian army in the first war.
My father was a barber, period. He tells the story that he ran away with his
brother. I do not think it was so hard at that time. I am not sure, but I do not think
it was so hard.
P: They would have had to have some money, just to get the passage.
K: That came from the States. It always came from here. It had to be from the
brother or the uncle. It is like the same situation we have [in] these times. People
come and they send money back home, either for them to remain there or to
come to the States.
P: Why did they ultimately decide on Cuba instead of Brazil or Argentina? Just
because it was closer to the United States?
K: Just because it was closer, and they had it in their mind to come to the States.
They were not immigrants to Cuba. So, they figured, what is the closest place?
They had no idea what Cuba was; it was a little dot, maybe, on the map, but it
very close. Once they got there, it was very hard to adjust because of the
weather and the climate. They used to go to the beach, even in winter, every
week just to get a little bit of chillier wind.
P: There were a huge number of immigrants during this period of time who came
from Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and Russia, apparently in the neighborhood of
K: Maybe more, because at the peak, there were 10,000 Jews in Cuba. Of course, I
am talking about 1960, 1958, 1955. So, I imagine that it increased; from 5,000,
6,000, it increased, because most of them remained there. Very few came to the
States at that time when they had the opportunities in the early 1930s or
something because they were established. Cuba was good to all of them. They
were able...there was no persecution because of being Jewish. They all opened
businesses, like always happens with the Jewish people [who are] very
industrious. It was a very vibrant community.
P: Did your parents try to go to the United States after they arrived in Cuba?
P: They never filed papers?
K: No. But my uncle in Chicago, the one who sent my mother the money to come,
he finally got the visas for all of them. He got very angry when they decided years
ago that they did not want to come.
P: Part of the problem was obviously the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924, which
set up those quotas and made it more difficult for them to get in. When they
arrived in Cuba, I understand that you had to have $30 and you had to go
through some sort of immigration procedure. Do you know what happened when
K: No. I know they always talked about, I think they said, Trestonia, like Ellis Island
used to be. They went to that place, but I do not think it was so difficult at all
because most of the people who were coming had nothing. These are not like
these refugees of the 1940s, the ones we call the who came from Europe
with money and jewels and things like that. These people have nothing.
P: Did the Cuban government welcome them?
K: Yes. Like I said, my father was a barber. He started working right away in a small
barbershop without knowing one word of Spanish. He kept working as a barber
until he became a citizen, and he had his own barbershop by the end, one of the
best ones in the city. So, no, there were no quotas. I mean to say, you were there
and they let you in, even though you were not going to Cuba. They let you in.
There were no political considerations at that time.
P: Were most of these Ashkenazic Jews?
K: Most of them. See, the Sephardic Jews did not have the same problem, or the
same reason, actually, to leave as the Ashkenazis did.
P: And it is essentially the pogroms.
K: Right, and different philosophies. I mean, remember, there were Sephardic Jews
before the Jews that were in Cuba; before that, the immigration was Sephardic.
They were Sephardic, but very few, you know, isolated.
P: Were there any restrictions on either jobs or education when your parents arrived
P: So, there was no discrimination at all?
K: Not at all, no.
P: What other jobs did these immigrants do? I think some of them worked on the
railroads. Some of them made zapatos, made shoes.
K: Many of them were shoemakers. That was a trade they had in their countries.
You have tailors. Many of them just got a pushcart and were selling neckties on
the street or whatever. One thing they were selling was ice cream lollipops,
Eskimo pies. It is fantastic when you read the person who came and was selling
Eskimo pies, thirty years later, is a millionaire. How do you make the Eskimo pies
into...? Because there was always the drive to do better. Most of the children, at
that time, of those immigrants went to college because the immigrants could not,
where they were coming from. So, my generation, I would say, was an educated
generation. The only ones who did not go to college stayed with their parents in
their businesses and took over.
P: When they arrived, were they in any way involved in politics?
P: Within this context, the opportunities were pretty good to make a good living.
P: Did most of them live in Havana?
K: Most of them. You had Jews in the six provinces, but, basically, they were in
P: How were they affected by the Great Depression in the 1930s?
K: I do not think they had anything to be affected. I do not know. I have never heard
of somebody who was affected. They were not established that long to be. No, I
do not think they were.
P: What about the political revolution of 1933? How did that change things?
K: Like I said, there were no politicians involved. There was a little bit. I remember
there was a politician that I saw some pictures [of] years ago. He was in [a]
convertible going with some of the Jewish leaders. There is always something
like that, but it was not anything like this community saying, we are going to go
with Batista, we are going to go with Drought. They stayed away from that.
There were a few Jewish people killed, and it was not just some lost bullet. One
of them was a barber, Acalia Sanga, and another one was...maybe two, but
none of them involved in any kind of... It was different when Castro took over as
we will see later, but, at that time, no.
P: Talk about your early life. Were you brought up in the traditional Jewish religion?
K: Well, you see, there was a couple of Yiddish schools in Havana, but I did not go
to any of those. My mother and father [were] working, and she did not want to us
to go by ourselves. It was not close to our house, and she could not afford to
pay for a bus. So we went to private school. I knew about religion what I heard,
like I knew what Passover was and what Pesach was. When I was kid, I was
happy because I knew we were going to buy some sodas also for Pesach. Then,
my brother, who was four years older than I, was at the age of Bar Mitzvah, so
they took a teacher, a actually, He came and trained my brother for
about six months. I remember, we would go to his house. Everything was
revolving in old Havana. He had a bunch of kids. You know, he was one of
those training men. So, when my brother was learning, I was sitting next to him.
So, we went to shul at 's Bar Mitzvah. Then, it was my turn four years later,
the same instructor, the same technique, the same result. After that, we used to
go on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Maybe on __ Day, everybody was
talking about the School of the Americas, because that is where they were giving
little flags and candy. That was the only conservative school. We had no idea
what a conservative was. We did not even know it. We were Orthodox, but we
did not know why. But when you say traditional, yes, in that respect, my mother
and my father followed the rules. The house was not kosher, there was no pork
or seafood or things like that. That, we knew we could not have. Of course, we
followed Passover strictly with matzo and things like that. But, no, many more
kids were raised in the framework of the schools, Yiddish schools, and they
learned Yiddish. Ophelia, my office manager had been here forty years. She
speaks beautiful Yiddish.
P: Was there a temple nearby?
P: So, you were good about attending?
K: No. I would go. You see, there were two temples, Kinesses Atroy and Odosis
Royal, on the same place both of them, but the services for Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur were being held at the Centro Israelita, the Israelite Center. They
were sharing the building because they had a school with the Centro Cateyano,
which was a goyish school. Centro Israelita, in the building, they have the
services on We would go there as kids, and all we were doing was just
playing around the aisles and things like that. When we were growing up a little
bit more, we would listen to the games of the World Series because it was
around that time. There was no question in our minds about being Jewish. I
mean, that was it. We were Jewish, and going to shul was not mandatory to be a
Jew. Later on, I realized there was a big difference. We knew the prohibition of
the Jews. I knew I could not be married to a shikse [non-Jewish girl]. They never
told me I could not, but I knew it like my brother did. I was raised in a goyish
atmosphere. We were living in Havana, and our people were getting better-off
economically. They were moving out, like it always happened. We remained
there. Actually, my mother died there. Until I got married, I lived there. So it was a
mixture. The Jews had no problem. The kids played in the street. It was a rough
section. Anything that is close to the port, the piers, you know. My mother would
not let me play in the street. But, at the same time, I never felt that I was in any
kind of danger or anything like that. As long as you kept your place, there was no
P: How did your parents influence your goals and your values?
K: They were different times. Their reaction was not like my reaction with my
daughter. In that respect, they were simple people. The influence was because
they were very good people. All I had to learn from them was not what they were
teaching me but what I was seeing, the dedication, the interest, the hard work
that my mother was going through. Always, my mother was up at five in the
mornings. Remember, there were no refrigerators. It was just a piece of ice in the
icebox. So, she would go to the butcher every day, at five or six in the morning,
because then she was peddlerkae, which is like a traveling salesman in the city.
You would go to the office buildings and take orders. This one wants a shirt, and
then they will pay. She was doing that to help out my father so he could have the
barbershop. So, what I saw was something clean. My father did not smoke. My
father did not gamble. He did not play. So, you know, I was seeing a close family.
I love my brother with a passion also. We were very close. Even after I got
married, I was picking up my parents on the weekends and taking them to our
house to stay with us and have lunch and go to the beach or whatever. In that
respect, they influenced [me]. My father was not a businessman. Actually,
besides being a barber, he was lost. He said it. My mother was smart in that
respect, but it was tough luck in the future.
P: Did they encourage you to get an education?
K: That was taken for granted. Actually, I started high school before being twelve
years old. I was only eleven and something. The minimum age required was
twelve, but as long as my birthday came after the deadline, they accepted me as
P: This was Havana High School.
K: [Yes.] They never pushed me. You see, in order to get into high school, you had
to pass a test, two on the same day, two shifts. After the first shift, I thought I did
something wrong, so when I went to my father at the barbershop about three
blocks from the high school, I went there and I was crying. So he said, what is
wrong? I said, I think I flunked; I did something wrong; I will not get in. So he
says, so, you will be a lawyer a year later. Actually, I did not flunk the test; I
passed the test with a B. It was never, why are doing this, why are you doing
that? I knew what I had to do. My brother did not study and did not, for some
reasons, finish high school. When I graduated from high school--this is 1949. In
Cuba, in the graduations, the graduate would walk with, if it is a boy, with his
mother, if it is a girl, with her father. They would walk her to get a diploma. I know
that in high school when I graduated, to both of them, it was the biggest thing that
could have happened to them in the world. When I graduated from college, it was
a different situation. 1954. I took the oath for our class in business
administration and I was on my way to being an accountant. That time was
tremendous. It was the first time I was going out with my wife. She also was in
college. So I know the satisfaction they both had, because where they came
from, it was not easy to study. It was not easy to finish college or to be educated.
P: Let me go back to the Cuban high school. What type of school was that, and how
good was it?
K: Tremendous. Rough. It was a public high school, of course, but I think the high
school in Cuba was considered one of the most complete educations you could
expect. They gave you a little bit of everything. You had four years to decide if
you wanted to go to the letters section, like lawyers or things like that, or to the
left, if you wanted to go be a doctor or like an engineer. That is where it
separated, but the first four years, you started language, you started physics, you
started chemistry. Like I said, enough of every field to help you make your own
mind, what do you want to be, what do you want to do? The only problem was
that politics were involved, national politics. I remember, I used to maybe go to
the bathroom and saw two kids putting bullets in their guns. They would go on a
strike, and they would close the high school and all those things. Everybody
knew what was going on, but you got quite an education, a very good education.
P: What languages did you study?
K: English was mandatory, and I studied French. In my fifth year, I studied French
also. English was all over. There were public schools just for English in each
neighborhood, at night, so that people who wanted to could go and study at night
P: You went to Havana University. What did you plan to study, and why did you
decide to be an accountant?
K: That is a good question. What first I had in mind was to study law, but I was
working since I was fifteen years old. Fifteen, so I have worked, [from when] I
started until I finished, fifty-four years.
P: Where did you work?
K: In Cuba? I started working in the Interior Department, and this is where politics
take part. My father, like I said, was a barber, and his barbershop was number
one. Most of the politicians went to his barbershop. The Secretary of the Interior
knew me since I was a little boy because he was coming. So, on Saturday, I
would go to stay with my father, and then we would go out for lunch and
everything. So he asked me one day, how are you doing? I said, oh fine. He said,
what are you doing? I said, well, I am studying in high school. So he said, do you
want to work? So I said, sure, of course I want to work. He took a card, go to the
Interior Department Monday, see this gentleman here, and tell him to call me. He
said, you are going to be working, but (there is a but) if I find out that you quit
school, you are fired; you have a job as long as you are studying. To me, the
Interior Department was about ten blocks from our house, but what were ten
blocks at that time. Nothing. Today, two blocks, you take a car. So I went there in
the morning, and I looked around, I mean, older people and I was a kid. So, I
gave. Oh, you are--do you type? So I said to him, I am not a typist, but I used to
do some typing with two fingers. My brother was a typist, and he was fast. He
took lessons-I never did-and my father bought him a typewriter. I will never
forget it, a German typewriter, portable. That is the way I was practicing sending
letters to the States, because I like baseball and I would get as much as I could
to buy the Sporting News at that time. I was angry because Sporting News, I
think, cost about $0.35 in the States and they charged $0.65 there. I was upset
and I sent a letter to J. G. Taylor Spink. I told him that I like baseball and I hope
I could be a sportswriter in the future, but I am having trouble buying the paper
because it is too expensive; why do they charge that much more than in the
States? So, he answered the letter. He said he was pleased, blah, blah, blah. He
was sending that letter to the Traffic Department, and then he sent me a book.
He wrote about Judge [Kennesaw Mountain] Landis.
P: Who was the commissioner of baseball.
K: Right. Of course, that book together with many more were left there in Cuba. But
that is the way I typed and I learned how to type. So, this fellow in the Interior
Department says, it is okay; if you do not know, you will learn; you will practice.
So, I sat there and they gave me, I think it was, an Underwood [typewriter] and a
whole bunch of papers. I had to write the __ reports. When somebody had a
law infraction, a traffic infraction, it would go to that department by hand. No
computers. By hand, they would note it was on a such-and-such violation, fined
or not fined. Then, when he will go to court next time and they ask [for] his
record, you have to pull out this card and type all those things. I sat there, and all
of a sudden, I had to write a number one. I start looking on the typewriter, and I
see it starts on number two. There I am, I am looking and I am ashamed to ask,
where is number one? I mean, these people are...I mean, I just could not wait
until lunchtime came, and I ran home. My brother was there. I said, where is
number one? He said, it is the L. The German [typewriter] had one, two, three,
four, five, you know? So, that was a lesson. I learned. I got along with the people
pretty well. I was very well-received. Most of these people were working because
of political connections, but they were working. That got me started. I remember
when I got my first check, I ran home and gave it to my mother. I was king of the
hill. I felt very, very good. It made me realize the importance that it was not so
simple to make a living and make a dollar. That is the way I started. It was a
P: You were going to the university to study law, and then you changed your mind?
K: Yes, yes. The only thing you could study at night in Havana University was
business administration. Law, you could not study at night; you had to go to
school during the day. So I was left with no choice. Actually, I got straight A's,
always, in law because in each year, it would be a different kind of law, legal
law, mercantile, all those things. Then, as long as I was working already in
related fields, I stayed there. It was that or nothing.
P: You got a CPA degree when you finished.
K: Certified Public Accountant, right.
P: Then, you went on and got a master's degree, is that correct?
K: Right, a master's. I did not finish the master's because they closed the university.
I was one year and three-quarters. I was just a quarter shy. They re-opened the
university later on, and then I was married.
P: Why was it closed? Did Batista do it?
K: Politics, yes. That was only Batista then. Remember, the university in Havana
was autonomous, in respect that the government was not ruling it. It was public,
but the law could not get in there. They had their own police force. So, you found
safe haven in there. The police could not go after you in there. So, they were
playing with politicians, and I knew them. I participated in one strike also. When
they were having a strike, they were having a strike.
P: What was the strike about?
K: This strike, in particular, was because they were creating what they called El
de Cuenta. It was like an institution to supervise all the government
transactions that had to do with monies, checking on banks and all those things.
Of course, they voted that law to be in effect after that government finished. They
did not check the one before, no; the next one you are going to check, but I will
not be there. But, the requirements then, they needed many accountants, so they
gave the same backing to graduates from Havana University. These were
contadores publicos, which means public accountants. The ones who
graduated from the commerce school-there was a commerce school, la escuela
commercio-these graduated as private accountants. There were two different
ones. Many from the private school would go to Havana University to get their
P: Which was the better degree?
K: The public, definitely. So, you know, you had to pass a test to get a job. The
problem was they were giving the same kind of starting-up to both, people at
Havana University and the private also, and they did not like it. There was a law,
and they did not like it. They came one night and said, we are going to strike
tomorrow. We sat there and listened to all the plans, you know, at what time they
are going to cut a tree to break the streetcars, because we had streetcars at that
time. The group would stay there the whole day, and another group would come
in at night, with microphones all the time. The neighbors were not so happy. I do
not know why I got involved in that. I was not a leader, but I felt I was together
with my [classmates]. Maybe just the peer pressure, the group.
P: Was it successful?
K: Yes, it was, but one day before the strike ended, the leader, the driver, came to
see us, came with the delegation of his unit. He said, He said, you know, it
has been about three days that my people cannot work, and when they cannot
work, they cannot feed their families; so, we think it is enough, three days, and I
would appreciate it if you would clean up the street and take those things out; if
not, we will just open it with our guns. It was very effective, you know? Boom,
P: Is that one reason that they eventually closed the university?
K: No. The closing was not really political things. This was isolated. Like, the
medicine student did not care what would happen to the accountants or anything
like that. Also at the university, different schools were very active, and many of
them got active in politics. Actually, there were professional activists and amateur
P: When you got your degree, where did you begin your work?
K: I never stopped working. I worked the whole time.
P: But you went to work for a banking company at some point.
K: Yes. After the government failed, my politician was not there any longer, so I was
fired. The other guy with the connections came in.
P: From the Department of Interior?
K: Right, from the Secretary of the Interior.
P: We are talking now about when Castro came to power?
K: No, we are talking now about 1952 or something like that. I got a job working in a
bakery supply place, just answering the phone. I got a job through the school of a
place that sold tiles and bathtubs and things like that. Always doing accounting
work. Then I got a job at the U.S. Rubber Company. They manufactured tires,
and U.S. Keds--those were the sneakers and things like that. I was working
in the main office in one of the outskirts. From there, I went to a job at
Colgate-Palmolive. That was a tough one because the position was running clerk
of the production control and purchasing department. Running clerk, I had to do
ten different positions a year. You had a month vacation at that time in Cuba. So,
I had ten positions, ten months, one month vacation [to make] eleven, and, one, I
was floating on the different jobs on the department. It was so tough. That was a
union job. The union sent two people to try to get a job, and neither of them
made it. Finally, the union told the company, you can have it; send whoever you
want; the union does not want that position. That is what I was in 1955 to 1957.
Then they added a new branch of the National Bank of Cuba. That was the
Social and Economic Development Bank of Cuba, and it had to do with
investments on the industrial site. They had also the agricultural Banco
Fuamento Agricula. That was the agriculture, on the other hand. I went there
because a friend of my wife (they went to school together) was working as an
inspector in the National Bank. He said if I wanted to get a job in the bank, he
could get it for me. I said, you know I have no experience. He said, well, they
have an opening in the credit department. I never worked in a bank. Of course, it
did not function as a regular bank. They were not regular banking operations. So,
at Colgate, I went there and looked myself at the cost department. They had
about forty CPAs working there, and they were not much older than I was. So, I
looked at it and I said, what is the future here? The most I can actually aim to do
is be the chief of this department and what chance do I have with so many as
qualified or more qualified than me to do the job? And I went, and there was an
old accountant there. I always remember him, Pepe Fernande. He had a belly.
He had his long sleeves folded. You know, the typical. He had the green
[eyeshade]. And he was always cursing and always mad at everybody. I said,
you know, this is me thirty years from now. So I went there [to the bank]. I
actually took a cut in my salary, but I never did much better. I remained there
and a year later, I was the youngest officer in the bank, in the credit department.
It also helped me that I knew English, because at U.S. Rubber and Colgate, all
the paperwork was in English, all the memos and instructions. So, if you did not
know English, you were in trouble. So that helped me a lot. Actually, I was an
officer. I felt good at the bank. I had very good connections. I figured I was on my
way up, you know. Then the bubble burst.
P: Talk about Cuba and Havana, in particular, in the 1940s and the 1950s. What
was it like?
K: To me-you see, I have to say, to me-it was quiet. You always had people who
were against anything and people who were for anything. There was just one
party that I did not like when I was growing up, and that was what they called the
Partido Aldentico, because they had a slogan that was "Cuba for the Cubans."
It was not addressed to the Jews. It could be. But the problem they were having
was the Chinese and the Spaniards. Why? Because the Spaniards would keep
on bringing family to work in their grocery stores. They would have, maybe, ten
employees; nine would be Spaniards and one Cuban, or maybe even Chinese.
The Chinese people were even worse. You could not find anybody who was not
Chinese in one of the restaurants or grocery stores or markets or laundries. So,
they decided on what they called the 50 percent law, that if you were running that
kind of a business, you had to have 50/50, 50 [percent] foreigners and 50
[percent] natives, Cubans. It did not affect most of the Jews because in the
businesses they worked was mostly family. It did affect the Spaniards and
Chinese because of the kind of businesses they had. I did not have any political
inclinations at that time, so I was not worried. I can tell you, regarding politics,
you could not evade getting interested. I was always interested about the
revolution in the past, about the 1930s, so I would go and buy used magazines
and look and things. I always liked it. I still do. So, no, we would hear they put a
bomb in this place or they kill a guy. We were not afraid. It would not affect us at
P: But Havana in the 1940s and 1950s was fairly prosperous, and there were quite
a few American tourists.
K: Yes, many. There were casinos, and most of the big wheels of the casinos went
to my father's barbershop. I remember Mayolanski. I remember several of them.
You know, most of them were Jewish and also were talking to my father.
P: These were mobsters from the United States. And they owned most of the
K: There were not so many casinos. You had El Casino Nacional. You had four or
five. There was no gambling in the streets, like Las Vegas. There was maybe
some resort machines in the beaches, two or three for nickels. No, gambling, per
se, was not the problem. Of course, wherever there are mobsters...actually, they
say Las Vegas is one of the safest places because the mobsters want it like that;
they do not want any problems in there.
P: Was tourism a big economic boost to Cuba?
K: No question about it. It was.
P: Mainly Americans.
K: 90 percent.
P: Let me bring up something. Why have Cubans always loved baseball?
K: My favorite. Not only they love baseball; they were good baseball players, in all
times. Even now, with Castro, you are going to see all those young players
coming out. I love baseball. Everybody did. You see, there was even a
tournament from the four teams from the Jewish institutions. There was one in
Centro Israelita. There was one on the Sephardic Gatamacabi. There was
another from the leftist center.
P: All the kids played?
K: Whoever was good enough. I was not good enough to play. My brother played
second base of the Centro Israelita. There, when the professional season starts,
you have baseball for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
P: And you would listen to the World Series over the radio and listen to the news.
K: Over the radio, right. You know, Cuba was one of the earliest places where they
gave the World Series on TV. Do you know how they did it? It was not simple.
They had a plane getting signals from stations here in Miami and sending it to
Havana. Fantastic. The picture was not so great but was good enough. I would
go with my brother to see the games. There were always doubleheaders on
Sunday. We would be there about eleven o'clock, and the game did not start
until one-thirty or something. We loved it, and it was cheap. Very, very [big]
fanatics. My team was Havana. We had a big flag with a lion centered.
P: When did the Cuban players start going to the American professional leagues? I
guess Minny Minoso and Roberto Clemente would have been...
K: Clemente is Puerto Rican. Minny Minoso was [Cuban]. I would say, probably,
around the late 1950s or something like that. Let me tell you the way baseball
was structured in there. Of course, you have independent leagues, but then the
organized came with the youth. So, each institution, each club, on a team is
represented there. You had the telephone company Florida Power and
Light, and each one of them From there, they graduated to amateur.
The amateurs there could take the Marlins in one pocket. They were good
amateur players. Then, they became professionals, when most of the amateurs
were already too old. See, most of the players were signed by Joe Cambria.
Cambria was a scout from Washington [for the Senators ballclub]. That is when
they started getting pictures. It was like a new world. They did not have the
benefit of all the things these professional teams have now, with trainers and all
kinds of things. But, that was the time, more or less.
P: That is right. A lot of the early Cuban players played for the Washington
Senators, didn't they?
K: Yes. Camilo Pascual was one of them. He was a pitcher. I think they also
signed Conrado Marvedo, but it was over already when they signed him as a
pitcher. Most of them were pitchers.
P: Let me discuss your wife. Was this arranged, or was this a person you met at the
K: No, I will tell you. I was finishing already, in 1954, and she was starting. That is
when she came in. One day, of course, we always wanted to see the new
people. When they say some new Jewish people, you wanted to meet them. So,
a friend of ours was a friend of my wife's sister. I do not know if you saw her, but
my sister-in-law was there a few minutes ago. They were sitting there talking to
each other, and I came and we were introduced. This sounds corny or something
like that, but I knew she was the girl for me. Instantly, I can say, I got involved, in
love. It was not so simple at the beginning. It took a few years to convince her.
But, no, I did not go out with any other [woman]. The thing is, like I was saying
before, most of my friends were not Jewish. I was not working with Jews. In my
group, we were actually three Jews and about six Gentiles. We were always
together. I did not care about dancing. We went to the baseball games, or we
would go to jai-alai. As a youth-I want to say more than a teenager-I had a very
nice living in Havana. Many things to do. Many things to see. Lots of
restaurants, lots of bars. I did not care about the nightclubs, but we would go
listen in them. If you look back, at that time, you were having a steak with five
plantains at three in the morning and a beer or something. Those were good
times. We were not afraid of anything. There was anything you wanted, and it did
not take to be a millionaire to do it. Realize, Havana still was very cheap.
P: Your assessment of the rule of Batista.
K: Batista was good for the economy. One problem that happens with all of the
dictators: he took over the hard way because of the military that was surrounding
him. So, all you have to do in one of these countries is be backed by the military,
but everybody is always looking just after you. Batista actually made good
elections, and he gave the party power to the winner who was not in his party.
Batista was a humble person. To call him a cruel dictator, all I know is that if you
kept your nose clean, they had no reason to harm you.
P: But he was corrupt. Batista took a lot of money for himself.
K: Yes, of course. How many politicians in any country can we say is not corrupt?
What is corruption really? Is it taking a junket to Europe with the whole family and
letting the government pay for it or accepting-gifts-for-political-reasons-to-China
P: How did the Cuban people feel about Batista?
K: I think that most of the Cuban people are against whatever, and it is always going
to be where you have people who have more and people who have less. These
people who have less feel that being strong will give them a position sooner or
later. They say he killed people. I was working for the government, remember.
The Social Economic Development Bank was a branch of the National Bank.
Everybody knew who was pro-Castro in the department. We all had to stay one
night at the end of the month to balance the books, for the other people. This
fellow, Mario, he did not have a car. He was a communist, and he was
pro-Castro. He would put stickers in the bathroom and would sell bonds against
Batista. I said, come on, I will drop you home. He said, no, no, no. He said, you
will get in trouble if they see you with me. I said, oh, come on. And I took him
home and nothing happened. One night, we were hearing explosions of bombs,
and my daughter got sick at home. We lived in the outskirts, so I had to go out
and get the medicine. I went out. It was about eleven o'clock or something. I was
coming back with the medicine. I see the red lightss, so I stop, not too far from
my house. I got out of the car, saw there were two policemen, one older one and
another younger one. They said, open your trunk. Looked. Nothing. So, the older
one says to me, what are you doing here at this time? I said, I am going home;
my daughter got sick, and I had to go out and buy this medicine. He said, okay,
go home and stay there; the street is no place to be tonight. You can say many
times that they reacted, as one of the tactics that they were using. He was a
policeman going home after, sitting in a bus sleeping, and they come on the bus
and pow, pow. They kill him, for no special reason. He is a policeman. Let's kill
him. Why? Because this way, they know there is going to be a reaction by the
other policeman. If you did not get involved in politics, [it was] very, very difficult
that they would go after you. This is true.
P: Were you aware of what Castro and Che Guevara were planning?
P: Were you aware that there was going to be a revolution?
K: Let me clarify that. I never liked Castro, but I never thought he was a Communist.
I was fooled. I never endorsed him. I mean, they knew I was not for Castro. But,
the people who were backing him up, people who he either finally killed, most of
them, or who had to go into exile, those names meant something at that time.
P: In what sense? When you say they meant something, what do you mean?
K: When they say that is with Castro, he is an ally and he is backing Castro's
programs individually. A man like that, who you know is a straight guy, would not
back Castro if Castro was bad. To me, Castro was a demagogue.
P: Not a democrat.
K: No. You know, we had some rough times. When the peasants came from the
hills, his so-called army, which was not even an army, when they were coming
with crosses and all those things about religion...he never believed in any of
those things. He never had a regular army actually. The press is such an
influence on the people. It is tremendous. All they have to say is, there was a
shoot out in so-and-so hills, fifteen-what killed. Who knows if it is true or not?
Listen, on December 31, 1958, people were dancing in the streets waiting for the
New Year. These people, about twelve hours later, were dancing in the streets
because Batista left. You always have the problem of the abuses, of the
policemen who are rough. You have them here. You have them in New York.
You have them in Los Angeles.
P: Why did Batista leave so readily?
K: Actually, there were two reasons. Number one, American government wanted
him out, and they wanted Castro. They did not know why, but they wanted
P: They thought he was a democrat.
K: Well, somebody did a lousy job of checking his references. You know? So, the
army was corrupt. They were hiring, putting kids in them. Never__ or anything
like that. They called them caquitos, like little So, there were no big
battles. There were no big fights. They showed Che Guevara as a hero. He was
not a hero. Hero of what? He said he was sent by Castro to Bolivia to get killed
there. That is what he wanted to do. Camilo Sanfuegos, a big bird, a guy who
knew how to smile, did not last there too long; his plane disappeared in the
ocean one day. The people who he shot--[Castro] has no feelings at all. Castro
sent Che to a certain death, because he did not send him any supplies.
P: Was the Cuban response because Batista is out or because they thought Castro
would provide democracy and equality?
K: Because Batista is out.
P: They just wanted Batista out.
K: They did not care what was coming. They did not look on the other page, you
know. And, also, the American government stopped any shipment of arms to the
government, so they [Batista's forces] had no weapons at the end. The American
government did all they could to have him out.
P: When Castro took over, how long before he became a dictator, and what was the
public reaction to that?
K: They call that what-is-happening-to-me-today; I do not care what is happening to
you; I do not care, it is not happening to me until it happens to me. So it was a
chain reaction. Always, you have these red-hot people who know that, you know,
the president of this company makes so much money and new people are
doing...Of course, there were abuses from the owners' point of view also. The
sugar mills where the employees were leaving were not in the shape they could
have actually been without being threatened, like they did to these people later
on. So, there were some things that were not right. Many things were not right.
There were also Communists who came into the picture, who were Communists
all their life. See, they took over the bank, the branch where I was working. They
sent all the accountants to big controllers, the companies financed by the bank. I
was the last one. They asked me to go to the country, to Guanajay, which was
about nine hours, and I said, I am not going. I was still in the bank. They used the
word, companero. Why not companero to begin with? This guy was the chief of
the inspection department of National Bank, [a] CPA. He wanted me to go to
Guanajay because I actually worked on that project and I recommended that
project. So I said, I am sorry, I cannot go. He said, what do you mean you cannot
go? I said, no, I live with my daughter and my wife alone; I have no way to leave
them. So, he says to me, well, you know, I have been traveling all this time. I
said, yes, but you choose to travel; you are in the inspection department and you
know you have to travel; if I actually wanted to travel, I would have asked for the
inspection department. He did not like that, so finally we agreed I would go to
Guanajay every two weeks to check the payrolls and all those things and come
back. I went to the Instituto Nacional de Formugraria. It was the famous
that was supposed to solve all the problems in Cuba. I went there to see
Tiniento Lando which had to do with one of the plans. I looked and I see a
guy who used to distribute the Communist paper Hoy in Havana, in the Old
Havana section. I see him. He is a big majer in the field. I see and I see and I
hear about Jewish people who were well-known Communists all their lives. One
of them, Altele Berman, his father was a tailor and he worked with his father, a
chubby guy, and has been the secretary for commerce.
P: Were there a lot of Jewish communists?
K: Not a lot, but there were some. Let's go back to see why. You realize the
Russian Army defeated the Nazis, so people were told the Americans and
Russia did it. They were the heroes of that time. They had red flags and
everything. Most of them, when they got into some money, forgot about being
Communists, and they were capitalists at that time. I had an uncle who lived in
New York and he came here for a vacation. He was a dedicated member for the
Communist party. He believed in that. He died. I mean, he worked for the
He was a master. He used to be billfolds and things like that, always working for
P: When Castro took over, he nationalized everything, right?
K: Step by step.
P: And, therefore, all the professionals, the doctors, the lawyers, the bankers,
everybody was controlled by Castro, in effect. What was the reaction in the
professional ranks, in the banks and the lawyers?
K: See who is the last one living. Like a raise. No, people start seeing the signals.
People who have any kind of connection at all with the Batista government
realized they are going to be in trouble.
P: Were you in that category?
K: In a way, yes, because I did not change. They could not say that I was
anti-Castro, but they knew for sure I was not for Castro and that was good
enough. Remember the Bay of Pigs [a failed attempt by President Kennedy to
instigate an anti-Castro uprising in Cuba in 1961]? Without getting into the Bay of
Pigs itself, I was working at the bank at that time. That was on a Monday, April
17, and I will never forget that. The Sunday before, I was standing with my wife
and some neighbors in our yard, and we saw one of the planes that was
bombing. I saw a militiaman who lived a few blocks from there with a gun
shooting; with a pistol, he was shooting at the plane. We listened to the radio.
They talked about the invasion, blah, blah, blah. When I got to the bank,
everybody was expecting to see what was going to happen. We see the trucks
coming in the street. It was a business section. They started taking people from
the stores into the trucks, with weapons and everything. So, we hear noise in our
office and then silence.
P: So they were rounding up the anti-Castros.
K: Silence, nothing. A little later comes the accountant who was in charge of the
department, who went to school as a kid with one of his buddies who worked for
us there. We were four people, and he said, I want you to know that it is an order
to take you to jail, the four of you, the whole department. He said, but before my
political ideas, I am a friend, and I cannot let you go to jail; you are free under my
responsibility, and I expect you to act like that. He was not my friend; he was the
other guy's friend. Then, he said, we all should stay and help the revolution, and
things like that. He said, I am afraid the yanquis are going to come anyway,
because we could see the boats. Our bank office was in a tall building facing the
Malecon, and in the distance, you saw the ships. They said, they are going to
come any minute now. Fortunately, they did not come. They asked me why I am
against the democrats. They know now why I am against the democrats. They
were tough, tough, tough.
P: I heard that you continued to wear a coat and tie, as a protest, because the
revolution was trying to create an egalitarian society where everybody would
dress the same.
K: Not necessarily egalitarian, no. I think it had to do with a rejection of anything,
anything, that was from the past or something. They associated the tie and jacket
with being affluent or looking down. I was telling you when I went to see Orlando
Arreguo de Indra, I went to see his secretary, who was not [the kind of]
secretary you would expect to see in a big place like that, in office, usually old
and sophisticated. She looked like a little country girl with a little cheap dress,
and she was talking to one of the militiamen. One of the assistants of the minister
was standing there. I am sitting there with my jacket and my shirt and my tie,
waiting. So, they were talking and then the militiaman says to her, you know, did
you see what Che did, the way he signed those papers? See, he
signed the currency with only Che.
P: So, there is a brand new currency as well.
K: So, he said, you know, these people from before; they think that because they
wear a tie and a jacket, they are better than anybody else. I am sitting there,
sitting with a jacket and a tie, not a peep. That was the philosophy against it.
P: So, just by wearing a coat and tie, you demonstrated you did not support the
K: That was not the only thing. I mean, you were supposed to cut sugarcane. You
were supposed to do voluntary work. I was not doing anything. I was brave.
Maybe I was not doing it because I was chicken, I do not know. All I know is that
when I was in the office, one day the secretary came, after the Bay of Pigs and
everything, and she said, I think you have to be careful. I said, what happened?
She said, they came taking names, who was going to go this Sunday to cut
sugarcane and who is going to do voluntary work? And they asked me, who is in
that office? So she said, oh, that is Kelton. He said, oh, the heavyset guy? She
said, yes. Well, he does not go to anything. So I think they were fooled by the
fact that the four of us, the whole department in that office, none of us went to
anything. We had a bodyguard, the accountant. The people in the militia maybe
thought that we had to be important people because we were still there. We were
wearing still our jackets and everything, and we were still there. They did not
P: But you realized that would not go on forever.
P: Was there an increase in anti-Semitism once Castro took over?
K: No. Let me tell you why. Enrico Ortuski was the secretary of communications.
Enrico Ortuski's brother-in-law is our rabbi here in the shul. Enrico Ortuski was a
Jewish boy from Santa Clara. My wife's family knew the whole family pretty well.
He had a big job. He was really one of the anti-Castro [supporters] in that area,
through the bombs and all the other things. You had Altele Berman, but you had
probably-I do not know if you heard about this-the liaison between [the] Cuban
Communist party and Russia was Sinhovich, was his name. He lived in
the Old Havana, and everybody thought about He was a Communist. I do
not know how he made a living or whatever. Even this day, many people do not
even know who he was-he died already-[but] he was the one who introduced
Russia to Cuba. So, you can imagine, [even though] he looked like a schlemiel,
what kind of power he had. That shows also the patience of the Communists.
They send somebody over, and he is going to be there twenty, thirty years; if
nothing happens, nothing happens, but he is there.
P: What was the reaction to the relationship with Russia? How did the Cuban
people feel when the Russian officials and military...
K: Let me tell you. They were blind, completely blind. As I told you before, my father
had a barbershop in the best section of Havana. This was in the 1960s already.
The technicians from Czechoslovakia and Russia, they liked the good places. So
they were going to my father's for a haircut. So, he was in the first chair giving a
haircut to one of the them, and on the other chair, there was another one, and
they are talking between themselves in Russian. So my father gets into the
conversation to say something, and they looked at him and said, you know
Russian? He said, yes, I know Russian. So they said, how come you know
Russian? He said, well, I am from Lithuania. Oh, what year did you come here?
He said, 1923. So, he said to them, you see, you run, you run, and you run, and
we finally got you. We finally got you. It is true. Now they [the Russians] were
going to be the saviors. See, Castro would always lie about the way he was
mistreated at Washington. It is not true. It is not true that they denied him any
help or money.
P: Well, now, they did cut off trade, Eisenhower did.
K: After. Yes, that was after.
P: In the beginning, they gave him aid and assistance.
K: Right, but he was not interested in that.
P: Castro was always a Communist? Always has been?
K: I do not think he was a Communist. I used to go to the barber here, who was the
barber of the school he was going to, Belen. telling me, Castro is a bum, a
regular bum. But not a Communist. I will tell you this, my thinking, if the regime
that was installed in Cuba before Castro would have been Communist, he would
be against the Communists. He is an anarchist. He is against everything.
P: But he has been a strong Communist from the mid-1960s to the present.
K: Because he is smart. You cannot deny that to him, and because he was actually
well-directed. When you say that he was a good Communist, it was not his
choice at that time. At that time, Russia was in charge.
P: In other words, if America did not give him support, he had no other choice
except to go to the Russians.
K: Not necessarily. Why? And why would America not give him support? What
reason could it have been? Why? What would they gain by not doing it?
P: So you think Eisenhower made a big mistake by not giving aid and support? Do
you think if he had done that, Cuba would have ended up being democratic?
K: The problem is, I do not think that he was denied the money. I think he did not
accept it, maybe the terms or whatever. I do not have much respect for what the
Americans have done in the past in many situations, but I do not think that
Eisenhower was crazy or any of that. The fact that they stopped the Bay of Pigs
invasion showed Castro that [American leadership was] weak, and that is all he
needed. With the missile crises, he got life insurance for life, a policy life
insurance, when Kennedy accepted not to let anything happen to Cuba, no
invasion, nothing like that, if they would take the missiles out of Cuba.
P: Let me go back to the Bay of Pigs. Did you know any of the Freedom Fighters
who trained and were part of the invasion force?
K: I knew one who was the assistant personnel manager at Colgate-Palmolive, a
clean-cut guy. Remember, most of the people going into the invasion, the
younger people, they were all well-to-[do] kids, educated. he died in a little
island close to the shore. He never turned himself in, so he died of thirst in that
little island. Names that you heard, incredible people, sons of senators, sons of
doctors. It was a good representation, and they were all fooled.
P: Were the Cuban people aware that this training was going on and that there
would be an invasion force?
K: Yes. It was very hard [not] to.
P: So, Castro knew, too.
K: Of course. Probably, he had spies in there. He probably infiltrated that thing.
Maybe he was not sure of all the details, but, remember, you do not have time do
that but if you get all the books written by the real people who were there...the
invasion was supposed to go together with elplasor. But you know where the
leaders of the resistance were? The government picked them up and put them in
a hotel and locked them in. So the underground had no instructions and did not
know what to do.
P: Did the Cuban people at that point feel betrayed by Kennedy, when he canceled
the airstrikes and withdrew?
K: Definitely. It was not only the Cubans. Remember, all the trainers, all the people
in the field were American, the people who organized, the people who trained,
and the pilots. There were several pilots who were killed who were Americans
also. Evidently, there was no factor because of the fact that you were hiding and
you could not do things openly. That is the difference with the Communists. That
is the reason they are getting stronger. They do not give a damn about what the
people would say.
P: Was it not sort of a foolish idea to assume that if the U.S. landed a small group of
Cuban refugees that there would be this uprising against Castro?
K: No. The way I heard about [it was] all they were looking for was a
government-in-exile. That piece of land would be a provisional government, and
that government could ask [for] help. I do not think, maybe there would not be an
appraisal like saying all the people are going to defend Castro or are against
Castro, but it would definitely show some kind of opposition to Castro. People
were still much in favor of Castro at that time. I think that it was a little too early to
do the invasion at that time. They had to wait a little bit more until he shows his
real colors. Remember, we left after the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, and when
we were in Jamaica, that is when [Castro] declared himself a Communist. So, the
people were already leaving without knowing or realizing that he was a
Communist. He admitted being a Communist at that time-that is when he took all
those measures-and then he sold the idea to the people and said, the Yankees
__ my friend, and he bankrupted Russia.
P: And he also used the image of a small country being invaded by a great power.
P: Let me go back to the Bay of Pigs. When the Cuban troops captured the
invaders, they brought them back to Havana. What was the reaction of the public
when they brought the captured invaders in?
K: They were against the invaders. No question they were. Why? Because, the
names they were showing them were not the poor peasants from the country.
P: Oh, upper-class. So it was a class concept.
K: Absolutely. You know, they say it was one of the leaders, Tomas Cruz, who
went in the invasion and was a colored guy. There were several colored people
So when they had them on TV or when Castro was talking to them, he
said, what are you doing with these people? We open all the beaches for you
people, [and] you can go to any beach you want to go to now. And he told
Castro, commandant, or whatever he said, I did not come to you to swim in the
ocean; I came to liberate my country. He died in an accident, you know.
P: Did America look weak, first, by calling off the attack and, secondly, by
ransoming the prisoners by trading tractors? Castro came out of this stronger
than he was before.
K: Sure. If he looked weak... I think they were already testing the Americans, and
that made him look very good with his people. See what he was able to do, he
got tractors and he got everything. So, yes, I would say so.
P: The Cuban Missile Crisis: by that time, you are in the United States, right? Was
the Cuban community aware of what was going on, that the Russians were
bringing missiles in?
K: We lived in Hialeah at that time, I was working at Hialeah, and we could see the
trains going to the Opa Locka airport with troops and the army and everything.
So, we were aware. We were so happy because, we said, we are not going to
move all those tanks and planes and everything to do nothing. We were reading,
of course, the conditions, always. Castro always uses the same style: let's talk.
You know, he slaps you in the face, and before you can answer, eh, do not do
anything; let's see if we can get an understanding, after he hit you already. So he
puts the missiles in, and then when you say to him, get them out, he said, why?
Conditions. He did not even know about the missiles. They were installed without
P: Without Castro's approval?
K: Without Castro's approval. The Russians sent them. That is the reason Russia
had control over them. The Russians would not let him have, at least at that time,
control of the missiles.
P: Well, he did have operational control over some of these SAM [surface-to-air]
missiles like the one that shot down Major Anderson.
P: Now, at this point, the Cuban community here supported what was going on, in
terms of the blockade?
K: The Cuban community was already from the very beginning, whoever was here,
against Castro. Whoever was here was against Castro.
P: I mean, did you think the blockade was the right solution? When you look back,
do you think Kennedy did the right thing during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
K: Definitely not.
P: Why not?
K: Definitely not, because like I said before, he was assuring Castro, who was a
thief, that he, being an honest guy, he was assuring him that we would not let
anybody bother him. You know, every time there is a bunch of people who want
to go there and do something with a couple of rifles or something, they end up in
P: So the idea of solving the crisis, getting rid of the missiles but promising not to
invade, all of that ended up strengthening Castro and his relationship with Russia
P: Yes. Now, in this context, I wanted to ask you, were you aware of Operation
Mongoose, which was an attempt by the CIA to either assassinate Castro or
poison the sugar crop.
K: A Cuban cigar, I think, would explode.
P: That is right, an exploding cigar. I often wondered about that: why would they
give a man who made the best cigars in the world, why would they send him an
American cigar and assume he would smoke that? Was this supported by the
Cuban people? In other words, would they have supported an American invasion
P: Or an assassination of Castro? Whatever worked.
K: Of course. Why not? And we believe that the only reason they have not done is
was because of the promise that Kennedy [made]. It was never signed. It came
out years later that there was no agreement. There was no signing. It was like a
P: Tell me why and when you left Cuba, and how you got to the United States.
K: Leaving Cuba was never in our minds, in our plans. It all happened after Castro
took over. I had my difficulties because I did not agree with Castro and I did not
make any bones about it. People who were with Castro knew that I did not agree
with him, but, maybe because I also had some friends, I did not make any waves
one way or another. I knew that I could not keep on working for the government
because, sooner or later, I would be in trouble. There is no question about that.
Then, the Bay of Pigs invasion came in, and as soon as the fiasco, we heard
rumors, maybe, about the the same thing they are hollering with this boy
Elian Gonzalez, the little kid, that the government will take over the children. This
is not something that is new. It is happening in China. It is happening in Russia.
The government tells you, you have to go to work and your wife has to go to
work; who is going to take care of the child? Give us the child, we will take care
of him, and you can have them on the weekends or every two weekends or
whatever. They put a bandanna, red, blue, whatever, red one basically, and there
goes your child. And you lose track of it.
P: So, that was like a communist youth group, the red bandanna?
K: Well, yes. Then, my wife started crying. She said, they are going to take our
daughter away from us, and we have to go. Believe me, [it is] one thing hav[ing]
to go, and another thing is being able to leave. There were rumors also that
some of the people from the National Bank who tried to leave the country were
detained at the airport. There were rumors that they had lists of doctors and
attorneys and accountants at the airport, and they checked them, and if you were
a professional, you could not go. So, that was driving you crazy. You had to get a
permit from the government, actually, besides being able to get a visa for some
place. How do you get a permit? You have to do it through a travel agency. I
went to the only Jewish travel agency in Havana because I figured that my name,
Kelton, would not sound too Latin and too familiar to whoever checks those
things and they would automatically give me the visa, give me the permit. I then
took them to a fellow who is here, my friend, gave him the passports, our three
passports, of myself, my wife and my daughter. About a week later, I went there
to his office, and he said, take a look in that bunch; we got those back today.
There was a bunch like this, and you already must know where were our
passports, the last three. We got the approval, but I had to go through all the
other ones, getting lower and lower until I found our three. So, we had number
one; we had a permit to leave the country. Now where do we go? That is after I
was able to resign [from] the bank. It was not so easy to quit. They liked to fire,
but they do not like you to quit. So, I had a neighbor and we said, the easiest way
is Jamaica. So, we went and applied for a visa to Jamaica. We had a neighbor
who was the second-chief-in-command of the international trade department in
the National Bank-he had to do with transfers of money and things like that-and
I asked him. He said, I will let you know if I hear something. So, he said, listen,
the money came in for a charter by the Jewish and other religious institutions, but
you have to deal with them. So, where do you go? I finally found out, the HIAS
[Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] service. They had a little office in back of a
shul, so I go there and sit and they say to me, do you want to go to Israel? If you
want to go to Israel, we will put you in a plane next week. So, I said, you know,
my brother is in Miami, he came here in 1954, my uncles are in New York, [and]
my wife's family is in New York; we have to go to Miami. So, they said, well, if
you have to go to Miami, you are on your own. This is after they told us in
Havana, do not take any papers because HIAS will do everything for you in
Jamaica. Another stone in the way to prosperity, I think. Finally, we left. [No one
found] out. We left, and we arrived to this country.
P: You went first to Jamaica?
K: Yes, we came as legal residents. I was not a refugee.
P: And you stayed in Jamaica...?
K: Three weeks. Three long, long, long weeks.
P: What was the process of getting into the United States?
K: Okay. We went to the consulate to get the papers, so we went through the whole
thing that any immigrant [would]. We needed the guarantee, so I had to call my
brother [and] I had to call my uncle. We needed some money in the bank [and]
we had to pay for the tickets, and all that on short notice. We had to get a
physical at the doctor, like somebody who comes from wherever, you know? So,
we had all our papers ready. They put us in a commercial plane, and we came.
P: What did you take with you when you left Cuba? Just a suitcase?
P: Did you have enough money to pay for all the travel and the stay in Jamaica and
the cost of...?
K: I left Cuba with one Cuban peso in my pocket.
P: So, you left your house? Your job?
K: My house was left the way we lived in there. It was complete with all the furniture.
I left my car in the driveway, and I said to my neighbors, do not take anything
until you know that the plane left, because two nights before, they went and got
into a house there. The family was there; they did not leave, but they were
checking. I had one of the militiamen of the neighborhood who lived across the
street from us. So all I took out from my house was a TV set. I took it to my
mother's maid. The rest, everyone who took something that we left is here, finally
came here. I did not get anything. I left my bedroom and the kitchen and things
P: So, what happened to it?
K: They used them until they left. So, they gave it to somebody else or somebody
who came in and took over it or whatever. See, at that time when we left, we did
not have to make an inventory. After he declared himself [dictator], when we
were in Jamaica, all those new rules came in.
P: You got out just in time.
K: Just in time.
P: In another three months, you probably could not have gotten out, could you?
K: Not that easily.
P: Did you have any fear when you were in the airport?
K: I was scared to death.
P: That they would stop you or arrest you?
K: Yes. I will tell you why. It is very simple. Like I said before, it is not easy to quit.
So we went to see to our bodyguard. The other guys who worked with me,
together, we went to see him. At that time, we were going to close out this bank
and open other ones, some commercial banks. So we went to see him and said,
you know, when this [happens], we are going to go into business by ourselves.
He said, what do you mean, go into business? I am planning to take you to the
other bank. So, my boy says, come on, do not fool yourself; number one, you
know we are not communists and they will not accept us, and, number two, we
want to work with the new credit regulations from the government; we have never
worked in commercial banks; this is our expertise. It took about an hour, until he
said, well, I will accept your resignation with one condition-so we lied-I do not
want you to leave the country. Again, we all had to help the revolution.
P: But he knew you were leaving?
P: He did not?
K: No, no. He was naive in that respect, because he could not understand how, why
would we not like it? He was a boy who came out of nothing to be a CPA and
had a position in a national bank before Castro.
P: You promised him that you would not leave, knowing that you were going to
K: Oh yes. Leaving him right there and saying no, we went and took everything off
our desks because that was close to May 1, and on May 1, there was going to be
a big parade and everybody had to go We saved ourselves because we
were not working any longer, and they would check the list, who is not here?
P: What day did you actually leave Cuba for Jamaica?
K: July 29, 1961.
P: When you were admitted to the United States, were you admitted under the rule
that allowed immigrants who were fleeing dictators? Did that apply?
P: How did you get in? Just by having the papers, just by having the support?
K: I came like any other legal immigrant.
P: So there were no problems.
K: No. Actually, in order to get a visa for Jamaica, British government, you had to
have a deposit of $200, in Jamaica. I did not have any, but my brother-in-law, the
younger one, had $200. With his $200, we made marvels, because we were not
being fed. I am telling you. But a few days before we got to Jamaica, and about a
month before, you see, we quit. We went to the personnel department and gave
the letter to the guy, we used to call him, Pepe la americano-Joe, the American
guy-because he was an exile during Batista's time. So, he went when Castro
took over. He was always chewing gum. We gave him the letter and he looks at
us, like saying, you rascals, I know what you are going to do. Not a word. But a
week later, I got a certified letter from the National Bank of Cuba, firing us. They
fired me. After I quit, they fired me. So, you know, all those things, I had them in
a little __ case with me at the airport, and I was holding my daughter, who was
four years old, in the other hand. You know, that man standing on the gate, the
militiaman, our whole life depended on that guy there, deciding what way to go.
P: So he could prevent you from getting on the plane.
K: Yes. So, we went to the gate after waiting about ten hours for the plane to arrive,
because it was a charter from Britain, from BOAC [British Overseas Airline
Corporation], that was going to Cuba, that was going to Jamaica, getting
immigrants and taking them to Canada. It was one of those. So, we showed him
the tickets and all the papers already, and he said open up the bag. I opened up
the zipper. As I was looking, what does he take out? The letter from the National
Bank. I was not hiding it. So he took it out and started reading it, and he looks [at]
Ana, my daughter, and he looks at Lucia, and said, okay, let's go. But that was
not enough, because some people were taken off the plane.
P: Even after you boarded?
K: Yes. So when the plane took off, the first thing I asked for was a Coke. Still, at
that moment, it did not seem enough, that we were going to be refugees. We got
to Kingston [Jamaica]. When we came out of the airport, it was at night. It was
the old airport. There was a big wooden fence around, and all we could see
about the fence were little black heads. They were all looking. At night, in the
dark, all you saw was that. Then they took us to the Jewish asylum. We spent the
night there, and they said, put your passports and the cigars under the pillow
because they steal things around here. But you are asking about fear. Of course,
there was fear. Until the plane actually was high, the fear remained.
P: When you first came to Miami, where did you live?
K: I had a brother who lived in Miami. Since 1954, he had a house in Opa Locka. He
only had a small spare room. It was with his wife and two children. I was sleeping
on the floor so my daughter and my wife could have the bed. But we were feeling
good. Still, it was not too happy an occasion [because] my sister-in-law, my
brother's wife, was in the hospital. She was a sick person, and she died in 1965.
But, you know, being able to have bread and to have this and have a Coke... By
the way, in the asylum where I was __ how do you feel that you know you are
a refugee? Number one, they put a star and they give you a malaria pill.
That is when you start thinking. And you see the rules of the dining room: for
breakfast, only once slice of bread per person, and the women are supposed to
help in the kitchen, and the women are supposed to clean. You look back. One
day, you were in your house and you were with your car. By leaving all those
things, you were gambling.
P: Your feelings about leaving your parents?
K: Very hard. Very, very hard. I was the younger son. I was very, very close to
them. Even after we got married, I always picked them up on weekends and they
were going out with us. I would take my father to the baseball games also. It was
not easy at all. Still, I felt we were coming back. I had that idea. What we did after
we were convinced that it was not so easy [was] we tried to make them come to
the States. My mother said she was tired of running, that she worked too hard for
whatever she had and she was going to stay there and keep the house and keep
the piece of land she had, that she was going to build an apartment house. Very,
very hard. Still, like I was saying before, I feel I have been cheated, because
there was so much I wanted to do for them. You know, the joy of seeing her
granddaughter, being raised, being whatever--I feel it even more now that I have
my young grandchildren.
P: Did you send them money? Could you send them any help at all?
K: They did not need money. My father still had the barbershop, and they had the
apartment. They never asked for it. We did not know my mother was so sick. She
died of cancer in 1963. Of course, when we would go, we did not have a phone
in her house. We would not call there when we were living here, after we moved
to a neighborhood. My brother lived too far, and we needed a place to be. I
spoke to them a couple of times, but it was very emotional, until we got the call
one night that she passed away. In a way, one of my father's employees called
me about a month before, and he said, Aaron, you have to be ready for this,
because mother is very sick. And my father told us she was in pain, and he was
trying to get morphine; there was no morphine, and they had to go to the black
market. You know, I have to remember those things. I do not erase them so
easily. I want to go one more time to Cuba. I am not going under Castro. I think I
want to choke if I say companero, even forty years later. I will not give him that
pleasure. I want to go when he falls. I want to go and see my mother's grave, that
we have pictures of here. That is it. We have nothing else in there. I do not need
the house. I do not need the land. I do not need any of those things, because the
Cuba that was so good to my parents and that was so good to me does not exist
any longer, and I am too old to start rebuilding anything. That is my feeling. Like I
said, it was hard to leave them behind. They did not want to come. My father,
yes. Unfortunately, when he came, he was already hurt.
P: When did he finally come?
K: My mother died in 1963. We realized that we had to bring him. My father was the
weak one. My mother was the strong one. We had to start trying to bring him to
the States. Then you have to go through the people who charge to get visas and
all those things. Unbelievable. Finally, I had to pay to get him through Mexico,
and then from Mexico to here.
P: What year did he come?
P: That was not too bad, a couple of years.
K: No, a year and a half, about.
P: When you came to America, what did you first do for a living?
K: First thing I did, looking for a job, I know I felt confident because I was bilingual
which, at that time, was a tremendous plus. Today, anybody is bilingual, but at
that time, you did not have so many people. I could not find a job. They were not
hiring any Cubans in any bank, in any airplane, in the telephone company.
Nowhere. No Cubans.
K: Maybe they had a reason. They felt that the Cubans were going to leave as soon
as Castro would fall. So, a friend of mine had a little shoebox factory in Hialeah.
He called me and said to me, you know, I have a little coffee shop downtown,
[and] you can eat there; and, go and try to get a job; if you do not find anything,
come back to see me. I went to look for jobs. So, I went back to him and he said,
okay, I have a little factory; I can give you enough for gas and $60 or something.
Minimum labor was $0.50 an hour. So I started working there. I did not have
transportation, so he loaned me $225 to buy a car. I got myself a Ford, 1952, and
started like that. Before that, my uncle from New York came. He always came in
summer to the beach. He asked me, do you have any money? I said, no. So, he
gave me $200, and I gave $100 to my brother and kept $100 for us, for whatever.
That was the beginning of many disappointments but also the beginning of much
faith, and not being bitter about anything. There were people who always looked
behind. There were people on all the streets, their hand to help you out. I had
relatives who even came from Cuba, not very close but relatives, with money.
Nobody called. I never called anyone of them, because it was not me. So, finally,
I think that with so many ups and downs, I cannot complain. My nephews ask me
to tape or write about my parents. They never met their grandparents. I told my
wife about it. My daughter knows, and my granddaughter wants to know. I am
going to write something and I am going to call it, Was It Worth It?
P: And was it?
K: Of course it was. Tremendously. See, I am not a rich person, but we are so
proud, so proud, that we are able to send our daughter to Hebrew school, a
Hebrew academy, for nine years. She was valedictorian of her junior high. She
graduated from the University of Florida, magna cum laude. She had an average
four-something. Very smart. She is a hard worker. She did her internship in
Chicago, at a children's hospital, and there we went to Chicago with her. We
gave her a wedding. She married a Jewish boy from New Jersey, also a Gator.
That was the first marriage in this building, in this shul, and my grandson was the
first bris after that. So I feel I have been blessed. I feel that we live modestly, but
we never had anything that we could not have. There was nothing. And I feel
good. We have our own apartment, and our health, of course. You know we are
getting into years. But, yes, it was worth it.
P: When you first worked, how long did it take to get into accounting work again?
K: To do accounting? I started doing it. It was bookkeeping, light bookkeeping. I had
to get used to erasing and scratching and all those things, because you could not
do that in Cuba. Anywhere you had to make an adjustment, enter it but never
erase or scratch. I mean, they shoot you. No. See, numbers are numbers. I was
lucky that, most of the time, I was working for people who were nice people. I
worked with a factor once. You know, a factor?
P: When you came, what was the Cuban-Jewish community like? How many were
here? How were you received by them?
K: That is one of the reasons that this institution started. Most of the Cubans, for
one reason or another, came to Miami Beach. Most of them were in this area
here. Some of them were on what we call North Beach and Biscayne Point, in
the 1970s. They were trying to get organized, because the welcome was not too
warm. It was a little cold.
P: From whom?
K: The Jewish community.
P: Why do you think that was the case?
K: I do not know. Maybe they looked at us like Cubans, not Jews. Many of them
could not understand, how can you be a Cuban Jew? They could be a Jew from
Poland or Lithuania, but you could not be a Jew from Cuba.
P: Was that because of Castro, do you think?
K: No. Some of them looked at us like goyim or something. There was very poor
communication, very, very poor. So, they needed a place where they could talk
to each other, because, already, making plans of going back were a little too far.
Who came from Cuba? Who had some cigars to sell, boxes of cigars that they let
you take out? Who needs medicine? Who knows about an apartment? That was
basically one of the first reasons. Then, the shul, we were renting on Washington
Avenue, and the first services we had was on the Washington Savings
Bank, on the auditorium. Then, from there, we went to the Libo Hotel, and we
had people coming from all over to come to the services. We realized that it was
important to have our own services, because a very good friend of mine who
came with us from Cuba to Jamaica and to the States, the first year-well, we
came in about the beginning of October, I think-Yom Kippur was a few days
[away], so he wanted to say yiskor for his father, kaddish [Jewish prayer for the
dead] on yiskor. The only place he knew was Temple Emanuel, so he went to
Temple Emanuel. There was a guard, an officer, on the door and he says, let me
see your ticket. He said, I do not have a ticket. Oh, you just cannot come in. He
said, you know, I came from Cuba about two weeks ago, and all I want to do is
say kaddish for my father, which is customary on yiskor. So, he called one of the
board members. He could not get it. We could not believe it. We open our doors
on yiskor for whoever wants to come in. We ask them to leave because all the
seats are reserved and are sold out. But, can you imagine that? He was so bitter,
and he was crying. I said, we will take care of that.
P: Now is this when you set up the Cuban Jewish Circle?
K: That was after.
P: And what is the purpose of that? Is that like a social club?
K: What I was mentioning before, just a place to meet to see other people who were
in the same situation. You know, what are they going to do? Where are they
going to go? That was like a clearinghouse. We are still a clearinghouse. Any
Jews who live anyplace in the States who want to know something, they always
call here. Actually, for many years, we had what we call the summer dance. In
the summer, vacation time, we have a big ball, and Cuban Jews would come
from every city. Now we cannot have that any longer because they all moved
into Miami], so we have no reason. They come to the rest of the parties.
P: But you would help new immigrants with insurance and burial, if a husband died,
the club would help the family.
P: How did non-Jewish Cubans treat you when you came to Miami?
K: Well, the Cubans were in the same boat that we were. We had no problem. A
problem came out years later when [Cubans] were working for Jews and they
were being exploited, the Cuban workers. Unfortunately, most of the owners
were American Jews. So, when they would say those Jews, they did not mean
us; they did mean those [the owners].
P: So you found not only discrimination from the American Jewish community, but
discrimination because you were Cuban, and discrimination in Miami because
you were Jewish.
K: Because we were Jewish, not really. I mean, like I said before, they were against
the Jewish patrons, owners, and they were not Cuban-Jewish owners at that
P: But the goyim, no discrimination basically?
K: No, they had nothing.
P: But, there were certain country clubs and things you could not join.
K: Oh, that has always been there, the Bat Club and the Surf Club, La Gorce's
[Miami Beach country club]. Listen, La Gorce's Club has always been one of the
more restricted ones. My boss at Orange Blossoms [was] a Georgia cracker. I
was the executive vice-president there, and I love what that man did for me, [that]
cracker. Once a month, he would take us to Lagore's Country Club because they
had a buffet dinner. We had everything, and there we went with him, Jewish. I
mean, nobody asked me if I was Jewish or not. So, that restriction...to be a
member, would be different. But, listen, there were no Cuban Jews who could
afford any of those clubs.
P: Discuss your relationship with Rabbi Rosenswieg. He is the person who started
the temple, started the shul.
K: Well, he is another person who I should have in a note. He has been so good to
me. I think I did the right thing for him, too, but when you are president of an
institution, you have some unpleasant assignments to do. I met Rabbi
Rosenswieg here in Miami-I did not meet him in Cuba-but after my mother died,
we decided to send Ana to Hebrew Academy. We decided to move to the beach
because we were actually living in a goyish section. There were no Jews where
we were living. The first school my daughter was in was a Baptist kindergarten. It
was the closest one to where we were living, so I went and saw the director and
explained the situation. She said, do not worry at all; when the rest of the kids
pray, she does not have to pray. So, I started taking her to Temple Bethel, [in]
what is called today Little Havana, with Rabbi Shief, and that is the way she
started learning some kindergarten. So, there comes the first anniversary of my
mother's death, I did not know where to go. So, I found this friend of
ours in Havana, and she told me, go to Washington Avenue and ask for
Berrilee. I said, who is Berrilee? She said, the rabbi. So, there I went, and I said,
rabbi, I have to say kaddish. Okay. He showed me what to do, when to do it. He
left, and I left. Then, my father died. I was already a member of the temple at
that time. We lived on Drexel Avenue. So, he came to see us in the house. My
father was in a coma, so he said, do you have any arrangements made?
Because the doctor called and said, make the arrangements. I said, I do not
know where to go. He said, okay, call this number, Riverside Funeral Home, and
ask for Lenny and tell him that I am sending you to him, to take care of you, and
I am going to call him. So we went to the funeral home. Lenny Zilbert and
I have found so many good people in this country that it is unbelievable,
in this city even. So the bad ones do not count. So, I told him who I was and I
said, I do not have any money; I have nothing. He said, do not worry; let's go and
get a casket, and you will pay me as you can, whatever you can pay me, little by
little. That is the way I was able to get the funeral going. That made me think
that the reason I joined and I had been active and participating for so many
years, made me think how important it was to belong, and not being one more
[but] belong and participate, because I would have to do something for
somebody else in the future. What would have happened if it would not have
been for the __ when my father passed away? Where would I have gone
to try to get a funeral going? So I realized how important it was. Then Rabbi
Rosenswieg came and said, you know, I want you to be a member of the board. I
said, Rabbi, we have the elections next Sunday, and these people do not know
me. Do not worry; you will get elected anyway. I got elected. I do not know how,
but I sat on the board. My daughter was a bridesmaid on his younger daughter's
wedding. We were very friendly, but then came something very sad that put
his family against me for years. It has been sold, but it was not easy. When it
was decided to build [a new temple], initially, the question came up, for whom
are you building? What is going to be our market? The younger marrieds claim
that at the shuls they go to, the wife sits next to the husband. We were Orthodox
in that respect but not in others, like, we were using a microphone and stretching
the laws and the rules a little bit. They made a committee, the young marrieds
committee, and they said, they are going to be responsible for bringing people to
the shul, to join, and now they are going to be sitting together. How do you say
that to the rabbi? He was talking to me some times and saying he would like to
have time to go to the beach and sit with a book. He said, but a rabbi always has
to be studying, and he did not have time; he was getting old. So I said, well, that
was the only opportunity, so I sat with him, and that was what I got from the
family. I said, rabbi, you told me once...this is your opportunity; you are not
getting any younger; we want you to go to the new building, but you will not go
because they sit together. We even put a corner for you. Nobody would be able
to do that. Nothing helped. He had another little shul that a relative had left him
on Meridian Avenue, a little place.
P: Does this have anything to do with the fact that he was Sephardic?
K: __ is Sephardic, not Rosenswieg. Rosenswieg was born in Poland.
P: Was there a split between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews?
K: From the beginning, when we came in?
K: Well, I think they have been closer here than they were in Cuba. I think there was
more of a split in Cuba than here. No, I do not think there was a split, but,
praying, that was different. Different; better or worse, I do not know. You go to a
shul, and you see the Sephardic participate more with the services, with the
cantor and things like that. We had some projects that we did with them, socially.
Actually, we had a New Year's ball every year with them until we built our own
ballroom. We are much, much closer than it was...we had an adult school
actually chaired by both institutions with classes here and there. No, you have
many more Ashkenazic boys marrying Sephardic girls and vice versa, and it was
not like that in Cuba. Man, when they said you were going out with a Turkish girl,
that was almost as bad as a shiksa. It was not right, but that was the way of
thinking of many people. We have members here who are Sephardic also. We
have very good relationships with them. They are hard-working people, and they
work for their own ideas.
P: Now, you eventually became the president of the Cuban-Jewish Community.
What were your responsibilities? What did you do in that office?
P: The building issue.
K: Right. Luckily, at that time, I had some spare time. My work gave me some
liberty. Being an officer in the company, I did not have to account for when was I
going in, when was I going out. Definitely, of course, besides building, we did not
forget about our daily obligations and things like that. Ana's shul was booming.
We had a new rabbi, Rabbi Conavich. We approved the $10,000-a-year pension
for Rabbi Rosenswieg for life. I think we did well. Finally, there were the daily
things, [and] we had parties for Purim. But the problem was that the young
marrieds did not deliver. They delivered for one year or two years.
P: They left?
K: We are looking for new teenagers, but it is very hard. I know it is hard for any
kind of shul, not of ours only. We are having trouble with the minyan [gathering of
ten adult men]. Even the members of the board are not showing up for minyans,
and that is bad.
P: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is the relationship between the
Cuban Jews and the older Miami Jews. Is that better today?
K: Much, much better.
P: What has changed to make that better?
K: I do not know. Maybe they know it was better. Maybe they realized that we are
not going anywhere, and we are not coming here to take over their houses or
anything like that.
P: Did you participate in, for instance, the Jewish federation in Miami?
K: Actually, I worked two years for them. Some of the pictures you see there are
from the board. We received, also, the Gates of Jerusalem award, my wife and
myself, from the bonds, Israel bonds. I have a whole bunch of diplomas. I have
an advantage. I am very easygoing, so I do not have problems with the rest of
the institutions or the rest of the committees. They call me. I am an expert-and I
do not like that, but I am-on doing speeches for funerals. People I do not even
know call me. I have to know the family. I am a good speaker in that respect. I
stick to Spanish, because if I am going to say something, I want to say it right. In
this yearbook I am giving you, you are going to find when I stopped and when the
others started, when we went from Spanish to English. So, I feel good, because I
see people, like in the bond drive. We used to buy bonds when we could. I am
not buying anymore because I cannot. When they gave us that award, it was not
because we were good bond buyers-that is the usual way-but because of what I
had done for the community, at large. See, from this temple here, from the
women's committee, they started a havasa branch that is independent now.
They started a defense for Israel soldiers, also. We had a committee for carrying
Sfor the Jewish national front, because the Jewish community in Cuba was
very well-organized, and these people were very good social workers. We lost
them by attrition. They died.
P: What was your reaction to the Mariel boat lift?
K: That was in 1980. Mixed emotions. I did not like what we were seeing. I was
working. I volunteered for a reception room they had where people were being
assigned to different, like, Jews were being assigned to us, and the people with
the Catholics would leave. What we were seeing was not as good as what we
saw twenty years before, and it was not as bad as we see now. the rock
people. I do not know. In a way, I do not recognize many of the recent clips of
people who came here. I do not recognize them as Cubans. I still think many of
them, mentally, still live in Cuba. We do not recognize the music. They feel they
have a right to everything. That is the problem with many of them. They do not
want to work.
P: But you welcomed them as political refugees, obviously.
K: Oh yes.
P: Do you think the Mariel boat lift, because insane asylums and prisons were
emptied, hurt the Cuban community in Miami?
P: And even today, some of the people who are coming in?
K: No, not any longer. No, we went through that already. Right now, you have
Muriel people who are in business, and they are very industrious. But, there was
crime. Like I said, I do not recognize those people. Some of them were like
animals. Some of them went to jail. But, now, they actually feel sorry for the raft
people, for the seros. Now, it is a whole mixup. You do not know who is
who. You do not know who is an agent and who is not. You know who is
smuggled in on a fast boat because...
P: There are still a lot of illegal immigrants who come to this country. What should
be done with Elian Gonzalez?
K: Stay here.
P: What about his father's rights?
K: What rights? Who has rights in Cuba? Castro's rights? If you say you are giving
him back, start to think this. Why has he not been able to come to the States to
get his son? The first day when they found the kid, he called the cousin and he
said, take good care of the child. He did not take a plane to be here the following
day, to say, that is my son, what is happening with him?
P: So Castro is using this for political purposes.
K: Have you seen [the father's] face in the pictures or on TV? Have you ever seen
him smiling all by himself?
P: What about the American government's embargo of Cuba? Has that been the
correct decision? It has obviously caused suffering of the Cuban people, and it
has not gotten rid of Castro.
K: I do not agree with the suffering, and I will tell you why. There is no embargo.
Cuba can buy any food they want, with money, from people in Europe or
whomever, or medicine or whatever. How come they have money to send when
Castro goes to a convention or something, to send 300 people on two planes and
all those things? Who pays for that? How come they have merchandise to sell in
the diplo stores for dollars? You do not have dollars, you starve. You have
dollars, you can buy anything you want. You can buy Coca-Colas. There is no
P: What about Castro's welcoming the Pope? What was your reaction to that?
K: Complete hypocrisy, and very poor respect for the Cuban people. That showed
that kind of a man has very poor respect for the Pope. The Pope had no
business going there if he did not have anything beforehand to see the result of
his trip. He has not done anything. The four writers who used to be communists
who made that declaration, I mean, the __ for everyone, they are still in jail two
years later. Even the prime minister of France went to Cuba and asked for
permission for those people to let them go. He does not believe in that. Did you
see what happened with this diplomat? Have you ever seen anything like that? A
diplomat is considered a non grata person, and he refuses to leave, number one.
P: This is the one who had been accused of spying for Cuba?
K: Right, with the other one. He refuses, and Castro lets him stay there and
go on a hunger strike, inside the embassy? Then he goes to Canada. He does
not want to leave Canada and, finally, they have an agreement. What
agreement? What kind of agreement? Oh, when there is going to be the trial of
the other one, he can come here to the States again, as a witness.
P: But, otherwise, he has been deported, in effect.
K: Where are the witnesses on all those people who are getting killed in Cuba?
Because they are still getting hit. How would you feel if your son [had] been one
of those pilots who were shot down? What would you feel? How would you feel
knowing that nothing has happened to the pilot. Everybody knows who he is
because he was making fun on the radio, and they have those tapes. How would
you feel if you were one of the parents of one of the children who died in Havana
Harbor when they sunk that tugboat, where the mothers were raising the children
[up], showing them, do not shoot. He never gave permission to take those bodies
out of the boat on the ocean. It is still there.
P: What will happen when Castro dies?
K: My personal impression, [and some] people do not agree, [is that] nobody else
can hold the regime. Even his control is not as much as it was before.
P: So will the military take over?
K: There is one thing that you have to understand, and I did not realize that until...I
do hear the Spanish station, and I read the Spanish papers. The military has not
been involved in any reprisals to people. They have what they call the brigades
of fast response or something like that, thugs. Now, there is already ones he sent
to hit the people and all those things, and the police, the army, is not involved at
all. So, in a way, the army is clean. This is not the army that fought in the Bay of
Pigs. They are the young people. So that could be. Most of the people know that
there has been reunions and things like that, with some offices. When he finds
out, he shoots them, but how long can he do that? How long can he justify that?
P: Let me ask two questions about your identity and about that of your daughter.
When you look at yourself today, how do you characterize yourself? Are you
Jewish, Cuban, American, Jewish-American?
K: I like that question because it always comes up. I do not have any doubt about
what I am. I am a Jew. That is number one. I am a Cuban because I was born in
Cuba. I am an American. I am very grateful to America for the way they opened
arms to keep me, to have me here in the States. So, I do not have any mixup. Of
course, I am a democrat, not from the Democrat party. I believe in freedom, and I
believe in doing good, whoever you are. But, number one, Jew. I do not think that
is something you choose. I was born being a Jew. Nobody had to tell me, you are
a Jew. Actually, I had to tell some people in Cuba I was a Jew, and I had to show
them my Star of David. They did not believe me. They said, you do not look like a
Jew. So, I do not have that. How can you not love the place you were born, and
the place that was not bad to me or bad to my parents? Because one individual
was bad? I do not see it. Many people do not feel like that. I know some of the
people here are very, very...they say, no, you cannot be a Cuban, only a Jew. I
think you can be a Jew, and you can still have feelings for Cuba. Still, I think the
last thing I would do is something to harm this country, because I think it is the
best country in the world.
P: How does your daughter identify herself?
K: Cuban-American, Jewish. The Jewishness, like I said, is taken for granted. Her
husband is a Jewish boy from New Jersey. She still knows how to Like,
when she comes on Yom Kippur, she is like a rabbi, still from So, she
strongly feels about being Jewish in that respect.
P: And although she left Cuba when she was four years old, she still sees herself as
K: Because of the language. I do not think she calls herself a Cuban-American. I
really do not know. I honestly do not know, because in the circles she goes
around, there are not many Cuban Jews or anything like that.
P: And this is usually the case with the second generation. Obviously, she was
brought up in America, and that is what she remembers.
K: Absolutely. Still, she likes Cuban food like everybody else does. My grandson
likes and he likes yellow rice and chicken. My granddaughter likes the
plantains. That is what is happening in Miami now. It is not anymore Cuban stuff.
In any restaurant, you find all those things.
P: In one sense in Miami, the Cuban community has become very important
economically and politically, Suarez, the mayor, politicians, head of the port
authority, on and on and on.
K: Alfred Goodman.
P: Yes, and it is quite different from when you arrived. Is this better?
K: Not to me.
P: Why not?
K: Because I do not like what I read. It does not affect me personally. By the way,
the wife of the mayor of Miami Beach is a Cuban Jewish girl. She was Queen
Esther [in a Purim play] here years ago. Sometimes it is because I am even
ashamed, because the attitude of many of them aggravated...staying with the
American people, I read articles that are very unfair but based on their point of
view about, the Cubans are taking over; the Cubans are doing this or doing that.
The Cubans have done much good to Miami, because I remember coming to
Miami Beach when all the stores were closed for summer. The city lived six
months a year. That was it. I remember. I remember going to the back of the
airport, and there were only horses and cows in there. There is plenty of money
floating. You know what I do not like? It is not only the Cubans here any longer.
You have to start talking about, not even Hispanic, Latin people.
K: The Haitians are a direct result of the Cuban situation. There is no question
about that. Now you have people from other countries. You have people from
Brazil, you have people from El Salvador, you have people from Nicaragua, you
have people from Honduras, who are bringing in a style of living, a real low
standard of living, much lower than the Cubans who came. What came out of
Cuba in the beginning was the cream. Why did they make it? Because they had
it. They had it in their head. And they assimilated themselves in all kinds of
businesses. They became millionaires. I do not like politics. I do not like them to
be involved in politics. I am ashamed. I am ashamed with Alberto Rudman, a
Jewish boy member of here. His parents are very, very wealthy. I do not see him
taking a bribe. I do not think it is necessary.
P: But there have been some scandals.
K: Oh yes. The only one, the only Cuban Jew, the other one, Bennas, gets involved
in politics many times. I stay away from them. I like whom I like, and I dislike
whom I dislike, and that is the way I want to have it. But, no, I soften my position.
Like I said before, I am easygoing. I have been hurt by being easygoing. Oh, I
have been hurt. But, just one more thing that I want to say. When I started
working at the Orange Blossom, Orange Blossom was a division of June Dairy,
which was a division of Foremost Dairies. June Dairy was selling eggs, and the
rest of the programs were selling Foremost Dairies. Foremost Dairies had to sell
Orange Blossom because of the antitrust law. So they had to get Orange
Blossom out of the picture, and that is when Mr. Frank Knight, who was the
original owner of Orange Blossom, bought it back. That is a cracker. So, when
they took that division out, the controller, who was a hillbilly, says to me one day,
you know, Aaron, they are selling Foremost; I am going to quit, because I do not
know; these people, they give me a job there; if you want, I could get you a job
as a clerk in accounting there. So I said to him, Ben, let me tell you something; I
paid $200 to an employment agency to get this job; they will have to fire me; I am
not quitting; I am not going anyplace. He said, but you do not know what you are
doing; you know Frank does not like Jews, and Frank does not like Cubans. I
said, well, he made the parlay with me, as in both. I am a combination Jew and
Cuban. So, the plant manager was a Cuban, To make a long story short,
because of that cracker, I have an apartment, I was able to save money to make
a big wedding for my daughter, and to have some money left, whatever was left.
That is the way he helped me, not as a Cuban, not as a Jew, [but] as a human
being, because I helped him in my own way. See, they got him for getting
kickbacks from some of the growers who sold oranges, and he was condemned,
but he did not go to jail. Now, the factor got out of the control of the company. I
was signing checks already, as accountant. They said, we cannot have Frank
Knight keep on signing checks; he is a felon, a convicted felon, and this is a
public-owned corporation. So, they said, we want you to take his position. He
was sales manager also. And I said, well, I do not mind checks and the other, but
I do not want the title. So they said, well, you are going to be executive vice-
president. That is okay. I said something else, I do not want to sit [at] his desk.
So, we made an arrangement. He kept his desk, and I had another desk. That is
where I was working. To him, that meant a lot, because he was already in his
years. That is the way I am. I am not looking to the other guy. He was a thief? I
do not care. In his own way, he was good to me, very good.
P: On that note, let's end. Thank you very much.
[End of interview.]