Obama Eases Travel Restrictions To Cuba, Opens Up A World Of History

By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

Updated on 4/15/09: An earlier version of this blog post has been updated regarding a cousin's name.

Now that President Obama has made it easier for (Cuban) Americans to travel to Cuba, my cousins "Rico" (he asked that his real name not be used here) and Irene and I are contemplating plans to travel there later this year--my grandfather's adopted homeland and the land of "Rico" & Irene's birth.

This is not a blog item about the policy implications of President Obama's decision to expand relations with Cuba--one would hope the first step toward an ultimate normalization of relations. Let the policy experts debate the pros and cons. This is about my personal family history as it relates to that tiny jewel of a Caribbean island.

My grandfather was a Russian/Polish Jew who tried to emigrate to America in the 1920s, to flee the increasingly regular military assaults on Jewish villages, or shtetls, in his homeland. There were quotas on Jewish immigration to the United States in those days, so he decided to get out quickly (before he was killed like many of his relatives) and went to Cuba to await his legal visa to the United States. He left with two of his brothers, one of whom was "Rico's" father.

The Jewish community in Cuba pre-Castro was pretty large, and thriving. I've heard estimates there were as many as 15,000 "Jubanos" as they were called. My cousin "Rico" likes to joke that some of them were even native-born converts lured into Judaism by the free food at the temples, which they preferred to the food doled out by local churches.

My grandfather and his two brothers set up a variety of businesses during the decade or more that he awaited his visa. One, according to my father, was a tiny general store in the Cuban countryside called El Gallo de Oro, or the Golden Rooster. As he made money, my grandfather made ventures in the Havana real estate market, eventually owning a small rental apartment building with some 20 units, and a bowling alley, among other buildings.

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By Bonnie Erbe