28 August 2008

Cuba: The Pedro Pan exodus, replanting roots

Nearly 400 Jewish children, among thousands of Catholic youngsters, were sent secretly to Miami during the Catholic-sponsored Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) 1960s program at the time of the Castro Revolution in Cuba. There are also photos and a video with the The Miami Herald story.

The youngsters left in small groups, flying to Miami to live in Jewish foster homes until their parents could join them.

The story also quotes good friend HIAS historian, Valery Bazarov, who was at the recent Chicago conference with his wife and son.

It was April 1961, Havana, Cuba. Lilian Brinberg, 15-year-old daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, had just been told some stunning news.

She and her younger sister, Silvia, would be leaving their parents, their friends and the only home they had ever known to fly to Miami, unaccompanied, and live with strangers in a foster home.

And so, the Brinberg sisters became part of a little-known chapter of Cuba's history: the Jewish kids of Pedro Pan -- the Catholic Church-sponsored effort to spirit unaccompanied Cuban kids to the United States under the noses of the Castro government.

Because it was run by the archdiocese in Florida and most children were cared for by Catholic social services, it has been assumed that the 14,048 who made the journey through Pedro Pan were Catholic.

In fact, 396 Jewish kids joined the exodus. For many - the children of families decimated and divided by the Holocaust and that thought they had found paradise in pre-Castro Havana -- the journey culminated a double diaspora.

Like immigrants elsewhere, problems included language, family separation and a lower status from their familiar homes. However, as young people usually do, they adapted, their families arrived, the community matured and prospered and built the Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami, "The Circle." They even had a band called The Bagels, which played Cuban-oldies.

El Patronato, the main Havana synagogue, noticed missing children at the bar-mitzvah club. The kids met every Sunday followed by the ritual of going to a restaurant and a movie. No one knew why more young people were missing each time.

As families gathered and told their children about the planned exodus, they were naturally upset.

Pedro Pan - a name coined by Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller and inspired by the fairy tale about a boy who could fly - was well under way, having started the day after Christmas, 1960.

The secretive airlift was initiated amid fears that Cuba, under Fidel Castro, would strip parental rights away and send children to work and study under the regime's control. Those fears may have been more acute among Cuban Jews, a community estimated at 15,000 by the late 1950s.

Although a significant number had come from the Middle East, many were Holocaust survivors who traveled alone to the island after seeing their families ripped apart by the Nazis.

To the Jews of Cuba, especially those who had fled the Holocaust, the United States was the ultimate destination -- or at least that's what they hoped. But immigration restrictions kept them out, at least in the short term.

Anthropologist Ruth Behar, who researches the Jews of Cuba, says they found more than a refuge on the island, "they found a paradise."

To those who had been through WWII, the Cuban revolution seemed familiar, according to Valery Bazarov. HIAS monitored the situation and would play an important role, helping the Cuban Jews to travel, providing documents and sometimes paying for transportation.

Why has this exodus been largely unrecognized outside of Jewish circles?

Marcos Kerbel, president of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation and a Pedro Pan Cuban himself, attributes the silence to the low profile the Jewish community in Cuba had traditionally maintained for fear of reprisals.

Documents from the archives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York, dusted off as a result of a recent El Nuevo Herald request, tell the story of the Pedro Pan Jews and establish that 396 made the journey.

What's clear is that the experience of the Pedro Pan Jews was a bit different from that of the Catholics who made up the bulk of the group.

While Catholic children without friends or family in the United States were sent to provisional campgrounds, the Jewish children were placed directly with Jewish foster families in South Florida and elsewhere. The resettlement was supervised by Jewish Family and Children's Services, which met them at Miami International Airport.

The children were individually visited monthly by the JFCS; living expenses were reimbursed by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

The article talks about re-establishing the sense of community and how hard it was in the beginning to feel accepted, but they overcame the hardships.

Read the complete article at the link above; view the photos and video.

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