My Man in Havana
When we fled Cuba in 1962, my uncle stayed. He died 50 years later, without ever explaining his decision.
My uncle died recently in Havana.
I knew a few things about him: He was an atheist, an idealist, clever, quiet and serious, tall and guapo. But the most important thing, in terms of our family history, is that he was known to us as “the communist.”
I didn’t really know him personally: The stranger holding me in faded black-and-white baby photos taken before my family left Cuba in 1962 was an enigma. My father rarely spoke of him, the brother who stayed behind after the communist revolution. On the few occasions when I met my uncle in person, he revealed little about himself—why he stayed, whether his politics had changed, or how he endured five decades under Castro’s regime, separated from his parents, his brother, his nieces.
I assumed that as a communist, he’d disavowed his Judaism, marrying two gentile women, and raising his children without religion. Yet he hadn’t left his identity behind completely. In his final days, suffering from terminal cancer, he asked to be buried in Havana’s Jewish cemetery.
Nobody in my family attended the funeral. It would have been impossible to get the necessary papers and visas approved immediately. But my dad wouldn’t have gone anyway; he has never returned to Cuba. My dad sat shiva privately, at home in Brooklyn. He didn’t want to rehash his past, or to talk about his brother. He chose silence.
My uncle had long done the same. Now, with his passing, any chance I had of learning more about his side of our family story has vanished forever.
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