Cuban Refugee Program

“With the rise of Castro’s power in 1959 and the introduction of economic, political an educational suppression, Cuba’s 10,000 Jews who had lived in that country since the 1920s and were refugees when they arrived in that country began to seek a permanent haven in the United States. By the summer of 1960 large scale exodus of Jews began, ultimately involving 7,500 persons. At that time, United Hias set up a resettlement staff at the Cuban Refugee Center in Miami.”

Narrative Report to Department of Health, Education & Welfare, 1973
Narrative Report to Department of Health, Education & Welfare, 1973

I have been working with a group of five boxes that were poorly identified in our box list, but which have turned out to be files of HIAS Comptroller Harry M. Friedman, from the 1950s through the 1970s. One box is mostly correspondence with HIAS’ office in Tel Aviv; most of the remaining files cover in great detail HIAS’ participation in the rescue and resettlement, mostly in the United States, of Jewish refugees from Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s. With the recent thaw in US relations with Cuba, these files are all the more interesting. Plus an unexpected mention of the US base at Guantanamo Bay, and “diverting planes to Cuba” adds a layer of intrigue and context.

Many of Friedman’s Cuba files deal with the financial arrangements constructed with both private funding and government appropriations, as one would expect in the files of the Comptroller. As HIAS Comptroller, Friedman also held positions of responsibility with the Board of Directors – Financial Vice-President, and Secretary to the employee pension fund. Because of these combined responsibilities we have decided to place his files within the Executive Division instead of in Finance. It is clear from Friedman’s files that he worked closely with the Executive Vice-President, and appears to have been an integral member of HIAS’ professional executive team for possibly 25 years.

The Cuban files contain correspondence with Jewish communities including the Central Jewish Board of Curacao and the Jewish communities in Jamaica and Mexico. Members of these communities worked with HIAS in NY and in Miami to evacuate refugees first on short charter flights from Havana to Jamaica, and then to the United States processing center in Miami. HIAS also worked with other non-profits, including Church World Service and the International Rescue Committee, in arranging for and covering the costs of these flights.

Central Jewish Board of Curacao, 1970
Central Jewish Board of Curacao, 1970

By 1970 8,000 Jews had been evacuated from Cuba. Ralph Bergel, a HIAS employee long involved with resettling refugees in communities throughout the United States, shared the following anecdote about two brothers, 16 and 21, who had recently arrived in Miami in a letter to Executive Vice-President Gaynor I. Jacobson: “After so many years of dealing with Cuban refugees, we had this week a new experience. For the first time two young Cubans escaped from Cuba by slipping into the navy base, Guantanamo, from where they were brought to Miami with a group of other escapees, by navy plane … they lived with their parents close to the navy base, and without informing their parents, entered the base.  The brothers are destined to their uncle in Houston, Texas, who agreed to take them, at least temporarily into his home … We just learned that the Cuban Refugee Center does not authorize for Guantanamo arrivals flights to their community of end destination, in order to avoid any chance of diverting planes to Cuba.  The two young men are being sent by bus to Houston.”

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2 thoughts on “Cuban Refugee Program

  1. Did you find any documents pertaining to the nearly 400 Cuban Jewish children that were airlifted unaccompanied from Havana to the US either directly or via a third country, such as Curacao, Jamaica and Mexico, in the early 1960s? I am trying to piece together their United HIAS Services’ resettlement in conjunction with local Jewish organizations such the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Miami, the New York Association for New Immigrants, and the Association for Jewish Children of Philadelphia, to name a few. I fear that this chapter in the history of Cuba’s Jewish community might be lost.

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