She could have left Cuba many times.
As a Cuban Jew, Frida Zaitman could have gone to Israel or the United States, maybe even Europe.
But Havana was the home she knew, the refuge her parents had settled upon after fleeing a war-torn Poland and Hitler’s Holocaust.
Zaitman, now 61, was raised by an Afro-Cuban nanny after her mother died giving birth to Zaitman and her twin brother, Felix. Zaitman and her nanny, Magda Danger, now 88, are an inseparable if odd pair.
“I could have left, but I would have missed my mother,” Zaitman says of Danger. “You reach a certain age....”
Zaitman’s neat but cramped two-bedroom apartment (the refrigerator is in the dining room with a large oak table that barely leaves room to slither through) tells of a generation of lives intertwined.
There are porcelain tchotchkes from Zaitman’s family, and numerous old photographs of handsome black men and babies from Danger’s. The two women sleep in the two bedrooms — no relegating Danger to servants’ quarters.
Every minute of their day-to-day lives — shopping (such as it is in Cuba, where consumer products are limited), eating lunch, drinking coffee, cleaning, remembering — is shared.
Jews and blacks are subset communities within a Cuba that struggles to project a post-revolutionary, unified national identity. In centuries past, blacks mostly came as slaves from an Africa where they were sold. Jews came as refugees from a Europe that was rejecting them. Eventually the two communities gained a form of acceptance amid sacrifice and accommodation.
Afro-Cubans, mostly descendants of slaves brought to work the sugar cane fields in the 18th century, today are probably a majority of the island’s population; many could not afford to join the massive departures from Cuba after the 1959 revolution. Jews, whose numbers fell after Fidel Castro came to power, remain a tiny minority.
For Zaitman and Danger, ending up together is probably not unusual in the grand Cuban scheme of things. But their keen loyalty to each other might be.
Cuba was a way station in the early 20th century for a great exodus of people from a Europe soon to be ravaged by war. Jews especially were part of that movement, at least those who could afford the trip and the hundreds of dollars charged for visas by the lands of destination. Cuba was relatively welcoming to Jews, in contrast to the United States. When their ships stopped in Cuban ports en route to Mexico or South America, many Jews decided to remain on the island.
The family of Zaitman’s father was among them. He arrived in Cuba as a youth in 1927. Her mother came later, surviving World War II death camps and landing on the island in 1946, thin and frail.
The two met and married in 1947. She gave birth to a boy and in 1954 died in childbirth. Felix Zaitman would go on to become a successful naval engineer, working on Cuban ships the world over. Their older brother took to a different kind of boat, a raft to Miami during the Mariel boatlift, in which tens of thousands of Cubans escaped to the United States. He died a decade or so ago.
Danger’s memories are fading more quickly. She was in her 20s, from a large family, when Frida Zaitman’s newly widowed father recruited her to take care of the twins. He never remarried. Danger became part of the family, Zaitman’s lifelong companion and her stated reason for not leaving Cuba.
“I could have gone to Israel; they pay everything,” Zaitman said over demitasse cups of coffee in her apartment recently. Friends left. “I can’t think of a family that doesn’t have family in the United States or abroad. Living here prepares you for anything.
“We had chances to go,” she said. “We decided to stay.”
Truth be told, although Zaitman might have been able to leave, a visa for Danger would have proved far more difficult. There was some anti-Semitism in Cuba soon after the revolution, but more a part of an official atheism in which no religion was supposed to be practiced publicly. But that has passed, Zaitman said.
Maybe given her parents’ experience, the idea of life as a refugee seemed more daunting to Zaitman than any hardship Cuba might offer. And she thinks things will get better “in my lifetime” — more visits from those abroad, more food and clothing available in the markets — as relations improve between Cuba and the United States.
“With all of its problems,” she said, “this is my country.”