Brookline resident Steve Denker recently returned from a licensed, two-week trip to Havana, Cuba, with a suitcase full of photographs, not cigars. Denker, who traveled with his wife, was granted approval to visit Cuba to research his family, which lived in post World War I, pre-Castro, Cuba from 1928 to 1938.
His mother and maternal grandparents arrived in Cuba, opened an underwear factory and lived in Havana through the political unrest of the Machada and Batista regimes, leaving for New York in 1938. Denker had always wanted to visit the places where his family lived, walked and worked. "I was too dumb to ask my mother more questions."
Arranging the trip proved challenging, however. In addition to obtaining their own United States Treasury License because of U.S. travel restrictions, Denker and his wife – who are Orthodox – needed to arrange kosher food for the trip.
“It was exhausting,” said Denker, who began planning the trip months in advance. “We visited Miami, met other Cuban-Americans who had been to Cuba, searched consular records and old Havana phonebooks, sent thousands of e-mails, learned Spanish, and found some time to pack.”
Once they arrived in Havana, the rest was "easy," he says, with local friends to guide them. They brought and cooked their own food, prayed at the Orthodox synagogue and interacted with the Cubans. Denker called it a total immersion experience.
They spent mornings at the Jewish Cemetery in Guanaboca, documenting and photographing the 1,600 gravestones, but the story doesn't say where this resource will be archived for access by other researchers also searching Cuba for family records.
The family's successful business was sold, in part due to growing unrest, and they left in November 1938 for New York. He's the first to return since then.
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