The long road to Gwatemala

“Grandpa was an orphan. He left Poland because he had no family. He had no passport. He boarded the ship illegally. That’s how he got to Cuba. Later on, he moved to Guatemala.”

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“Grandpa was an orphan,” we were told. “He left Poland because he had no family. He had no passport. He boarded the ship illegally. That’s how he got to Cuba. Later on, he moved to Guatemala.”

“Jewish immigrants, whose Jewish traditions are still present, arrived at the be — ginning of the 20th century from Germany and Middle East countries, followed in the 1920s by East European Jews. Many of the latter came via Cuba and con — sidered Guatemala only a transit stop until they could obtain visas to the United States.” [EncyclopediaJudaica,“Guatemala”]

Some descendants of those East European Jews dropped in on us one rainy, winter evening. A mother and her three teenage children who were falling asleep after the rigors of their long journey.

Both parents’ grandparents came from Poland. From different towns. They met only once they were in Guatemala and it was there that they married. In the course of conversation, we were able to pin down some basic personal information, where they had come from, where they were born, who was who’s child and if there were any siblings.

“Grandpa was an orphan,” we were told. “He left Poland because he had no family. He had no passport. He boarded the ship illegally. That’s how he got to Cuba. Later on, he moved to Guatemala.”

When we asked about the other side of the family, about the paternal grand — father, we got a similar answer: “Grandpa and his brothers had no family; they were orphans. They sailed without passports to Cuba and later they moved to Guatemala.”

The youngest of these orphans, our guests’ grandfathers, were nine or ten years old. “When he got to Guatemala, Grandpa sold cigars on the street. He made them himself. Later, he set up a shop. As soon as his brothers arrived in Cuba, they went on to somewhere else.”

He had probably worked on a tobacco plantation in Cuba, we deduced. The stories seem to reflect the organized trafficking of young boys as an inexpensive work force to Cuba — to “a better world.” On the one hand, there were many orphans in faraway Poland with nowhere to go. On the other hand, more workers were needed in Cuba. Were there not an organized operation of some kind, how could three orphan boys possibly have boarded ocean liners without supervision, without money, without documents? How could they have been allowed to disembark and enter Cuba without papers or someone there to receive them?

The key moment in our conversation followed when our guest looked at us wide-eyed and said: “My God! Now I see them entirely differently. They were just little boys! And they had to work so hard. This was no adventure; it was enslavement! Now I have so many more questions to answer. Thank you; you’ve really opened up my eyes!”

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