Even before Nazi Germany invaded in the fall of 1939, Poland was a dangerous place to be Jewish. Determined to earn a living and raise his family in safety, Esther’s father fled to Cuba, but after years spent working as a street peddler, he can only afford to bring over one family member by the winter of 1937–38. Esther convinces the family that she should be the one to go and leaves her mother, grandmother and siblings for a long and frightening journey across the ocean. She arrives in Havana’s steamy shipyard clad in a woolen dress and stockings and is finally reunited with Papa; together, they travel to his small village of Agramonte.
Once she has settled in, Esther helps her father peddle his wares. Showing fortitude and resilience, she begins to use her creative talents to sew dresses to sell in order to raise the money to bring the rest of their family to Cuba. Traveling the streets of Agramonte with Papa, Esther readily makes new friends in her new and unfamiliar country.
Although Cuba is a safer place for Jewish people than Poland, Havana is still rife with anti-Semitism, embodied in the cruel Señor Eduardo, who seems intent on bringing Hitler’s hatred to Cuba. Esther’s determination to learn about the cultural traditions of her new home and to share her own traditions with her new friends provides a striking and empowering counterpoint. Through hard work, patience, talent and the kindness of others, Esther and her father endure and eventually thrive, remaining undaunted in pursuit of their goal of reuniting their family.
Letters From Cuba is told through Esther’s letters to her sister, Malka, in Poland, and author Ruth Behar creates a compelling narrative voice for Esther. She’s a preteen girl with a mature sensibility born out of the heavy burden she shoulders as she immigrates and raises the funds to reunite her family. Readers will root for Esther as she matures in her new country and keeps her dream alive.
Behar shines a light on the harsh and unjust reality of life for Jewish people in Poland during this time while succeeding in filling Esther’s story with warmth and hope. Letters from Cuba’s themes of friendship, family, faith and openhearted acceptance give this historical novel timeless resonance.