On a Raft & a Prayer // In 1994, Nancy Torres (now Kaufman), a 14-year-old Jewish girl, set out on a primitive raft from Havana, Cuba, to America. This is her story.

As told to Victoria Dwek

While I’ve been asked several times to tell my story, I always declined. Surely I should wait until I’ve contributed enough to humankind before I can inspire others. However, as I grow inevitably older and wiser, I’ve come to realize that we never get to accomplish everything we set out to do, and there’s never a perfect time because tomorrow is never a given. So while my journey continues to evolve, there is no longer a reason to wait.

Every Jew in Cuba has a story. My maternal grandfather’s family can trace its lineage all the way back to the conversos who fled to Cuba to escape the Spanish Inquisition. My grandfather’s citizenship was still listed as “Spanish” on his passport. Those were the only Jews on the island for several hundred years, and few families like my grandfather’s remained purely Jewish.

After the Cuban War of Independence that ended in 1898, Cuba became a haven for Jews. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Sephardic Jews arrived first, among them my grandmother’s family, who had come from Persia via Kurdistan.

Most of the Sefardim, though, were Ladino-speaking Jews from Turkey, including my paternal grandmother’s family. Fortunately, because Ladino is a Judeo-Spanish language, there was no language barrier and they acclimated well to their new home.

Then the European Jews arrived, first escaping pogroms in Poland and then fleeing Nazi Germany. My father’s father was German. His family had come to Cuba just before World War II, as they could see the winds of war blowing on the horizon. Some of his extended family went to Argentina, while others went to various locations in the Caribbean.

Eventually there would be 20,000 Jews and five synagogues in Havana, and it was in this Jewish melting pot that my converso-Persian mother married my German-Turkish father.

* * *

I never had the opportunity to know my father; he passed away when I was only four months old. The only photos I ever saw of him were the sepia-toned images from my parents’ wedding. By the time they got married, most Americans had been using full-color Kodak film for decades, but there was no such thing as a handheld camera that took casual snapshots in Cuba. If people wanted to have a picture taken, they’d hire a photographer who took formal, posed portraits of his subjects. Those big wedding portraits are all I have.
Although Cuba was very modern and cosmopolitan pre-communism, once Castro came into power everything was frozen in time. Throughout my childhood, Cuba was always decades behind America; little got through because of the embargo. Nowadays the lines of communication are much more open, although even today not every home has a landline. Internet access is available at government-sponsored WiFi hotspots, but the websites are highly censored.

My mother didn’t take my father’s death well. She was a young mother, just at the beginning of her life, and it was difficult for her move on. She needed time to heal and to regain her footing, so she moved back in with her parents. That’s where I was raised, and my grandparents became like my parents.

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