After returning home from last night’s Seder at the synagogue I felt inspired to sit down and read a book about what happens after a miraculous escape. Margarita Engle‘s “Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba” provided me with that kind of narrative and more. It even had a Pesach reference on page 99 that talked to me:
I was taught that there are four
kinds of people in the world –
wise, wicked, simple,
and those who do not yet know
how to ask questions
I was taught that questions
are just as important as answers
I was a child when I learned these things,
Now I am old, but I still know
that life’s questions
outnumber life’s answers.
As you can guess from the subtitle of the book it follows the fears and quest of a new life of a Holocaust refugee. Daniel was barely bar-mitzvah-ed in 1939 when his parents purchased a ticket (using up all their money) for ship to New York. But the ship was not allowed to port in Canada or in New York, so it ended up in Cuba. There Daniel befriended a local girl of the same age, Paloma and an older Jewish man, who himself escaped from pogrom in Ukraine years ago. The book centers about their problems, perspectives and mutual support for each other.
It is made up of mostly one page long poems, most of them are internal monologues. The lines of the poems are short and the rhymes are varying. This combination makes the whole book with its staccato rhythm enjoyable. As you are reading the book tell your eyes to not to skip the very first line of the pages, which are differently typeset. That’s where we learn whose voice we read on the particular page, thus it is an important, integral part of the book.
The personal histories of these three characters reflect a part of history that most people didn’t know about: how successful the Third Reich’s spies, whom they sent to Cuba to incite anti-semitic feelings, were. How only the shock of Pearl Harbor turned the country against the Nazis. Another tragic tidbit of history of the island was how in their neophyte zeal they turned against Germany to such an extent that they had put every Germans, who were not Jews, onto a camp on a remote island. The book shows one fictional couple’s story, who have been married for 60 years, but as one of them was not Jewish they would have been separated by this short-lived law.
The book’s target audience is teenagers and it won the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award for the teen category. However everybody would enjoy it who is interested in history, life, big questions and enjoys poetry. I purchased it for our library with the hope that many of us will pick it up. I read it in an hour, but thought about it all day afterward. It is a well-crafted work in a nice presentation.