The tragic death of a Cuban Jew

Following the 1933 revolution in Cuba, the military government of Fulgencio Batista executed a 19-year-old man. It was the first and only time in the island’s history that a Cuban Jew had been summarily tried by a military tribunal and executed. Although accused of terrorist activities, Jaime Greinstein’s only crime was to oppose the Batista military regime, as Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami reports in this article for The Miami Herald.

Like many of his generation, Jaime became captivated by the “Revolution of 1933.” Although shortlived (1933-34), the revolution had a tremendous impact. It gave university students a taste of power and catapulted them into the mainstream of politics. It created an awareness among the students and the populations at large of the need, as well as the possibility, for rapid and drastic change. It weakened foreign domination of the economy, and opened new opportunities for several national sectors hitherto prevented from obtaining a bigger share of the national wealth because of Spanish and American presence and control.

Furthermore, the state’s involvement in the management of the economy was accelerated and new impetus given to the rise of organized labor. In the years following, the generation of 1930, as those revolutionaries that held power were known, experienced the harsh facts of Cuba’s power politics. The students expected the beginning of a new era of morality and change. They learned better.

Dominated by the army, Cuba’s political life returned to the corruption and old ways of the past. To govern Cuba, Batista chose as allies many of the old politicians expelled from power. Opportunistic and unscrupulous individuals assumed important government positions, corruption continued, repression and terrorism flourished. The years of struggle and suffering seemed in vain.

Cuba’s youth felt disillusioned and frustrated. Most abandoned their earlier idealism and found comfort in professional and business ventures. Some departed for foreign lands, never to return to their tragic island.

Others accepted radical ideologies such as communism or fascism. Several, however, broke with their past and shared in the spoils of office. Desiring to continue fighting for their frustrated revolution, many organized or joined political parties or groups that espoused the ideas of the revolution. A few used violence to oppose the new regime.

One of the groups hoping to keep alive the revolutionary tradition and to oppose the rise of the military was Joven Cuba or Young Cuba. Led by Antonio Guiteras, former Interior minister in the revolutionary government, Guiteras founded a clandestine organization bringing together radical and alienated students and youth. The group continued the tacticts of urban violence so successfully employed in the past.

The Batista regime, with Carlos Mendieta as its titular president, reacted brutally. Students were persecuted and arrested. Some escaped to the United States. Guiteras himself was spotted while trying to leave Cuba and killed on May 9. Jaime also tried to escape but was captured by Cuba’s military. Intending to make an example and squash opposition, a military tribunal sentenced him to death. No appeal. He was executed in Oriente province on April 11, 1935.

Jaime belonged to a Jewish family that had migrated from Poland to Buenos Aires at the turn of the century. Hoping to perhaps come to the United States, they moved to Cuba in 1909. There, two boys and two girls were born. Cuba was hospitable to foreigners. Immigration was encouraged. Tropical life was pleasant, without the harsh winters of Argentina and the heavy competition from thousands of migrants from Europe.

But Cuba’s political life was also turbulent. The establishment of a dictatorship led by Gerardo Machado in the early 1930’s had polarized society. Economic life turned sour following the world depression.

Unemployment rose, misery increased. Students and youngsters led a revolt against Machado, participated in the 1933 revolution and many continued to fight after the end of the revolution.

Jaime was catapulted into the voragine of Cuba’s revolutionary politics. Few in the small Jewish community participated in Cuba’s political process. Most had come to the “tropical paradise” in search of a better life, to escape the difficulties of Europe, the famines, the pogroms. Jaime grew up among these European Jews that migrated from the old continent. Yet he was different.

Restless, idealistic, he loved his homeland and felt a commitment to bettering its life. On Feb. 13, 1935, he wrote to his father: “Neither Cuba nor the revolution will ever be able to complain about men life myself. …

I have suffered hunger, persecution, jail, but that is the price we have to pay.”

Days before his execution, he wrote to his fiancé: “I launched myself into the odyssey of people’s sufferings, now I am suffering.”

Far away from his parents and family in Havana, he tried to prove his innocence. He asked the military tribunal to call several policemen to testify that he was asleep when the police came to arrest him, but none were called. Instead, two policemen who he had never met testified and accused him of revolutionary activities.

“I am innocent,” he proclaimed till the end of his life, “and it’s a travesty that they are about to kill an innocent man.” Just before his execution he lamented: “I cry in silence, it is sad to go to my death knowing that I am innocent.”

Jaime Greinstein was my mother’s brother. His life and tragic death had a profound impact on my life. I grew up sharing my mother’s sadness and dislike for the Cuban military and particularly for Batista.

In the late 1950s, I also became involved in Cuban politics, joined the underground against Batista’s dictatorship (1952-1958), escaped from Cuba in 1958, and returned with Castro’s victory. It is sad and difficult to write about an uncle I never knew but admired. All that is left is a small box with his letters and the memory of his tragic death.

For the original report go to http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/12/29/v-print/2566007/the-tragic-death-of-a-cuban-jew.html

Photo of Greinstein’s execution from http://www.autentico.org/index02.php

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