INTERVIEW WITH SEÑORA ABRAMCHIK
Interviewer: Esther Gaon
Thank you Señora Abramchik for agreeing to be interviewed. Do you mind sharing what got you to the place you are today?
It all started in 1959, when Fidel Castro came into power. My parents were upset because he had declared he was a communist, and he came into power with an army and a militia. My father used to go to the University of Havana, and knew who Castro was from way back, before the revolution started. My father always knew that there was something about Castro that he didn’t like. My father went to medical school while Castro was in law school. When Castro would gather around people and try to rile them up, my father would leave the area because Castro made him nervous.
My family lived in a very nice neighborhood since my father worked two jobs: He worked in the Jewish day school, which was right around the corner from my house, he was a brilliant math and science teacher; he also worked for the school of public health where he analyzed the safety of the drinking water, since he was such a chemist. Both my mother’s and father’s families loved to live in Cuba. My father didn't come from a large family, but my mother, on the other hand, did. We lived with all my cousins - my aunt lived upstairs in our house - the house was beautiful. It was like we lived on a tropical island, and it was like living in paradise! We used to walk around the corner to go to our school, since there was no bussing. In the area that I lived in there was a religious community, and there were many synagogues. We really had everything we could ever ask for.
But, once Castro came into power, everything changed. Now, we had to stand in line with our parents for food with ration cards. People couldn’t just buy what they wanted, that’s when things started to get a little difficult. Then we started to get nervous because we were hearing gunshots at night. I used to be home alone with my mother and siblings, since my father was usually working. When my mother heard gunshots, she would put us under the bed. It was a stressful lifestyle we lived in Cuba, and people were getting very nervous. My parents decided that it was time to leave Cuba. Some of my relatives already had left for Miami to open up businesses. My father was a professional, and knew that Miami was not the place for him, so he needed to go somewhere else. He thought that maybe Boston could be an option, but we had to stop in Jamaica first to get the paperwork done. HIAS, a Hebrew international organization aimed at helping people leave troubled countries, was the organization we used to leave Cuba. We left Cuba not because we felt antisemitism, but because we didn’t want to live under a communist regime without freedoms. Once the communists took over, the Jewish-owned toy store my mother worked for was taken by communists and issued ration cards, and so we decided to leave. My mother went to the HIAS, and I went along with her to make it seem like nothing was wrong. We used to go to these sleazy places and meet people who’d give us documents to help us leave Cuba. Then we went to Jamaica; I have very bad memories of Jamaica, since they put us in this hostile environment, where we were fed sardines every day. We also had to wait at a very unpleasant place to get the visas to get to Miami.
2. How long were you waiting in Jamaica for the visas?
A month. We spent a month in Jamaica. When we went to the airport to leave Cuba, my father met some colleagues from the public health department. He was nervous that they would deport us and he would be sent to jail. He told them we were going on a trip. Also, in those days, when someone would go on a plane, you had to go outside and walk up the stairs to the plane. The steps are metal steps with holes in the middle of them. So, as a little girl going up the steps, with Mary Jane shoes, my shoes fell off. We knew that we had to rush to get on the plane, but my father knew it was the only pair of shoes I had for shabbos, so he ran and got my shoe. Then we were finally able to get on the plane.
We went to Jamaica and spent a month there; it was terrible. It was a terrible, terrible time. My mother was able to hide some valuables from Cuba and put them in the hems of our dresses. When we finally left Jamaica, Miami was like a paradise. The beaches and palm trees were just like the ones we had in Cuba. But we couldn’t stay in Miami for long because my father was unable to find a job in Miami. Most schools wouldn’t hire refugees who were not citizens.
We ended up in Boston; my father had distant relatives that lived there. We got to Boston in the summertime. HIAS got us an apartment to live in, clothes, and shoes. There was one difficult thing though, because in Cuba I had gone to a day school, where I had a dual curriculum, but here we couldn't find that. Then my mother met some Jewish Cubans who told her that we needed to go to the Lubavitch Yeshiva, since there is a whole group of people like us, and that’s how we got into yeshivas. My father finally got a job at the Harvard School of Public Health. He became a citizen by going to night school to learn English and about the U.S.; my siblings and I didn’t have to take the test because we were all under sixteen. My siblings and I learned English by ourselves, without the help of our schools. The yeshivas were a little better and more helpful than the public schools, but because of the yeshiva’s dual curriculum, it was hard. But we managed, and then we all went to college. I learned English so well that people could hardly ever tell that I was a foreigner.
3. Is there anything else about the story of how you came to America that you want to add?
Well, actually, in my family, I’m the oldest, my brother was only a few months old, and my sister was three years younger than me. Since I was the oldest, during the time we were leaving Cuba, I was the only one of us who was aware of what was going on. I was aware that we were leaving our home, and that all of my cousins had left already, and that was very hard for me.
4. Were you the last person to leave Cuba from your family?
On my father’s side of the family we were not the last ones to leave. He only had one sister who was married with two daughters, and his parents. We used to write to our family in Cuba and put pieces of gum inside the letters because they couldn’t get gum in Cuba. But when the letters went through the mail, people would check the outgoing mail and take out the gum.
5. Do you have any family members left in Cuba?
No, I do not. But, my grandfather is buried there. We tried to bury him somewhere else other than Cuba because it’s so lonely there, but we couldn’t. There are only a small amount of Jews left in Cuba, and the Jews who are there intermarry.
6. What inspired you to become a teacher?
Well, I really wanted to be a nutritionist. I wanted to be a nutritionist because I love knowing that people are eating healthy in order to stay healthy. But, everybody said that I had a knack for teaching, so when I was in college I took a lot of the courses and became friends with my Spanish Chevra who encouraged me to go into teaching. I decided that since I was bilingual, I would take their advice. Aside from teaching Spanish in high school and middle school, I also taught preschool. This was mainly because when my kids were young I wanted to be in school with them so badly, so I became a preschool teacher.
7. Did you teach your kids Spanish?
No, well yes, I taught them Spanish, but I wanted to be home when they were home. I got jobs in high schools to teach Spanish when I got married. I had kids going to preschool. But then I had a terrible thing in my life after I had two kids. After we had our two kids, my husband passed away. So, I had to be the full time breadwinner. Because it was very sudden, since my husband was only in his thirties, and I had two little kids. My daughter was five, and my son was two. I needed to make a living, so I worked in the preschool, so I could make money, and also so I could be with my kids. My parents helped out because we lived in the same neighborhood, and they were around the corner. My mother would babysit, and I would work in the afternoon. I had to make do with what I had. Then I remarried and had another baby boy, and I went back to teach Spanish in high school, in Maimonides. I loved working with those kids. Then I came to HAFTR, and here I am now.