In Cuba, a place untouched by time

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2009 - 11:02 PM

When Dalia Katz returned to Cuba almost 50 years after leaving, she found much change. Then she entered the apartment she and her husband shared.

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When Dalia Katz recently walked into the Havana apartment she and her husband shared almost 50 years ago, she was startled to see that it looked almost exactly the way she remembered, with a china cabinet, table, chairs and a book case she’d left behind.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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She was a young woman then, and they were heady times in Havana. President Fulgencio Batista was gone, and a charismatic new leader promised Cuba a new start.

The day the revolutionary soldiers rode through the city, the newspaper published notice that Dalia Katz had passed her board exams to become a certified public accountant. She had married a man who served on the team of the most prominent surgeon in the country, so their futures seemed bright. Giddy with excitement, Katz and her family went down to the street to watch the victorious rebels roll in.

"That's when my dad had doubts," Katz said, sitting at the dining room table in her Edina condominium. "He said something doesn't look right. It was supposed to be a revolution of the campesinos. Well, he had lived among farmers, and these men didn't look like the people he knew."

That subtle observation triggered a momentous change for Katz, now 74, and her family, a 50-year journey that came full circle recently when Katz went back to Cuba with other members of her St. Louis Park synagogue and found a startling piece of her life, preserved like a museum exhibit.

Within months of the revolution, Fidel Castro declared Katz's CPA certificate invalid, "to make us all equal." Newspapers and television stations were nationalized, and all news was cleared by the government. A relative lost his business, and Katz's father, a Polish immigrant who owned a button factory, gave it up to his employees.

The Castro regime was still in its early days when the dictator's son, Fidelito, was injured in a serious accident. Dalia Katz's husband, Beni, was told to rush to the hospital and he spent hours helping remove Fidelito's spleen.

Later, Castro recognized Beni at a restaurant and gave him a hug. "We kind of rolled our eyes," Katz said. "We knew by then we were leaving."

In 1960, they did.

They left everything behind in their newly constructed apartment. The place was nice, but nothing extravagant. They had a bedroom and an office, and furniture Dalia had picked out herself. They packed bags and, without telling anyone, quietly moved to the United States, living at first with a sponsor family.

They had less than $300 on them.

On June 12, a group from St. Louis Park's Beth El Synagogue arrived in Havana on a mission to reach out to the small Jewish community that remains in Cuba. They brought medicine, supplies and, most important, "some hope, and a promise to do more if we could," Katz said.

Most Jews left Cuba after the revolution, she said. Then, for 30 years, religion was all but banned. "There were no weddings, no bar mitzvahs, nothing," Katz said. (In recent years, rules have been relaxed, and now some young people attend Hebrew schools and go to services.)

Katz's two daughters, a son-in-law and a grandson went along on the trip to Cuba, none of them knowing what they would find. (Beni, who is ailing, did not go.)

The button factory her father owned was abandoned and boarded up. The warehouse in Old Havana had been turned into apartments. The home where her brother was born was crumbling and dilapidated.

At the apartment where she and Beni had lived, they took the elevator to the eighth floor. She knocked. A young boy answered, then ran to get his grandmother.

Katz told the woman this had been their home. Could they come in?

The woman opened the door.

It was almost as if the Katz family's life had been hermetically sealed that day in 1960. Only now someone else was living it.

"The china cabinet had been moved to the living room," Katz said. "My husband's bookcases were in the dining room. The chairs had been recovered. My coffee table was sitting there. It was unbelievable."

Almost 50 years after she walked away from her Cuban mis en scene, Katz had conflicting emotions about what it meant to see it nearly untouched. "I'm happy I did it, because I had to put closure on it," she said. "But it made me very sad."

"My daughters are glad they went because they wanted to plug the holes in the puzzle," Katz said.

They made one more trip in Cuba, to visit the graves of their grandparents. The stone's foundation was cracked, the grass was overgrown and letters were missing from the names. Their Cuban guide, who lives nearby, promised to oversee restoration of the family graves and to send photos.

"Because that's all I have left," she said. "All I have are the graves."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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