Religious persecution in the fifteenth century brought Jewish life to an end in Spain. The Spanish Inquisition gave Jews the choice to either convert to Catholicism or be expelled. Most Jews left for points east in the Mediterranean or north to France or the Netherlands. Those who stayed converted, but many continued to practice Judaism secretly. These “pretenders” of Catholicism were called los Marranos, which referred to the pork they would eat in public for show their support of Catholicism. Many Marranos headed for the “New World” where they established their communities, complete with synagogues. In Spanish controlled territories, however, while less threatened by the local government, the practice remained secret. In Cuba where the Inquisition was strong it was very difficult to continue Jewish practices even in secret. These “New Christians” left for other locations in the New World or were absorbed into the general Spanish population of Cuba.
Cuba saw many waves of Jewish immigration after the Spanish-American War. During the 1920s, with the tightening of immigration quotas into the U.S.A., Jews, mainly from Turkey and Eastern Europe, settled all over the island. Young men from Eastern Europe, both single and married, came to make a better life or to wait until they could get permission to immigrate to the U.S. Many quickly became successful peddlers and small businessmen. The married ones sent to Europe for their families and bought homes. Single men either sent to the “old world” for wives or intermarried with the Cuban Catholic population. Those from Turkey and other Sephardic Jews tended to arrive as family units. Since life in Havana was more expensive than in the countryside and more opportunities for economic success existed in other cities, the Sephardic influence became widespread across the island.
In the 1930s, Cuban Jews participated in an active communal life and they published a number of newspapers in Yiddish and Spanish with diverse religious and political orientations. Cuba was the first country in the Americas to allow Jews fleeing persecution in Europe to enter, when other countries – notably the United States – refused. Cuba was the first country in the Americas to allow Jews fleeing persecution in Europe to enter, when other countries refused. During this time, a central Jewish committee was created to represent all Jewish groups. As the 1930s progressed, there were episodes of anti-Semitism, a new phenomenon in Cuba. The plight of the Havana-bound passengers stranded on the German liner St. Louis dramatized the tragedy of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, yet they were also denied admission to Cuba.
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