Book excerpt

Tropical Secrets

Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Margarita Engle

Holt Books for Young Readers

JUNE, 1939

DANIEL

Last year, in Berlin

on the Night of Crystal

my grandfather was killed

while I held his hand.

 

The shattered glass

of a thousand windows

turned into the salty liquid

of tears.

 

How can hatred have

such a beautiful name?

Crystal should be clear

but on that dark night

the glass of broken windows

did not glitter.

 

Nothing could be seen

through the haze

of pain.

 

DANIEL

 

My parents are musicians

poor people, not rich.

 

They had only enough money

for one ticket to flee Germany

where Jewish families like ours

are disappearing

during nights

of crushed glass.

 

My parents chose to save me

instead of saving themselves

so now, here I am, alone

on a German ship

stranded in Havana Harbor

halfway around

the huge world.

 

Thousands of other Jewish refugees

stand all around me

on the deck of the ship

waiting for refuge.

 

DANIEL

 

First, the ship sailed

to New York

and then Canada

but we were turned away

at every harbor.

 

If Cuba does not

allow us to land

will we be sent back

to Germany’s

shattered nights?

 

With blurry eyes

and an aching head

I force myself to believe

that Cuba will help us

and that someday

I will find my parents

and we will be a family

once again.

 

 

 

 

PALOMA

 

One more ship

waits in the harbor

one ship among so many

all filled with sad strangers

waiting for permission to land

here in Cuba.

 

Our island must seem

like such a peaceful resting place

on the way to safety.

 

I stand in a crowd

on the docks, wondering why

all these ships

have been turned away

from the United States

and Canada.

 

DANIEL

 

One of the German sailors

sees me gazing

over the ship’s railing

at the sunny island

with its crowded docks

where strangers stand

gazing back at us.

 

The sailor calls me

an evil name---

then he spits in my face

but I am too frightened

to wipe away

the thick, liquid hatred.

 

So I cling to the railing

in silence

with spit on my forehead.

I am thirteen, a young man

but today I feel

like a baby seagull

with a broken beak.

 

 

 

DANIEL

 

This tropical heat

is a weight in the sky

crushing my breath

but I will not remove

my winter coat, and my fur hat

or the itchy wool scarf

my mother knitted

or the gloves my father gave me

to keep my hands warm

so that we could all

play music together

someday, in the Golden Land

called New York.

 

I am secretly terrified

that if I remove

my warm clothes

someone will steal them

along with my fading

stubborn dream

of somehow reaching the city

where my parents promised

to find me

beside a glowing door

at the base of a statue

called Liberty

 

in a city

with seasons of snow

just like home.

Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Hurricane Dancers, and The Firefly Letters. She lives in northern California.