By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
“For her, freedom is being able to live and work in peace.” – Narrator speaking about Pearl Kahn in “Hotel Cuba”
Safety, enough food to eat and a decent place to live: that was the dream of many Jewish immigrants in the 1920s. These basic fundamentals of life were no longer guaranteed in Europe after the terror and chaos of World War I and the Russian Revolution. It was worse for the Jews in Eastern Europe, whose lives were even more precarious than before. That’s the reason Pearl Kahn and her youngest sibling, Frieda, plan to join their sister, Basha, in New York City. In “Hotel Cuba” by Aaron Hamburger (Harper Perennial), the two sisters are unable to receive an American visa so they travel to Cuba with the hope that it will be easier to enter the U.S. from there. Unfortunately, the immigration rules in the U.S. have tightened and the two sisters are stranded in Cuba.
Fortunately, the sisters receive help when they arrive. While the situation isn’t perfect, they find jobs sewing and decorating hats that also offer them a place to live. However, their reactions to life in Cuba are very different. Pearl, who has been saddled with household duties since she was 9, feels more a mother to Frieda than a sister, although she wonders if she pampers and coddles her sister more than is good for her. Pearl also does the majority of the millinery work and has difficulty adjusting to the heat and Cuban cuisine. Frieda, on the other hand, enjoys life in Cuba, although she, too, still wants to immigrate to the U.S. and searches for a way to do so, even if the method is illegal. The Americans both sisters see are in Cuba to drink and have a good time since the U.S. is in the midst of Prohibition. That also means some of these visitors are willing, for a price. to smuggle alcohol and immigrants to the U.S., that is. However, deciding who to trust is difficult because there are smugglers willing to take desperate people’s money and then dump them into the ocean once they are away from the shore.
The events in “Hotel Cuba” are seen through Pearl’s eyes and she is an intriguing character because she is imperfect and prickly. Her inability to quickly adjust to a new world makes sense in light of her personality. Yet, she is also brave, dedicated and hard-working, something that will help throughout her life. However, she has also never mentally recovered from an injury done to her before she left their home that has left her questioning her faith. Although she still keeps kosher, the sisters are expected to work on Shabbat. That doesn’t greatly bother Pearl because she no longer believes God cares about her life: for her, “God is like breathing, the ocean, the sky. A law of the universe. You think the ocean cares about your opinion when you try to cross it?”
While Frieda is popular with men, Pearl, who is in her late 20s, is old enough to be considered a spinster. She wonders if she will ever marry or if she will live a life without love and family. But she also learns that it’s impossible to predict the future: “This is how life is, giving up some things to get others. You make these decisions one at a time, find the best way to push forward, and move on to the next thing.” Yet, she also knows that refusing to make a decision has the same result: life will just move forward in a different way.
In his acknowledgments, Hamburger notes that his novel is based on the real life story of his grandparents. He captures the essence of what Pearl desires – a safe place to make a life – and does so with beautiful prose. The last page of the novel serves as reminder that memories – even ones that fade – affect us for the rest of our lives. “Hotel Cuba” is a welcome addition to novels about those emigrating from Eastern Europe to the Americas.