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Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

by Margarita Engle

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Daniel has escaped Nazi Germany with nothing but a desperate dream that he might one day find his parents again. But that golden land called New York has turned away his ship full of refugees, and Daniel finds himself in Cuba.

As the tropical island begins to work its magic on him, the young refugee befriends a local girl with some painful secrets of her own


Daniel has escaped Nazi Germany with nothing but a desperate dream that he might one day find his parents again. But that golden land called New York has turned away his ship full of refugees, and Daniel finds himself in Cuba.

As the tropical island begins to work its magic on him, the young refugee befriends a local girl with some painful secrets of her own. Yet even in Cuba, the Nazi darkness is never far away . . .

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Newbery Honor-author Engle (The Surrender Tree) again mines Cuban history for her third novel in verse, this time focusing on Jewish refugees who sought asylum from the Nazis in Havana. Covering the period from 1939 to 1942, first-person poems alternate among 13-year-old Paloma, whose father is a corrupt Cuban bureaucrat; David, a Russian immigrant; and Daniel, whom readers meet aboard a ship in Havana harbor. Daniel, also 13, is alone: "My parents are musicians-/ poor people, not rich./ They had only enough money/ for one ticket to flee Germany." The boy's isolation anchors the story emotionally. Daniel is befriended by Paloma, who feels guilt over her father's acceptance of bribes for visas, and mentored by David, who warns Daniel that he must tame "three giants"-the heat, the language and loneliness. Worries about German spies among the refugees suddenly makes the "J" label on Daniel's passport a coveted symbol, as only non-Jewish Germans are arrested. Engle gracefully packs a lot of information into a spare and elegant narrative that will make this historical moment accessible to a wide range of readers. Ages 12-up. (Apr.)

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Children's Literature - Miriam Chernick
This novel in verse is told primarily in two voices: that of thirteen-year old Daniel, a Jewish refugee who flees Germany on a boat to Cuba in 1939, and of Paloma, a local Cuban girl who is eager to help Daniel and other refugees. Despite their differences, Daniel and Paloma become friends, each with their own secrets, which they eventually trust one another enough to share. Daniel dares to hope he will see his parents again. His new discoveries: the Spanish language, tropical fruit, dancing, Carnival music, are juxtaposed against his longing for the life and family he was forced to leave behind. Paloma dares to dream of one day being a dancer like the mother who abandoned her. She also longs to confront her father about getting rich selling visas to refugees and working as an agent for the Cuban authorities. Just when Daniel is starting to feel safe in Cuba, a campaign is launched to arrest all Christian refugees under suspicion of being Nazi spies. Paloma and Daniel hide one such refugee, Mark, and his Jewish wife Miriam. Daniel finds solace in helping this couple, as well as in mentoring a young refugee with his same name and shared interest in music. By the end of this beautifully written story, the reader is filled with hope for a brighter future for Daniel and the others who escaped the Nazi regime. Reviewer: Miriam Chernick
School Library Journal
Gr 6–10—Succinct free verse poems (Holt, 2009) by Margarita Engle relate this interesting, little known piece of world history. After Kristallnacht, pogroms staged in 1938 by the Nazis against the Jews in Germany, Daniel's parents have just enough money to buy him a ticket and get him out of the country. Daniel, 13, arrives in Cuba in 1939 aboard a refugee ship that was first turned away from Canada and then from the U.S. The boy is one of the thousands of Jews to receive sanctuary in Cuba during the Holocaust. After Pearl Harbor, Cuban officials grow concerned about espionage and imprison German Christians. The red "J" on Daniel's passport that condemned him in Germany, ironically saves him now. An older Russian Jewish refugee, David, and a young Cuban girl, Paloma, befriend Daniel and the three work together to try to save an elderly couple from persecution. Paloma has secrets and her father, El Gordo, is a corrupt official who defrauds refugees and holds them hostage to his greedy monetary demands. The full-cast narration gives an authentic and distinct voice to each character and will engage listeners. This is historical fiction at its best. A personal note read by the author relates the history of the era and her own family story.—Patricia McClune, Conestoga Valley High School, Lancaster, PA
Kirkus Reviews
Readers familiar with the author's prior works (The Poet Slave of Cuba, 2006, etc.) will recognize both style and themes in this verse novel set in World War II-era Cuba. The story, like its companion volumes, unfolds through alternating first-person narrative poems. Daniel, a 13-year-old Holocaust refugee, arrives in Cuba without his parents and is taken under wing of the elderly David, who immigrated to Cuba from Russia in the 1920s. He meets 13-year-old Paloma, who works to assist the refugees in defiance of her disagreeable but powerful father, El Gordo. A bureaucrat, he inflates the price of visas for Jews seeking refuge in Cuba, although he is not above making a few dark contributions of his own while the young characters attempt to do the right thing. Engle's tireless drive to give voice to the silenced in Cuban history provides fresh options for young readers. An author's note reveals her close relationship with this particular part of Cuban history. Stylistically, however, the manipulation of characters and their fictional conflicts seem, in this latest addition, formulaic. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)
From the Publisher

“This book is an outstanding choice for young people of all reading skills. Reluctant readers will be encouraged by the open layout and brief text, and everyone will be captivated by the eloquent poems and compelling characters.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“Engle gracefully packs a lot of information into a spare and elegant narrative that will make this historical moment accessible to a wide range of readers.” —Publishers Weekly

“Engle's tireless drive to give voice to the silenced in Cuban history provides fresh options for young readers.” —Kirkus Reviews

“As in The Poet Slave of Cuba (2006) and The Surrender Tree (2008), both selected as Booklist Editors' Choice titles, Engle's latest book tells another story set in Cuba of those left out of the history books. In fluid, clear, free verse, two young people speak in alternating personal narratives...the international secrets make for a gripping story about refugees that becomes sharply focused through the viewpoint of the boy wrenched from home, haunted by the images of shattered glass and broken family.” —Booklist

“This moving free-verse historical novel tells the tale of thirteen-year-old Daniel, a Jewish refugee who escapes Nazi Germany in 1939 in hopes of finding safety abroad…the emphasis on the inner life of the characters gives the narrative an emotional drama that transcends its period.” —BCCB

“Readers who think they might not like a novel in verse will be pleasantly surprised at how quickly and smoothly the story flows...The book will provide great fodder for discussion of the Holocaust, self-reliance, ethnic and religious bias, and more.” —VOYA

Product Details

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
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Read an Excerpt

Tropical Secrets

Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Margarita Engle

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2009 Margarita Engle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1981-4


JUNE 1939


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    This tropical heat
    is a weight in the sky
    crushing my breath,
    but I will not remove
    my winter coat or 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.

    If I remove
    my warm clothes,
    someone might 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.


    My father's secrets
    torment me.

    Almost every evening
    I hear him whispering plans
    as he dines and drinks
    with other officials,
    the ones who decide
    what will happen
    to all the sad people
    on their patient boats.

    Last night
    I heard my father say
    that all these refugees
    from faraway places
    are making him rich.

    I heard him bickering
    with his friends
    about the price they will charge
    for permission to come ashore
    and find refuge
    in Cuba.


    The only riches I have ever known
    are the sounds of pianos, flutes, and violins,
    so when the German sailors on this ship
    keep telling me that I am rich
    and that I should pay them
    to stop spitting in my face,
    I feel like laughing and crying
    at the same time.

    I have only a few coins
    sewn into a secret place
    inside my heavy, itchy coat,
    but my parents warned me
    that I will need
    that little bit of money
    no matter where I end up,
    so I must let the sailors spit.

    I keep telling myself
    that if I ever reach New York
    or any other safe place

    I will look back on this day
    of heat and humiliation
    and none of it will matter
    as long as I am free
    to play music
    and to believe
    that I still have a family


    When I overhear my father's secrets,
    I understand —
    any ship turned away from Cuba
    will have no place to go,
    no safe place on earth.

    Those ships will return
    to Germany,
    where all the refugees
    will suddenly be homeless
    and helpless
    in their own homeland.

    My father thinks it is funny,
    a clever trick
    the way he sells visas
    to enter our small island nation
    and then decides
    whether the people
    who buy the visas
    will actually be allowed
    to land.


    Solid ground,
    the firmness of earth
    beneath my shoes,
    even if it is just a filthy street
    crowded with beggars
    wearing strange costumes

    and people
    of all different colors
    mixed up together,
    as if God had poured out
    a bunch of leftover paints
    after making brown rocks
    and beige sand....


    Drumming ...
    someone is drumming
    on our front door. ...

    It's the sound of a vendor
    knocking at the door
    and singing in Spanish
    with his raspy Russian accent,
    singing about cold, sweet ice cream,
    vanilla in a chocolate shell,
    like some sort of odd sea creature
    from the far north.

    Papá would be furious
    if he knew that I am a friend
    of the old man who sells ice cream
    door to door.

    Papá would be angry
    not only because Davíd
    is poor and foreign
    but also because he is Jewish,
    a refugee who came to Cuba
    from the Ukraine
    long ago.

    I open the door
    and greet Davíd.
    I buy the cold treat quietly —
    whispering is a skill I have learned
    by watching my father
    make his secret deals.


    The next singing vendor
    who comes along
    is a Chinese man selling herbs
    and red ribbons to ward off
    the evil eye.

    I buy one strand of protection
    for each of my long black braids
    and a third for the dovecote,
    my castlelike tower
    in our huge, forested garden —
    the tower where I feed my winged friends,
    wild doves who come and go as they please,
    gentle friends, not captives in cages.

    Even bright ribbons and cold ice cream
    are not enough to make me feel
    like an ordinary twelve-year-old girl.

    I feel like a fairy-tale princess
    cursed with deadly secrets
    that must be kept silent.


    Hundreds of refugees
    crowd into the central courtyard —
    an open patio at the heart
    of an oddly shaped Cuban house.

    I am not accustomed to buildings
    with trees and flowers at the center
    and a view of open sky
    right in the middle of the house
    where one would expect to find
    a stone fireplace
    and sturdy brick walls.

    Brown-skinned Cubans
    and a red-haired American Quaker woman
    take turns trying to give me
    new clothes made of cotton,
    but I refuse to take off
    my thick winter coat.

    I find it almost impossible
    to believe that I will ever
    see my parents again,
    but at the same time
    I secretly remember
    their dream
    of being reunited
    in a cold, glowing city.

    I don't see how I can survive
    without that tiny sliver of hope,
    my imaginary snow.


    A friendly old man
    gives me one ice-cream bar
    after another.

    He says he had to flee Russia
    long ago, just as I have fled Germany.

    He tells me he understands how I feel —
    I am certain that no one
    could ever understand,
    but he speaks Yiddish
    so I shower him with questions.

    He tells me his name is David
    and that over the years
    he has grown used to hearing his name
    pronounced the Spanish way — Davíd,
    with an accent on the second syllable,
    like the sound of a musical burst
    at the end.

    I promise myself that I will never
    let anyone change the rhythm
    of my name.


    Two days later, I am still wearing
    my heavy coat.

    The old ice-cream man tells me
    that I will have to stay here in hot, sweaty
    Hotel Cuba,
    so I might as well remove
    my uncomfortable clothing.

    It takes me a while to figure out
    that David is joking.
    I am not really in a hotel
    but in some sort of strange
    makeshift shelter for refugees.

    The ice cream is charity,
    my melting breakfast
    and messy dinner.


    A girl with olive skin and green eyes
    helps David pass out festive plates
    of saffron-yellow rice
    and soupy black beans.

    The girl has wavy red ribbons
    woven into her thick black braids.
    She glances at me, and I glare back,
    trying to tell her to leave me alone.

    The meal is strange, but after two days
    of ice cream, hot food tastes good
    even in this sweltering
    tropical weather.

    My coat is folded up beside me.
    I am finally wearing cotton clothing,
    cool and comfortable,
    a shirt and pants donated
    by strangers.

    What choice do I have?
    I still cling to my dream
    of a family reunion
    in snowy New York,
    but in the meantime, here I am
    in the sweaty tropics,
    struggling to breathe humid air
    that feels as thick as the steam
    from a pot of my mother's
    fragrant tea.


    The girl asks me questions
    in Spanish

    while the ice-cream man translates
    into Yiddish.

    Back and forth we go,
    passing words from one language
    to another,

    and none of them are my own
    native tongue, Berlin's familiar

    Still, I am grateful
    that Jews in Europe
    all share Yiddish,

    the language of people
    who have had to flee
    from one land to another
    more than once.


    I am glad that I have plenty
    of ice cream and advice
    to give away

    because what else can I offer
    to all these frightened people
    who are just beginning to understand

    what it means
    to be a refugee
    without a home?


    David says that removing my coat
    was the first step
    and accepting strange food
    was the second.

    Now, he wants me to plunge
    into the ocean.
    Others are doing it —
    all around me, refugees wade
    into the island's warm
    turquoise sea.

    David insists that I must learn
    how to swim, if I want to cool off
    on hot days.

    He speaks to me with his hands dancing
    and his voice musical, just like the islanders
    who sound like chattering
    wild birds.

    I find the old man's company
    comforting in some ways
    and troubling in others.

    He is still Russian, still Jewish,
    but he talks like a completely
    new sort of person,
    one without memories
    to treasure.


    The city of Havana is never quiet.
    Sleep is impossible — there are always
    the drums of passing footsteps
    and the horns of traffic
    and choirs of dogs barking;
    an orchestra of vendors singing
    and neighbors laughing
    and children fighting. ...

    Today, when I ventured out by myself,
    one beggar sang to me
    and another handed me a poem
    in a language I cannot read,
    and there was an old woman
    who cursed me because I could not
    give her a coin.

    Some words can be understood
    without knowing
    the language.

    I lie awake, hour after hour,
    remembering the old woman's anger
    along with my own.


    Perhaps it is true,
    as my father used to say,
    that languages
    do not matter as much
    to musicians
    as to other people.

    My grandfather was always
    able to communicate
    with violinists from other countries
    by playing the violin,

    and when a French pianist
    visited our house, my parents spoke
    to him with sonatas,

    and when an Italian cellist
    asked me a question,
    I answered him
    with my flute.


    All I want to do is lose myself
    in dreams of home,

    but the Cuban girl who brings food
    keeps asking me questions
    in Spanish.

    I try to silence her
    by drumming my hands
    against the trunks of trees and vines
    in the courtyard
    of this crazy,
    noisy shelter.

    My impatient rhythm is answered
    by cicadas and crickets.

    If I could speak Spanish,
    I would remind the girl
    that I am not here in Cuba
    by choice.

    I have nothing to say
    to any stranger who treats me
    like a normal person
    with a family
    and a home.


    Weeks at sea
    introduced me to a new
    kind of music,

    endless and constant,
    sung by a voice of air and water,
    a voice of nature so enormous
    that it can be ridden by humans
    in tiny vessels —
    our huge ships as small as toys
    from the point of view
    of an ocean wave.

    There was also the music
    of moaning masses —
    babies shrieking, mothers weeping,
    and sailors howling

    as they sang
    their hideous
    Nazi songs.


    The girl gives me an orange.
    I cannot bring myself to eat it
    because, at home, oranges
    are precious.

    One orange was a treasure
    in Germany, in winter.

    My mother would place the golden fruit
    at the center of our dining-room table,
    and we would gather around
    to gaze and marvel,

    inhaling the fragrance
    of warm climates
    like that of the Holy Land.


    The orange in my hand
    looks like a sun
    and smells like heaven.

    I cannot believe my ears
    when David tells me to peel
    the radiant fruit
    and eat all the juicy sections
    by myself.

    He says there are so many
    oranges in Cuba
    that I can eat my fill every day
    for the rest of my life.

    I glare at David,
    hoping he will see
    that I am different.

    I am not like him.
    I have no intention
    of giving up hope.

    I will not spend my life
    here in Cuba
    with strangers.

    I close my fist
    around the orange,
    refusing to swallow
    anything so sacred.


    Germans were in my house last night.
    Not refugees, but the other Germans,
    the ones who cause all the trouble
    that forces refugees to flee.

    Papá made me stay in my room.
    He sent all the servants home early.
    He did not whisper
    but spoke in his loud, laughing voice,
    the one he uses when he knows
    that he is getting rich.

    I sneaked onto the stairway
    and heard a few fragments
    of the German visitors' plan,
    something about showing the world
    that even a small tropical island like Cuba
    wants nothing to do
    with helping Jews.


    Business is business.
    Why should I care
    about Nazis or Jews?

    I find money for my fat wallet
    any way I can.

    Business is busyness.
    A busy life wards off the evil eye
    of sadness.

    My daughter knows nothing
    about business or evil eyes.

    She's just a child
    who hides in a tower
    with wild doves.


    The radio and magazines
    are filled with hateful lies.

    Cuba's newspaper pages are covered
    with ugly cartoons about Jews.

    Where do the lies come from —
    who dreams up the insults
    that make ordinary people
    sound like beasts
    and feel like sheep
    in a forest
    of wolves?


    Today, a ship
    left Havana Harbor.

    Desperate relatives
    of the people on the ship
    rowed out in small boats,
    calling up to the decks
    where their loved ones
    leaned over the railings,
    reaching. ...

    One man hurled himself

    Was he trying
    to drown himself,
    or was he hoping
    that he could somehow
    swim to shore?

    I picture the German sailors
    laughing, and spitting in faces
    while they point to the posters of Hitler
    in the dining room.

    I feel the terror
    of the refugees
    as they realize

    that they are being sent back
    to Europe.


    Where will the ship go?
    What will happen to refugees
    who find no refuge?

    I cannot bring myself
    to imagine the fate
    of all those people,
    all the children
    who traveled alone
    just as I did.

    Each time I try to picture
    my own future,
    I feel just as helpless
    as the children
    on the ship.

    Will those children
    ever find
    a home?


    I stand in a crowd
    on the docks,
    watching the ship
    as it grows smaller
    and vanishes
    over the horizon.

    There is nothing to do now,
    nothing but drumming
    on the earth
    with my feet
    and pounding out a rhythm
    in the air
    with my fingers.

    I feel so powerless.
    All I can do
    is talk to the sky
    with my hands

    and wonder how
    any country
    can turn a ship away,
    knowing that it is filled
    with human beings
    searching for something
    as simple
    as hope.


    What would my father do
    if he knew that I am one
    of many young Cuban volunteers
    who help los Cuáqueros, the Quakers
    from North America
    who come here to Cuba
    to care for the refugees,
    offering food
    and shelter?

    Which would bother my father more —
    knowing that I am helping Jews
    or seeing me in the company
    of Protestants?


    The green-eyed girl
    turns her face away
    when she serves our meals
    of yellow rice
    and black beans.

    I cannot tell
    whether she is sad
    or ashamed.

    David explains that Paloma
    is not her true name.
    She is really María Dolores,
    "Mary of Sorrows,"
    but everyone calls her Paloma, "the Dove"
    because she often hides
    in a tower
    in her garden,
    a tower built
    as a home
    for wild birds.

    No one seems to know
    why she feels
    the need
    to hide.


    I sneak out
    of my room
    at night.

    I creep through
    the garden, and up
    into the dovecote.

    I sleep
    by wings.


    Paloma is not my daughter.
    My child is María Dolores.

    Paloma is just a fantasy name
    the girl dreamed up
    to help herself forget
    her mother's treachery.

    Until my wife ran away
    with a foreigner, our daughter
    was content to live in a house
    instead of a dovecote.


    I rest in the open patio,
    a crazy place shared
    with so many
    other refugees.

    I am getting used to sleeping
    in a house filled with strangers
    and trees.

    I am not the only young person
    unlucky enough to end up alone
    in this crowd.

    The nights are as hot as the days.
    Glowing insects flash like flames,
    and a pale green moth
    the size of my hand
    floats above my head
    like a ghost.

    Sometimes I feel
    like a ghost


    Tonight, I cannot sleep.
    I listen to the chirping
    of tree frogs

    and the clacking beaks
    of wild parrots

    and music, always music,
    the rhythms of rattling maracas
    and goatskin drums

    even here, in the city,
    where one would expect
    to hear only sirens, buses,
    and the radios of neighbors
    broadcasting news
    about Germany.

    Sometimes I wish
    I was not learning Spanish
    so easily — then I would not
    understand all the lies
    about Jews.


    In the morning
    I walk past the brightly
    painted houses of Havana —
    lime green, canary yellow,
    and sapphire blue.

    The houses
    look like songbirds.
    I picture them rising
    up into the sky
    and fluttering away.

    With each step
    I ask myself questions.
    What would Papá be like
    if my mother had not
    sailed away
    with a dancing man
    from Paris?

    Is she still there?
    Did she marry the dancer?
    Do they have children?
    Are there brothers and sisters
    who ask questions about me?

    I do not ask myself anything
    about the start of a war
    in Europe — I do not want to know
    if my mother
    is dead.


Excerpted from Tropical Secrets by Margarita Engle. Copyright © 2009 Margarita Engle. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

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.

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, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. She lives in northern California.

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