Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

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 . . .

See the review at WOW Review, Volume 3, Issue 2

6 thoughts on “Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

  1. David Canfield says:

    This award-winning book by a Cuban-American author is totally original in its poetic style of free verse presentation, as well as subject-matter; Holocaust refugee experiences in Cuba. It is a little known secret that when Jewish refugees were turned away from Canada and the U.S., their last chance destination was Cuba. Cuba took in approximately as many Jewish refugees escaping the NAZIS as the United States did at that time. Americans are very familiar with the massive intake of Jewish refugees to the U.S. at the end of the war, but not before the U.S. entered it. Canada routinely turned away Jewish refugees at all stages, accounting for their relatively small Jewish population today. The United States and Israel accepted the bulk of Jewish refugees. Today, there are more people of Jewish origin living in the State of New York than the entire nation of Israel. The U.S. was virtually the only country that accepted massive waves of Jews to its shores. Other countries did, but in small numbers. Tropical Secrets is about just that; The secrets, many times internal secrets of the main characters in the stream of conscious style that Engle uses. She is truly a talented writer. The storyline shifts between characters and between pages. Daniel and Paloma form a special friendship that runs most of the storyline, and it expresses their experiences. Daniel flees Berlin searching for his parents, and heads for New York. He ends up alone in Cuba. Paloma’s father runs a dirty business of dealing in the fate of refugees to line his pockets with cash. I love the songlike flow of the writing, as well as the Caribbean and Cuban imagery. There is also a sprinkling of Cuban Spanish which lends an air of authenticity to the writing. Young readers can learn from the style of writing that flips between characters in free verse, while also learning about Cuba and the refugee situation of the people who ended up there. This is a very unique book on many fronts, so it isn’t surprising that it won the Newbery Honor Award.

  2. Breshaun Joyner says:

    The first secret of Tropical Secrets is opening the book to discover it is a tale told through verse. Linear and sequential narrative prose is not the structure of this book, which is fortunate as the poetic nature elevates the storytelling and heightens the suspense of the story. Combined with vivid and brilliant imagery, Tropical Secrets awakens and tickles the visual and aural senses of reading.

    The book opens with a haunting memory for Daniel, one of the main characters. He recalls the night his beloved grandfather died in shower of shattered glass and crushed hopes. This brief but disturbing glimpse into violence and hatred sets the stage for why Tropical Secrets is a story. The next poem reveals Daniel is on a ship in a Cuban harbor. In 1938, ships arriving with European Jewish refugees reach America but in a little known part of the American and Jewish Holocaust history, these ships were refused entry into the United States. Canada also turned the boats away. Cuba was the last hope for these refugees. Daniel is Jewish and fleeing the horrors that have become a daily fixture of Jewish life in Germany. His parents had enough money to send only him to America but they planned to follow him soon. Therefore, Daniel sets out alone, only to find himself in a strange land that is not his intended destination.

    “All I want to do is lose myself in dreams of home…I am not here in Cuba by choice.”

    Since Daniel sees America as not only his new home but also where he will reunite with his family, the Cuban detour is not what he expects or wants. Everything is new and uncomfortable. It is hot. He does not know the language. He is unfamiliar with the taste of the food. He clings to the last physical vestiges of his prior life – his thick winter coat. In time, he relinquishes the cloying fabric and opts for a lighter cotton shirt and pants. Each acceptance of a new facet of this life like clothes, the taste of an orange, making friends, etc. is done with reticence and fear that in engaging in such behavior he is dishonoring the memory of his family. Furthermore, the act of acclimation belies the hope he has for seeing his family again on the hallowed streets of mythical America. Music is the only salve for Daniel’s penetrating psychic and emotional wounds.

    “Music helps me forget my loneliness. Melodies feel like paths I can follow to find my way past all the terror.”

    Daniel hears music in everything. He relates all experiences to music. Musical notes stretch back into his past, evoking memories of his family. He yearns to bring them together again, or to use a musical term, a reprise. He is surrounded and buoyed by the music he hears from his memories and the music in the mundane of his new world, “…the drums of passing footsteps, and the horns of traffic, and choirs of dogs barking; an orchestra of vendors signing…”

    Together with music, Paloma, an equally lost and lonely girl, aids Daniel’s entry and eventual immersion into Cuban life and customs although Cuba is her home and she lives with her family. In this story of secrets, Paloma shoulders more than her share. There is the secret behind the disappearance of her mother. There is the secret of her friendship with David, an older Jewish man who immigrated to Cuba several years earlier. There are the secrets of her father whose mercenary business practices determine the fate of which Jewish refugees step foot on land and which ones must return to Germany to face their fate. “…sometimes I feel like I am surrounded by so many secrets that the truth would need light from a whole galaxy of suns in order to shine past the shade I make with both hands…”

    Woven in this story of secrets is a theme thread of identity. Identity lost, protected, rejected, fabricated, in conflict, misunderstood and finally accepted and redefined. In Daniel’s acceptance of his fate and new identity, he must also accept what is most likely his parent’s fate. Paloma must shed the mantle of a scared little girl hiding amongst the birds in her dovecote. She decides to embrace the identity of a bird flying above the ugliness. Both Daniel and Paloma go to their strengths to find the power to survive. Paloma finds her voice to confront and essentially defy her father’s tyrannical ways. Daniel finds his through music introduced to him by Paloma. The Cuban composer of improvisational music Lecuona helps Daniel to “create an entirely new sort of music, the sound of a future dancing with the past.” This is his salvation of merging the old with the new and in doing so he can stop fighting a war between hope and despair.

  3. Paula M. Mintle says:

    I have a fasinatin with the Jewish culture because they have survived throughout the test of time. In the book, Tropical Secrets, the title suited the story. The Jewish refugees were seeking a safe haven from the persecution. In the book the characters told and shared their experience. The secrets were typical in the setting because of their lack of trust, not knowing who was a German spy.The story was written in a poetic, journal like
    style that was easy to read. There was intrigue, suspense and included a loving elderly couple that reveals the compassion that was present along with the friendships that develop in uncertain conditions.

  4. Genny O'Herron says:

    “Will I ever know exactly where my parents’ last songs were sung?” – Daniel

    We assume that he will not. Daniel’s parents had only enough money for one ticket to flee Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Daniel was given that passage to safety, but the sense of safety elludes him throughout most of Engle’s simple, yet vivid free verse. There is no sense of safety or security when the German soldiers torment him during his passage to New York. No safety when his boat is refused permission to enter the New York and Canadian harbors. Or when the Cuban newspapers are filled with vile caricatures of Jews, or the nightmares of his grandfather’s death haunts him, or he is entrusted with hiding an elderly couple prosecuted in their old age becuase of the husband’s Christianity, not his wife’s Jewish faith.

    Over the course of three years, we see Daniel transcend these fears and come to terms with his new life in Cuba. Aided by two dear friends, a young girl and an old Jewish man –who have fears, past and present, of their own –the story is richer for its tightly knit, sparsely worded telling than we could imagine it being if Engle had chosen any other form.

    In the end, it is friendship, music, natural beauty, the abilty to help others in need, and the human capacity to hold the almost unbearable tension of loss and survival that allows Daniel and his friends taste joy. “Joy and truth both have a way of peeking through any dark curtain” Even the darkest clouds of history.

  5. Jennifer Buntjer says:

    Like the push and pull of the ocean tides, Margarita Engle, crafts a story of rhythm where a thirteen-year boy starts to unravel his own cultural identity and sensibilities.In a delightful unfolding, we walk with Daniel through a series of sensory reflections as he compares and contrast his own cultural norms of Germany, with the different sights, flavors, and sounds of a Cuban culture.

    Insecurities and fears are projected in the beginning of the story as Daniel, resolutely promises himself he will never let anyone; change the rhythm of his name, by adding accented i’s to it, by refusing to take off his woolen coat, by not accepting cotton clothes, “refusing to swallow anything so sacred” as an orange, and imagining his grandfather cringe at the use of shovels for drums, and jawbones with teeth on them as rattles.

    In the end, we join a much wiser Daniel with his younger, metaphorical, “namesake” as they search the beach for shells to make instruments. Daniel, now teacher, has learned that his acceptance of the Cuban culture is not a betrayal against his family and his upbringing, but a gift that can be enjoyed while still holding onto old dreams.

  6. Yoo Kyung Sung says:

    “Last year in Berlin,
    On the Night of Crystal,
    My grandfather was killed
    While I held his hand.-Danielle-

    “ Buisness is Business
    Why should I care about Nazis or Jews?-El Gordo-

    “Papa would be angry
    Not only because David
    Is poor and foreign

    But also because he is Jewish
    A refugee who came to Cuba
    From the Ukraine
    Long ago” – Paloma-

    “Sometime I wish
    I was not learning Spanish
    So easily-then I would not
    Understand all the lies
    About Jews- Danielle-

    Margarita Engle’s another story in a poem-like narration draws your attention like a finger snap magic. I haven’t seen any other book like Tropical Secrets that America doesn’t accept Holocaust refugees. Typical immigration literature would portray the U.S. as a land of hope and land of safety. The Statue of Liberty seems to be a symbol of welcoming and safe arrival from the long journey. Many of immigration literature show the back of a person in their book covers signaling their direction heading to the U.S. Tropical Secret is NOT the case of being welcomed by America.
    Cuba is an alternative that is not a choice but only solution. Cuba is Danielle’s final destination escaping from Nazi Germany and Holocaust. His winter coat in such a tropical country symbolizes his fear to settle down in the foreign land, Cuba. No matter how warm it is, Danielle doesn’t want to take it off for the case he needs it again. While other books focus on era of fearful paradigm change, Tropical Secret tells the suffering from the post-paradigm change, Nazi Germany through four different voices. However, ideological challenges keep going by the name of adjustment. The land of Cuba seems to transform to the land of adjustments for both sides– experiencing Foreigners and the Cuban originals. Four different characters, two Jews who moved recently and while ago and two Cubans who are young and old tell their perspectives and ideology about living in Cuba and people, Cuban, Jews, and Nazi.

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