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Jaime Sarusky Miller

Date of the interview: 16-7-2005
Name: Jaime
Last names : Sarusky Miller
Date of birth: 3-1-1931
Birthplace: Havana


Interview: Lourdes Albo
Camera and photos:Tatiana Santos
Trascription: Lourdes Albo and Lourdes M. Peña

My Orígins

My Father Moisés Sarusky lived in a village in Poland named Stawski, in Lomza Province. They were nine brothers and sisters. My father’s occupation in Poland was a shoemaker. In 1924, he immigrated to Cuba at twenty two years of age. My mother Juana, or Hashke, was from Pinsk, which is today a part of Belarus. She had seven or eight brothers and sisters. She immigrated to Cuba in 1926, I think she already had two brothers here in Havana. She came to live in the house of one of those brothers.

Papa arrived in Cuba with eighteen dollars in his pocket. He went to what was then Camagüey Province, what is now Ciego de Ávila Province, to a small village and later left for Florencia. He worked repairing the northern railroad line, which goes from Santa Clara to Nuevitas. There, working very, very hard and saving every last penny, he followed the usual route for immigrants and bought some merchandise, which he sold. Well... he prospered. He put his merchandise on a little table in a doorway, and was later able to have a small store; he continued to prosper.


My Childhood

He met my mother and they got married in 1928. Mama went with him to Florencia. I was born in 1931, but it was a very difficult childbirth. The doctor who performed her delivery hurt her bladder, and two years after my birth my mother died. She died when she was only twenty six years old.

At that time my father had to look after me, until he could bring his brothers and sisters one by one, he brought six of them, after that they settled in different towns in different provinces.

I remember one time he talked about how he bought beans. When they were eating, if the beans were hard, they would throw them against the wall – and they didn’t break. It was a life of sacrifices, hard. Nonetheless, he saw the possibility there despite those sacrifices and the difficulties, to save some money. He aimed to save so as to later devote himself to just what he did end up doing: commerce.

Obviously he was a venturesome man, because he was able to prosper. In the end he had more than one business in Florencia, as he did in other towns there in Camagüey Province. In 1940, just when he was trying to bring his parents and the two youngest sisters, who were still there in Poland, in the part of Poland that had already been occupied by the Germans, he did everything to see if he could bring out his parents and the two sisters. But just in 1940, when he was thirty , it seems that he had high blood pressure. He developed a blood clot and died. At this time the long history of a quite uneven relationship began in my family, particularly with my tutor, his brother.

I want to point out that after the death of my mother, one of my father’s sisters came to live in Florencia, and somehow followed the customs, the Jewish tradition of lighting candles on Fridays. In fact, the only Jewish family in that town of Florencia was ours – my father, my mother and me and later my father’s sister. So it wasn’t easy to follow tradition. But still during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the Jews from different towns from the surroundings met in Chambas, another town near Florencia, where there was a synagogue improvised in the room of one of the families, so people could follow the tradition and conduct the service. All this was done, as they say, with much fervour – but in those days it was not at all easy.

After the death of Papa, since I was in Havana, on several occasions I went to the synagogue. I lived in the house of an aunt who had moved to Havana. She went to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and also during Pesach, but really didn’t go any more than that. Later I went to some of the Jewish Congregations, to the Centro Israelita that was near Muralla Street, where I first lived with an aunt, and later in the Santo Suárez neighborhood.

Later, it was no longer easy after I began attending a Protestant school. There, I had to go to a Protestant church four times a week and to services on Sundays. I was trapped in the first year; I didn’t go out because I didn’t have family in Havana. Simply, it didn’t occur to my uncle anything other than I should stay shut up in there. It was possibly one of the most expensive jails in the world, and I’m underlining the word 'jail', because if a 10 year-old boy simply cannot go out, and he’s locked in and the nearest relative or person in charge of him doesn’t do anything for the child to get out of that place, and he is obligated to be there, and he has to pay the school, I simply cannot consider it anything other than a jail – a luxury jail, but a jail.

Candler College was the school where I was a pupil. I was there four years. Of course the following year I told my uncle not to waste his time, because if I continued with the same regimen of the previous year, I would run away from the school and live life on my own terms. So he found a solution, because he found a friend of the family that lived in Havana, with whom he spoke, then I could simply go to the house of my aunt's friend; of course my uncle would pay for the room and board. The family lived above the Moishe Pipik Retaurant, I ate there on weekends. After that family immigrated to the United States I lived in the rooming house of the owner of Moishe Pipik. There I had breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was for three years, until I finished.


My Youth

I left for Santa Clara to stay at the house of relatives until I returned to Havana in 1947 to the house of an aunt who had moved there. I was like a little gypsy because I had to go from the house of an aunt, to the house of an uncle, to the house of another uncle, or to whoever – meaning that I was switching constantly and having to adapt.

Because of a very personal circumstance, and in honour of Papa with part of the money that he left me I started a store in Marianao; it was called La Feria (The Fair). I did this though I had absolutely no calling to be a merchant; it was more for sentimental reasons that had nothing to do with business or with the desire for profits. That lasted four years, until the period in which I began to write and publish in a newspaper in Marianao. I wrote a story that somehow had to do directly or indirectly with that sentimental problem. The story was titled “It seems they are very much in love”. In some ways it satirized a Jewish wedding where the people in the synagogue were saying things like: “What a nice couple that boy and girl make, they look good.” At that same time the girl’s father was in an office signing a check for $30,000 pesos in the boy’s name, as people continued saying things like: “It seems they are very much in love.”

The story was published in “Reflejos Israelíes” (Israeli Reflections), the magazine that Marcus Matterin managed. Marcus told me a lot of people didn’t like it. But that was my way of seeing things in those times, and I could say in these times as well. I didn’t seem like an authentic relationship to me, and that everything was burdened down by the male-female relationship; there were interests shared between the two that instead of pulling them together, pushed them apart spiritually.

The store that I had in Marianao was an atypical store in the world. Why atypical? First my girlfriend worked with me there for the first few months. Somehow her father considered the store to be a way to maintain control over me. But the dispute began not only with the father, but with my family- who wouldn’t accept at all that I refused the dowry. Though I understood that it was going to bother them if I do not accept it, and I thought the relashionship would not work if I accepted the dowry, because in any case morally I saw myself as being without freedom. I wondered: What morality could I have to look into the eyes of my girlfriend if between the two of us was her dowry? That is to say…If that woman’s intelligence was average, how could she respect a man who sells himself like one sells an animal or an object?.

By the time I began studying at the Santa Clara Institute, I had already made my first attempts at writing, because two other friends of mine at the Institute were putting out a newspaper that they called El Zorzal (The Thrush). I wrote some very short pieces, and later on when I came to Havana trying to free myself and establish a harmonious relationship with my family and not with the problem that life signified to me: living with other people. I went to work at jewellers on Monserrate Street and I have to say that there, when the boss was not in the office, I attempted and wrote my own things during those times.

Later in Marianao after the break-up with my girlfriend, I began to write. In 1953 I started to publish my first works in the newspaper "El Sol" (the Sun) right there in Marianao. But at the same time my store began to become a literary gathering place, though that had nothing to do with normal trade. It was not only a gathering place; it was where I organized a literary and journalism competition. I did what no merchant would do, who had his head on straight, and of course I didn’t have my head on very straight to be a merchant. Instead of having goods in the windows so that the potential customers could see what was there, sometimes I would dedicated it to the Centennial of Martí, for example, to Martí, or other times to other histories of some national heroes.

Obviously that didn’t work, and by then I was fed up with the store that I didn’t like. I moved into the store, made a “barbacoa” (a landing that splits a room with a high ceiling into two floors) and there I slept and wrote. In this way I ended up practically losing the store. The only thing that was left to me was the option of selling the place. This was something that at that time someone would do when they didn’t have a place; they could buy a place interested them. They paid me something like two thousand and a few pesos for it.

With that money I left for France and I stayed there five years, where I sometimes I taught Spanish. After a while I left to Sweden to wash dishes, and later I left for London. I was working and studying contemporary French literature, and the sociology of art, which I believed were very useful; they challenged me and gave me a vision of culture that would have been difficult to get in the atmosphere of the Cuba of that time.

It was obviously tremendous madness to leave for France without knowing French, but I learned it there. I wanted to learn languages. Another madness was to set off without thinking because in July and August, French cities are practically paralyzed- everybody leaves on vacation. I told myself from the beginning that I was going to take advantage of my time; that I wasn’t going to take a vacation. So I said to myself, “I’m going to learn languages!”

I left for Germany. I had to learn about that country and its people close up, and I learned many things. In this way, in two months, I learned some German, but if I were to say that I learned German I wouldn’t be telling the truth. I learned some German, perhaps I could keep a conversation for a few minutes with a German; they would understand me and I would understand them. Perhaps if I had devoted myself to reading and practicing it for a while I would have learned it. That was a little ingenuousness on my part, because when I was a child I had learned Yiddish; at home Yiddish was spoken, even my father spoke it with my aunt who came to Florence when my mother died. For teasing me when they wanted to say something that they didn’t want me to know, instead of speaking in Yiddish they spoke in Polish, which I didn’t know.

Thus I learned a little German. English I already knew, but in any case I went to England to study it. I learned some Italian, but that’s not to say that I mastered it completely, well, I did to some degree; I could learn, which was my objective for going to Europe was.

The students who were there in Paris organized themselves according to their affiliation with certain political movements. They united and organized different activities in which I participated – even demonstrations against the embassy of the Dominican Republic, as Trujillo was selling weapons and airplanes to Batista. At one time they took the students off to jail, and they said to me: “Don’t let them get you so you can report to the press what is going on.” This was my task. In 1955, I joined up with Roberto Fernández Retamar, Saúl Yelín, José Altshuler, who had gone to study in England under the scholarships that he had been awarded and other Cubans.


Not so Young but…

In 1959, with the triumph of the Revolution, I returned to Cuba. In 1959, Cubans that were in different countries of Europe began to return to Cuba.

I had quite a few books so I didn’t rush back, because to leave books in those days would mean practically starting over again, in a sense. I waited a few months before returning. On the dock Fayad Hamís, a poet that I had met in France, was waiting for me. Somebody said that the beginning of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs was the friendship between us two. Saúl Yelín, who also worked for ICAIC at that time was also there. Back then, Fayad took me to the newspaper “Revolution". Saúl took me to ICAIC, where I began to work as a translator. I also worked with a group of young people who were working on scripts. So I worked at both places for some time, and then stayed with the newspaper exclusively.

Later I left the newspaper. In ‘64 I began teaching classes of American History at the Marianao Junior High School (in Havana), then at Cepero Bonilla I gave classes on Spanish and Cuban Literature. Later on I worked for the newspaper "Granma" for a few months and subsequently began to work at the magazine "Bohemia" , where I stayed for seven years.

In 1961 my first novel, " La Búsqueda" (The Search), was published, followed by the second edition of that novel in 1962. In the 1967 my second novel, "Rebelión en la Octava Casa" (Rebellion in the Eighth House), was published. Both won mentions in the Casa de las Américas awards. In 1977 the article "Crónicas del Tiempo de los Desconocidos" (Chronicles of the Time of the Strangers) was published. In 1986, I published five works about texts about immigration to Cuba; that is to say about North Americans, Swedes, Hindus, Japanese and people from the Yucatán.

In 1996 I published several articles and essays about crazy people – eccentrics, people off centre. For example, I wrote a piece about a "campesino" ( farmer) that stopped farming his land began to create a zoo of stones on a hill near his house. Ceasing to farm, his wife was in despair over the farm worker’s madness to create a fabulous stone zoo. I had the luck to meet him when he was beginning the stone zoo. The only thing that he had in fact completed was a lion, but as he was a bit primitive, the lion was smiling. He had also made the head of an elephant (laughing). Whoever went there was surprised to see that zoo of stone. I suppose that there must have been more than six hundred enormous pieces, not peaceful works, but battles between animals. There was a true battle in that stone zoo, along with that stone zoo there is a grand madness: the Velasco Cultural Centre, a place that was built as if for a city like Havana.

Velasco had something like 4,000 inhabitants when it was constructed, and there is an exact replica of what was the Shakespeare Theatre. There were also two lunatics, a Cuban and an American, Felix Varona, who wanted a theatre in his town, and Walter Betancourt, who was talked into making a plan and working at that place. He did it without making a dime, constantly hitchhiking from Holguín to Velasco. It took 26 years to build it. It was an incredible work, because they stole the material, sometimes coming to Havana to steal it; that is to say it was great madness.

And later there were other artistis , .... a work on Onelio Jorge Cardoso, where Onelios' story tellers are present and there is that man looking for a coral horse underwater. You have to be crazy to look for a coral horse underwater. Behind it is a metaphor that means looking for a coral horse is much more than looking for a coral horse. With this madness I wrote another book that I titled " El Unicornio" (The Unicorn) because Silvio (a famous Cuban singer/songwriter) told me the story of the song which up to that moment he had not told. It was unpublished; it has never been published. And there were other lunatics, other crazies.

Later, in 1999, I wrote " La Aventura de los Suecos en Cuba" (The Adventure of the Swedes in Cuba) because I had the luck of meeting a family that descended from the pioneering Nyström family, who were pioneers of that Swedish colony. They had lots of photos. One of them had been a photographer; somehow he documented the different aspects of the colony. In addition they gave me documentation about the history of the colony.

In 2001, I published my novel "Un Hombre Providencial" (A Providential Man) that won the Alejo Carpentier Award . Later I published "Los Fantasmas de Omaja" (The Ghosts of Omaja) that is the title of the book that brings together the stories of five immigrations. I am still working on that subject. Today is July 16, 2005, so at some time over the few months or next year I will put out another book for which I still don’t have a title; it’s about immigration, for example the two Finnish colonies in Cuba, the Canadians, Haitians, Japanese, and a piece on the Jewish Community in Cuba.

In fact I’ve done it, I began working on the history of the Jewish Community in Cuba in terms of aspects of the history, because in fact I was getting a lot of pressure; everybody asked me: " You haven’t written anything on the Cuban Jewish Community.” My idea was more than to recount that history through my experience and memories, but to give elements as to where the present Cuban Jewish world is. But it was good that people insisted so much; I’ve taken out time to study that topic and will finish up this other work at some time. That doesn’t mean that I’ve given up, on the contrary; at some time I’ll write about that whole family experience that goes much beyond.

On the other hand, in 1960, at the end of February, Jean Paul Sartre came to Cuba invited by the newspaper “Revolution". I worked at that newspaper and the program for Sartre was very intense. They asked me to be one of the translators for Sartre. Sartre came at the end of February, like I said, and left the twenty-something of March. I was with him at different activities, and it also turned out that I accompanied him when he went to the funeral for the victims of the explosion of the ship La Coubre. It was there in fact where Korda took the famous picture of Ché, which is considered the most famous photo in history. With Sartre I went to different places and was also his translator on his second trip.

That same year he went to Brazil, in October 1960. That year he was also invited by the novelist Jorge Amado. Upon his return he came to Cuba, where he stayed for a week. During that week I was with him the whole time. Fidel came to meet him at the National Hotel, where he was staying, and I also accompanied him to the airport. But before that, I showed him Ciudad Libertad. After his first trip, Sartre published a series of works, and everything was published in a book.

I also met Korda. I met him when he was a boy, because Korda also studied at Candler College. Then he was not Korda – he was called Alberto Díaz. I was there a year or two and then we didn’t see each other any more. However, later we began not only seeing each other but working together, because at a given time I was the head of the rotogravure department for the newspaper " Revolution". The rotogravure was mainly graphics, photos, and big fold-out pictures, but they also had text.

At the triumph of the Revolution, Korda had his studio. Later he quit that and one way or another became a photographer very close to Fidel. He accompanied Fidel on some of his trips to the provinces and outside of Cuba. On several occasions Korda went to Santiago de Cuba, to the Sierra Maestra and made extensive photo reports on Fidel in Santiago, in the Sierra and brought them to me to have them published in rotogravure.Then Korda created another line of work; he worked for a time taking underwater photos. Already worldwide famous for his famous picture of Ché, he wrote a number of books, including the " Diario de una Revolución" (Diary of a Revolution). He asked me to write the foreword to that book. Later on it was published "Cuba por Korda " ( Cuba by Korda), but in French, so Korda and the French editor asked me to write the forewords fo the book.

The literature of another writer cannot necessarily influence someone more than their own life. Sometimes some accident, some phenomenon, music, a woman, any problem with another person, understanding, or misunderstanding, is so complex that from the literary point of view I have always avoided repeating or trying to imitate someone else. I am sure that at some time I have imitated somebody, maybe unconsciously. For example, I think that Jorge Luis Borges is a brilliant writer. However it would be irrational of me try to imitate Borges.

I like the Jewish-American writer Norman Meir very much, not only as a fiction writer, just as other Jewish, French, German and North American writers, surely has so much force that his work can influence, but I cannot tell a lie and say that so-and-so or so-and-so influenced me. I have read stories by Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I don’t know if I have some similarity with Bashevis, though some cousins from Argentina sent me a genealogical tree a short time ago and the last name Bashevis is in my family, on my mother’s side. So who knows if there is some type of relationship?

What’s certain is that I’m a writer without any precursors in my family, neither on my mother’s side nor on my father’s. Sometimes when one tries to speak of oneself it is not always necessarily objective. How many things do we say and how many don’t we say? ,they are not even consciously, because memory is not distilled and sometimes one tries to bury very unpleasant things, even unconsciously. But they don’t leave you; they can float to the surface at any given moment, or maybe come out quite strongly in another form.

What’s certain is that I was always very curious; I always had a lot of interests. Once, an uncle asked me to spend a few days in Florencia, and I spent fifteen or twenty days there. I read books and looked for the magazine "Bohemia" , which was the only possible way to have enough reading material for the whole week. I went to the railroad station when the train arrived to look for "Bohemia". I was restless, not because somebody told me that I had to be restless; I just was. I was interested, I was curious to know what was happening in politics, in literature, what was happening in the world of culture. There wasn’t a lot happening, nor was there a lot happening in culture.

To be a writer in Cuba it’s necessary to explain; before the Revolution it was difficult to be a writer, there was no Institution as there is today. Now everything seems much easier because there are publishing houses, because there is the reader – which is the most important thing. We used to meet with a group of friends and it was necessary to borrow money or to give money to see if your book could be published, that’s to say I was grabbing at straws, it was a future of uncertainty.

It was not an easy road because I was very insecure, because I didn’t have anyone to tell me: “You have talent, you can do it”. I simply did it just because I was a lunatic, it was an act of madness. Only that can explain what we are speaking about.

I was very moved when I won the National Literature Prize, as I was when I won the Alejo Carpentier Award, which are the most important honors given in Cuba for literature.

But I still have my on feet on the ground, although my head is sometimes in the clouds; but I have my feet planted on the earth, and I have to do what I like to do, and that is to write and to continue fighting. Maybe the most important thing is that somehow one feels that what has been done hasn’t been in vain. There is recognition for one's work, for one's literary work and at the same time all this makes you excited and stimulates you to continue creating.