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José Altshuler Gutwert

Date of the interview: 15-6-2005
Name: José Boris
Last names : Altshuler Gutwert
Date of birth: 25-09-1929
Birthplace: Melena del Sur


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

My Origins

My parents came from Eastern Europe. My father, Aron Altshuler Bakst, was born in a town called Ivye that today it is part of Belarus, though at the time when he emigrated it was in Lithuanian or Polish hands. My mother, Ester Gutwert Remba, was a native of the town of Radzilow, which belonged to Poland then, as it does today. Both lived in their respective birthplaces until the time they left for Cuba.

My father came to Cuba in 1923 with the intention of later moving to the United States (where a brother and sister lived already), since at that time the possibility to be admitted into the United States was after residing for some time in our country. But the following year they changed “the rules of the game” and he decided to take root here. The case of my mother was completely different, because she came in 1924 with the firm intention of settling down in Cuba, where I believe a friend of hers was already living. She had decided to emigrate because she was convinced that in her town there was so much anti-Semitic religious fanaticism that she was convinced that someday it would end with a great slaughter of the local Jewish population. Unfortunately, her vision was prophetic.

When he got to Cuba, my father had to perform a host of lowly and difficult jobs to make a living. Mama had some academic aims, and as soon as she arrived she enrolled at the Pitman Academy for a course in Spanish and another in stenography and typing. However, she couldn’t continue taking the classes for long, because to survive she had to work very hard in a garment shop from the beginning. My father and mother didn’t know each other before; they met for the first time in Cuba. They fell in love, and got married at the Synagogue of Adath Israel on January 1st, 1929. They lived in Melena del Sur in Havana Province where my father had a clothes store, because by then he had begun to progress economically with the help of his brother in the United States. Very soon after, my mother’s younger sister, Aunt Aida, came to live with them.

Although it’s not possible to say my parents were exactly religious, they got married at the synagogue, and Mama maintained her affiliation to Adath Israel until she passed away. She is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Guanabacoa as well as my father and my aunt. Personally, I was never a believer, though I’ve always been respectful of the feelings of those who are. Our bonds with the Jewish Community were essentially cultural and through an identification with a people that deserves respect for having learned to endure stoically countless acts of humiliation and ferocious repression of which they have been victims throughout the centuries. At home my parents used to speak to me in Yiddish and I responded to them in Spanish. I also remember that during my childhood my parents sometimes took me to see plays which I believe were performed at the Centro Israelita.

At the end of World War II, we found out that practically all of our relatives who lived in Eastern Europe had perished in the Holocaust. In the case of my mother’s family, the members of the Jewish Community in Radzilow were locked up in a barn and burned alive by anti-Semitic Nazi collaborators. Among my father’s family, only a nephew who had become a part of the resistance was saved. Thanks to a terrible account written by my father’s younger sister shortly before her death -that I discovered not long ago through the Internet-; I have the details of how the other members of my father’s family in Ivye died at the hands of the Nazi occupation forces.


My Childhood

I was born in Melena del Sur on September 25, 1929. The economic crisis of the 1930s resulted in much hunger in Cuba and the bankruptcy of many businesses, among them our family’s store in Melena del Sur. Papa, Mama, Aunt and I moved to the capital in 1933, where we rented an inner room in a house in the Old Havana neighborhood. But we didn’t stay there for long due to the insistence of my mother, who couldn’t accept the fact that we had moved to a house in a place named Inquisitor Street.

At the outset, our family’s bread and butter came exclusively from the efforts of my father, who worked first as a peddler and later, along with a partner, established a soda fountain. Later, my mother and my aunt found jobs as workers in a garment factory, and I started kindergarten at the Escuela Pública No 26 in Old Havana. The memory of that time still lives in my memory.

After moving around a bit -always in the Old Havana area- in around 1935 or 1936 we moved to an inner room on Lamparilla Street between Aguacate and Compostela Streets. On the ground floor of the house next door, my father set up the soda fountain that he ran daily from early in the morning to late evening. Mama worked as seamstress using an electric sewing machine, as did my aunt – who was a part of our family nucleus until she got married in 1937.

In the district where we lived were poor lower-income families, small retailers, prostitutes, whites, blacks, Chinese, Spanish and Cubans. I suppose that in all the area, ours was the only family of Jewish ancestry. We didn’t take long to make a lot of friends, some of whom used to visit us on Sunday nights to talk with my parents and have tea with bread and butter, although at that time tea was not at all popular in Cuba, except as a medicinal drink.

Shortly after we moved to Lamparilla Street, my parents signed me up in a little school to learn my ABC. It was on a terrace of an apartment of a woman named Teresa Garc ía, who lived on the same street. I studied with her until the preparation for the entrance exam into high school. I remember her with true affection.

As a child, my favorite pastime was to listen every night to episodes of a radio series created by Felix B. Caignet about the Chinese detective Chan li-Po. Every afternoon starting around 5:00 I would listen to others like “Sandokan, the Malaysian Tiger”. I went to listen to those programs at the house of a neighbor who had a radio receiver with electric tubes, because we didn’t have one at our house until 1945 or 1946, when we were able to buy a regular table receiver with the little money I made from tutoring when I was in the fourth year of high school. Previously, I had been picking up broadcasts using a simple crystal receiver with headphones, that I had constructed myself when I was about ten or eleven years old. I learned how to make it from the son of our watchmaker neighbor who studied in the School of Arts and Trades.

Fairly often my father would go to buy food at the Bodega Europea in Old Havana, where he would get matzo during Pesach. I remember with certain degree of nostalgia occasions on which he took us to have lunch at a restaurant located at the end of Compostela Street; it was owned by a Jewish cooperative. I especially recall the exquisite pastry that was made in bakeries in that district. From time to time, a typical home-made dish was prepared, of which my favorite was the matzo-ball soup.

In Cuba, anti-Semitism never took root. As I recall, the only time in which that poison posed a serious threat was in the 1930s and 1940s, when fascist positions around the world became more aggressive. These were also reflected in certain circles of our country. But the attempt derailed against the resolute opposition of progressive personalities and organizations of the time, who in August 1939, just weeks before the beginning of the Second World War, published a manifesto titled “Cuban Defense against Anti-Semitic Racism.”

My Youth

My parents -I must say in their honor and with great gratitude- were not at all interested in accumulating money, nor did it bother them much to them to live with little money or to dress quite modestly, although they never neglected food. What was very important to them was that I was in good health and received a good education. Thanks to their total dedication I could attend elementary school, high school and the university in relative comfort.

When I finished the sixth grade, I enrolled at Instituto No 1 de Segunda Enseñanza de La Habana (high school ), located a few blocks from where we lived. In 1942 I began high school, while simultaneously at night; I went to study at the Centro Especial de Inglés No 9. By a strange coincidence, those classes were held in the premises of the same Escuela No. 26 that I had attended in kindergarten years earlier. In 1947 I graduated with a Bachelor in Arts and Sciences and was first in my class.

As an adolescent I also had my hero: Einstein, who I admired as much, for his outstanding scientific genius as for his philosophical and ethical positions. I still hold on some newspaper clippings about him that I collected in the 1940s and 50s. By that time, almost no one remembered his brief visit to our country in 1930. I believe myself to have been one of first, if not the first, who years later had the opportunity to bring that forgotten episode to light. Over the course of time, I thought that it would be interesting to disclose those details, mainly because it proved Einstein’s sensitivity to the serious social inequalities that he witnessed in the Cuba of that time. The work was published in 1993 as a bilingual pamphlet —in English and Spanish— and with numerous illustrations. It has been so well accepted that it was published for the second time in 2000 and it is about to come out again in 2005. It has also been published in Cuban and Spanish magazines, and is being prepared for publication in Germany and Brazil.

In 1947 I enrolled in the electrical engineering program at the University of Havana. Although my vocation was the study of Physics, the career opportunity of that discipline usually had serious limitations. Therefore, after some hesitation, I chose to follow the suggestion of a classmate whose interest was in Mathematics, but for the same reason had decided to enroll in electrical engineering.

After the coup d’etat by Fulgencio Batista in March 1952, like the great majority of those studying, I took the opportunity to participate in certain activities condemning the military regime and demanding the return of constitutional legality, though I did so in a very modest manner. Of course that seizure of power upset the program of classes at the University, over which the threat constantly hung of an indefinite shut down, as had occurred in 1930 and 1935. The defense of my thesis took place in February 1953 in a locked classroom and in the presence of only me and the three members of the examination committee. I finished at the top of the class ( Suma Cum Laude) because in October 1953 the Engineering Faculty granted me a scholarship for the 1951-1952 school years, an award made annually to only one graduate.

At that time I began tutoring fourth and fifth year electrical engineering students on various subjects, an activity that I had done while working on my thesis. I taught in the dining room in my little apartment near the University ( of Havana), where I had moved in 1952. At that time I was dating with the woman who today is my wife, Mercedes. It was love at first sight, a feeling that has grown stronger over the years and with all their ups and downs.

After looking for some information, I selected a school in London to take various courses in radio electronics and telecommunications for an academic year. With the idea of taking advantage most efficiently of the limited economic opportunities offered by my scholarship, I traveled to the Old World “third class” on an Italian freighter used mainly to transport passengers of limited economic means between Europe and Latin America. I disembarked in Genoa at the beginning of July. To start off, I took advantage of the opportunity to make a very brief but unforgettable visit to Rome and the Vatican, Florence, Milan and Paris. I passed through the center of France to the city of Bourges, with its imposing cathedral and beautiful gardens, to visit my mother’s uncle, Isaac Remba. During the German occupation he had managed to hide and survive. I continued trip and made it to London a few weeks before the beginning of the course.

My stay in London was very beneficial for my development not only in terms of radio electronics and telecommunications courses that I took there. It also had the chance to visit important libraries, where I eagerly dedicated myself to reviewing complete collections of specialized magazines that were not available in our country. At my pleasure, I was able to visit the Science Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the British Museum, and to attend Shakespearian performances in the Old Vic Theater. I went to art cinema, unforgettable concerts and ballets at the Royal Albert Hall and at Covent Garden, and attended high-level scientific conferences given by the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Royal Institute, among others. A good part of the little money I possessed went toward acquiring important photocopied articles, books and even a measuring instrument – all of which I brought back to Cuba and later were of considerable benefit in my work. I also took advantage of the opportunity of my stay in Great Britain to visit relatives who lived in Liverpool and to stay with them for several days.

In early September 1955, I began my trip to return to Cuba, passing through Paris, where I stayed a couple months at the Cuba House of the Town University. Other Cubans also lived there at that time, some I knew and others I didn’t. It was a wonderful opportunity to visit the Louvre Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Rodin Museum and the Palais de la Découverte, among others, as well as to enjoy performances offered by the Theatre National Populaire, the Moiseyev Ballet and the Cinemathèque. From Paris I went to Gothenburg, to take a boat that would go directly to my country after loading codfish in Norway. I returned to Havana in mid December 1955.

In order to make a living, I immediately returned to business to tutor fourth and fifth year electrical engineering students in my apartment near the university. In 1956, I was elected as a member of the Havana Provincial Board of Directors of the National School of Electrical Engineers and began to serve as the founding publisher of the Electrical Engineering magazine, the official organ of the institute. During that same period I worked as an engineer -the only one, of course- for a certain small refrigeration and air conditioning company whose profits were used to support clandestine revolutionary activities against the Batista dictatorship.


Not so Young but…

From early 1959 to the end of 1961 I worked in the Ministry of Communications directing the Telecommunications Advisory Council, which was later called the Engineering Section. A few colleagues and larger number of electrical engineering students made up of very enthusiastic and dedicated group which greatly contributed to the technical revolution in communications that took place during those years in the Ministry ( of Communications). One of the results of this was the creation of Radio Habana Cuba and the modern international radio communications service on which the country relied. Another accomplishment was the automation of the national telegraphic service and the start up of the telex system.

One of the main difficulties encountered in implementing the Technical Revolution that I just mentioned was the lack of personnel with suitable training, since university studies at that time didn’t include the specialty of electronics and telecommunications; these areas were barely touched upon in the electrical engineering program. Although it wouldn’t be fair to say that the earlier curriculum wasn’t demanding, what is certain is that it generally didn’t respond to the ambitious perspective of the fast-paced scientific and technological development that had just began to unfold in the country. In the summer of 1960 I began to give classes in electronics and theoretical electrical engineering at the University of Havana. Shortly afterwards I was appointed to be a member of the Higher Council of Universities, whose mission was to develop the foundations of the University Reform Act that was to take effect in January 1962. To complement the new Rector of the University of Havana —that anthological figure of Cuban intellectuality that was Juan Marinello— I was made deputy director, a position that I filled for a couple of years, though I never relinquished my functions as an electrical engineering professor – not until the end of 1966 when I joined the Academy of Sciences as a researcher.

At the academy, for fifteen years I was the founding director of the Institute of Technical Research, a position that I held simultaneously with the presidency of the National Commission for Peaceful Space Exploration until 1985 and with the vice-presidency of the Cuban Academy of Sciences from 1976 to 1982. For eighteen years, until 1995, I was in charge of the Executive Office of Technical Sciences of the National Commission of Science Degrees. I don’t believe that it’s worth the trouble to go into greater detail about the activities in which I participated. It’s enough to say that I accepted retirement in 1991, and that I consider myself a “pensioner” but not “retired” this is because I stay quite occupied with a number of activities that include the carrying out of research work and preparing publications, as well as holding the presidency of the Cuban Society of the History of Science and Technology, a position to which I have been reelected several times since 1993.

In terms of my personal life, my wife Mercedes and I are lucky enough of having our only son, Ernesto, who has given us great satisfaction in life, as has our granddaughter Patricia, who has still not yet turned two.

Although, as a rule, I don’t participate in religious celebrations of the Jewish Community, I usually attend the cultural activities and diverse celebrations that are organized. I’ve also given talks at the Patronato. But what satisfies me most is to have promoted, with the support of its President, Dr. Miller, the publication of a pamphlet in which the sufferings experienced by Hella and Frank Roubicek are related in a truly impressive and instructive way. They were two victims of anti-Semitic Nazi persecution who visited our country in 1995.

That wasn’t the first time that Hella had been to Cuba though, because as a girl she had been member of the group of the nine hundred thirty five Jews who arrived in Havana Bay in 1939 on board the steam-boat St. Louis, fleeing Nazi Germany. But it was the first time that she had stepped upon Cuban soil, because, as is known, although the ship remained anchored in the bay for a time, the travelers were not granted the asylum that they requested. Hella agreed to give a talk to the Patronato about her experiences on that terrible trip. After telling her story, Frank spoke of his own experiences as a Jewish-Czech survivor of Nazi concentration camps, in which he remained prisoner from 1941 to 1945. All of that was so moving that the translator often choked. When Frank finished, I went over to him to tell him that the story about the two of them had made a deep impression on me and that I would be very thankful if they sent me a written version of their talk. A while later I received a very accurate version of what they had said here; it was so well written that it seemed worthwhile to disseminate more widely than just between us. I immediately took up the task of translating it, with the valuable aid of our comrade and friend Lourdes Albo. After being translated, the text was made into a pamphlet that was published in 1996 by the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba . I think that it would be worth the trouble to print a second edition, and perhaps publish it in English as well, as has been suggested by Dr. Miller.