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Dr. José Miller Ferdman       In Memoriam

On February the 27th, 2006 at Havana, Cuba passed away Dr. José Miller, leader of the Cuban Jewish community and a close friend of our department and his president. In posthumous homage to his action for his people we present this article “In Memoriam” from the pen of the historian Dr. Margalit Bejarano.

Dr. Jose Miller presided over the Jewish community in Cuba for 25 years, a period of revolutionary change both for the country and for the community. He assumed his duties in 1981, at a time when Cuban Jews were isolated and forgotten, and he continued to lead the community during the revival of the 1990s, which put Cuba back on the Jewish world map. It was Dr. Miller’s responsibility to represent the Jewish community vis-à-vis Fidel Castro’s government, and he had to function within the bounds of what was permitted. He also represented the community before those Jewish organizations that were willing to assist Cuban Jewry, navigating between them and working to steer them toward the community’s needs, in accordance with what the authorities were prepared to allow them to do. At the same time, he was the outstanding leader of the local Jewry, which itself had no lack of internal tensions and conflicts. The community President was blessed with exceptional diplomatic skills that enabled him to cope with complex and complicated situations and to maneuver between opposing streams.

Dr. Miller was one of the few people who managed to strike the right balance between Cuban and Jewish identity. He was born in 1925, in the city of Yaguajay (Las Villas province), to parents who had come to Cuba from Poland a year earlier. As with many other immigrant Jews of that period, his father started out as a peddler and eventually became a merchant. In the small city town in which the family lived there were only a few Jewish families. His parents maintained a traditional home, but Dr. Miller grew up in a free and open atmosphere, and most of his friends were non-Jewish Cubans.

In an interview with Cuban historian Maritza Corrales which appeared in her book on Cuban Jewry, Dr. Miller told of his attraction to politics from an early age and his ties to several members of the Cuban Communist party (which was called Partido Socialista Popular). One of these contacts was a resident of his home city, attorney José Felipe Carneado, who later was appointed head of the Office of Religious Affairs (Oficina de Asuntos Religiosos) in the central committee of the Communist party under Castro. Miller’s good relations with the person directly responsible for Jewish community affairs were of great importance during the difficult periods faced by the community.

In 1945 the young Miller went to Havana to study dentistry at the university; there he became active in Jewish frameworks that sought to create a bridge between Jews and Cubans. After the State of Israel was founded a group of left-leaning (though not Communist) Jewish intellectuals emerged which sought to promote Israel-Cuba relations. In 1953 they established the Agrupación Cultural Hebreo Cubana, of which Miller was a prominent member.

After the Revolution, Dr. Miller began to work as a dentist in the Cuban army, at a military hospital. In an interview with Maritza Corrales he related that after the Six-Day War he felt uncomfortable in the military framework, and he went to work instead at the national hospital. He also renewed his ties with the Jewish community, becoming active in the Patronato - the main organization of Cuban Jewry, most of whose members were older people who had trouble finding their place in Cuban society after the revolution. In contrast to most Jews of his generation, who had to distance themselves from the community in order to advance professionally or in public life, Dr. Miller managed to combine a successful career as a maxillofacial surgeon with public activity in the Jewish community.

The Jewish community suffered greatly due to the difficult relations that existed between Cuba and the State of Israel. Anti-Israeli propaganda efforts that began after the Six-Day War intensified greatly after the Yom Kippur War and the break in diplomatic relations. The Castro government maintained a supportive policy vis-à-vis the Jewish community, distinguishing between anti-Semitism - which was expressly forbidden - and anti-Zionism, which was the government’s official line and which was reflected in the media in malicious anti-Israeli propaganda. Clearly, it was not easy for the Jewish community and its leader to exist in an anti-Israeli atmosphere, and the Jews’ support for the land of their fathers could not be concealed. Here as well Dr. Miller had to exercise great caution: he had to demonstrate loyalty both to himself and his people, and to the Cuban homeland and its policy.

In the late 1970s Dr. Miller agreed to serve as head of the Patronato, and after Moshe Baldas, the president of the Jewish organizations’ coordinating council (Comité Coordinador), left Cuba for Israel in 1981, he became the head of Cuban Jewry’s umbrella organization and the community’s uncontested leader. The community, at this point, was in the process of disintegrating; its membership numbers were dwindling, its activity was very limited and, except for the Canadian Jewish Congress, which sent the community aid packages of kosher products for Passover every year, interest on the part of world Jewry was minimal.

The fall of the Communist bloc and the loss of Soviet support led to far-reaching changes in Cuba, and also to a change in the Jewish community’s status. The growth of tourism brought many Jews to Cuba, including humanitarian missions from the US, for whom assistance to the Cuban Jewish community enabled them to combine tourism with philanthropy. Numerous Jewish organizations discovered the small community whose Jewishness had eroded due to assimilation under Communist rule; these organizations, which included Chabad and the JDC, initiated extensive activity in Cuba. A great awakening occurred within the Jewish community, due both to the aforementioned foreign activity and to the general crisis undergone by Cuban society as a whole. Many Jews who visited Cuba during this period were critical of Dr. Miller, without understanding the complex situation in which he had had to act.

Dr. Miller played a role in Cuban Jewish aliya to Israel, as a mediator between the Jews and the authorities. Here as well he had to tread a fine line between conflicting interests. On the one hand he had to consider the interests of the Cuban government and ensure that the Jewish community would continue to exist and not disappear altogether; on the other hand, he wanted to protect Israeli interests and to ensure that the olim in question would be suited to conditions in Israel. At the same time, he was faced with pressure from individuals wanting to leave Cuba who, however, were not eligible under Israel’s Law of Return. Some of the latter individuals publicly defamed Dr. Miller. Clearly, serving as the head of a community in distress could be a thankless task.

I owe Dr. Miller a personal debt of gratitude for his warm reception of me every time that I visited Cuba, and particularly for his assistance in my research on the community’s history. I learned a great deal from him, and came to respect and esteem him highly. I fear that Cuban Jewry will be unable to find someone more suitable than Dr. Miller to lead their community in the future.

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