Read Tropical Secrets Online

Authors: Margarita Engle

Tropical Secrets

BOOK: Tropical Secrets
































Henry Holt and Company, LLC

Publishers since 1866

175 Fifth Avenue

New York, New York 10010


Henry Holt
is a registered trademark of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Copyright © 2009 by Margarita Engle

All rights reserved.

Distributed in Canada by H. B. Fenn and Company Ltd.


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Engle, Margarita.

Tropical secrets : Holocaust refugees in Cuba /

Margarita Engle.—1st ed.

p.        cm.

Summary: Escaping from Nazi Germany to Cuba in 1939, a young Jewish refugee dreams of finding his parents again, befriends a local girl with painful secrets of her own, and discovers that the Nazi darkness is never far away.

ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8936-3 / ISBN-10: 0-8050-8936-5

1. Jews—Cuba—History—20th century—Juvenile fiction.

2. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Juvenile fiction. {1. Novels in verse. 2. Jews—Cuba—Fiction. 3. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Fiction.

4. Refugees—Fiction. 5. Cuba—History—1933–1959—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.5.E54Tr 2009 [Fic]—dc22          2008036782


First Edition—2009

Book designed by Meredith Pratt

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper. ∞


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To my parents
Martin and Eloísa Mondrus






No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo.

You can't cover up the sun with one finger.











June 1939


July 1939


December 1941


April 1942


Historical Note


Author's Note
















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.

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