Tales of internat’l intrigue in old Key West

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969) by Arlo Haskell; Sand Paper Press; 2017; 170 pages plus notes, bibliography and index; $24.00.

By Donald H. Harrison


Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – Arlo Haskell’s book on the Jews of Key West is unlike most other local histories in that it is fueled by international intrigue consequent to the southeastern-most city of the continental United States being located just 90 miles from the island of Cuba.

Readers learn that during the 19th Century Jews established cigar factories in Key West that brought to the United States many Cuban cigar rollers, who, for the most part, were sympathetic to the Cuban liberator José Martí’s campaign for independence from Spain.  Martí visited Key West in the run-up to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The ease with which money and people flowed between Cuba and Key West in the late 19th Century was an inspiration in the 20th Century for Jews determined to save their co-religionists from the scourge of Nazism.

Prior to World War II, some European Jews were able to obtain passage to Cuba and from there be smuggled to the U.S. mainland via Key West and other islands in the Florida Keys.  Haskell informs us that some of Key West’s Jewish merchants maintained living spaces under their stores – an underground railroad for Jewish refugees.

Not everyone was pleased with these humanitarian efforts.  For example, The Ku Klux Klan devoted much time and energy into frustrating the designs of the Jewish rescuers.  International smugglers, unaffiliated with the Jewish community, viewed Jews’ humanitarian efforts with a jaundiced eye.

Today, America once again is grappling with illegal immigration.  Those who are quick to condemn “illegals” from Latin American and other countries coming to this country via the porous U.S.-Mexico border should remember that in some cases these refugees are in as much fear for their lives as our own people were during the Nazi era in Europe.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted via [email protected]

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