Alicja Gontarek Ph.D., "Polish Diplomatic and Consular Representation in Havana and the Case of Jewish Refugees in Cuba during World War II"

  • "Polish-Jewish Studies”, volume 1/2020, cover photo
    "Polish-Jewish Studies”, volume 1/2020, cover photo

The issues related to the presence and activities of Polish citizens in Cuba are rarely studied in Polish academic literature. This is a general result of the weak historical relationships between Poland and Cuba. Nevertheless,a few valuable studies have been written about these issues.1
The results of research by both Polish and foreign authors have focused on emphasising the social dimension of the lives of the Polish and Jewish diasporas in Cuba; however, the differentiation of Jews by their country of origin does not as a rule appear in studies by English-speaking authors, as they only refer to  a generally defined geographical region.2 However, the activities of the Polish diplomatic deputation in Cuba during the World War II have completely faded from view. This deputation organised the lives of groups of Poles living abroad, including Jewish refugees. Thus, there is a need for a detailed study that would show the nature of these activities as well as their range and reach. An analysis of the available material leaves no doubt that the most urgent problem faced by the Polish deputation in the Caribbean region was the issue of helping Jews who had arrived in Cuba from occupied Europe.3 This activity was outlined by the policy of the Polish government-in-exile.4

Organisational State of the Polish Deputation

After the independent Polish state established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1933, the relationship between the states deepened. However, this was a gradual process. From 1934, the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland, headed by Karol Sachs,5 operated in Havana, but the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York formally looked after Polish citizens ‘from a distance’. The presence of Karol Sachs in Cuba was not coincidental; as a prominent Polish sugar manufacturer, during the post-1929 depression he strove to take care of the interests of the Polish sugar industry, which had been affected by the after-effects of the financial crisis (as Cuba was one of the main sugar exporters).6

The concept of ‘presence from a distance’ in Cuba was still practiced after the outbreak of war. At that time a secretary named Leon Wilczewski, who assisted Sachs, was co-opted to the consulate, but unfortunately the author could not find any further details about him. The Polish deputation on the island was expanded further as a result of international conditions; in 1942, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to reinforce its diplomatic structures in Cuba further.

In March 1942, minister plenipotentiary Jan Drohojowski was sent to the island.7 He was an experienced diplomat 8 and quickly established relations with other envoys, especially Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes, the British representative, and Ellis Ormsbee Briggs, the American chargé d’affaires. Both warned Drohojowski that effective cooperation with the Cuban government should be dependent on the degree of his association with the American government, which could be regarded as an attempt to have Drohojowski report to them.9 The following people also belonged to the circle of Drohojowski’s acquaintances: Ti-Tsun Lin (the Chinese envoy), B. Verstraeten (the Belgian chargé d’affaires; first name unknown), Alfred Danielsen (the Norwegian chargé d’affaires), as well as Henry A. Hobson (the First Secretary of the Legation of Great Britain and the British Consul General) and Philippe Grousset (the representative of Free France).10 During that period, Drohojowski cooperated closely with the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Washington; the above-mentioned areas belonged to its jurisdiction. Until the time of Drohojowski’s arrival, Michał Kwapiszewski, the Counsellor of the Embassy, visited the island in the name of Jan Ciechanowski, the Polish ambassador in Washington.11
Soon, Drohojowski was replaced by Kazimierz Roman Dębicki, who came to Cuba as an envoy of the Republic of Poland in Havana. He held the position of envoy from October 1942 to 5 July 1945, with a responsibility also covering the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and then Jamaica from 1944 (delegated competency). Among his subordinates was the mission’s secretary, Dr. Tadeusz Kozłowski, about whom – as in the case of Sachs’s secretary – we know nothing.12
Dębicki was a vociferous supporter of creating the legation; he was also aware of the geographical and mental distance separating Cuba from Poland, so he understood that his most important activities consisted of establishing closer relations with the United States. Dębicki justified the need for a Polish post in the following way: “[it] is a necessary supplement of our network on the American continent. The already mentioned capital of sentiment, which Poland possesses in these countries and [which] can revive, ambitions and sensitivities which can be exploited there for Poland, and finally the importance the United States attaches to these countries, are elements which in the political and propaganda work can surely be useful.”13
His enthusiastic attitude upon arrival allowed him to look with optimism at the opportunities for developing the post. In addition to the above-mentioned people, the Polish honorary consuls – Georges Lespinasse in Haiti and Juan Gilberto Marion-Landais in the Dominican Republic – were helpful. Their importance was all the greater as there were serious communication issues related to the insular character of the areas under Dębicki’s control, although these obstacles were overcome. Dębicki was pleased with the work of the honorary consuls; he emphasised that they represented spheres of the local elites, and in his assessment Lespinasse was particularly useful due to his friendship with the president of Haiti, Antoine Louis Léocardie Élie Lescot.14
Dębicki’s improvising and his personal commitment at least partially compensated for his deficiencies in preparing for the role. He did not speak the Spanish language, nor was he acquainted with the history of Cuba or Polish–Cuban relations, and he had to become familiar with the island’s modern problems at an accelerated pace. Becoming acquainted with the local elite and establishing relations – not as a quasi-representative of Poland but as a person equal to the other envoys – caused the greatest difficulty. Sachs, who had been respected and acclaimed by the Cuban government, had all these attributes; but his mission had a slightly different character than that of envoy Dębicki.15 Additionally, the newly arrived envoy suffered from a lack of funds: he complained that the post was underfunded, and tried to make his superiors aware that prices in Cuba were approximately the same as in the US.16 Based on these considerations at least, his mission could be seen as difficult, requiring commitment and dedication.

Characteristics of Jewish Refugees

When analysing the refugee problem,and more widely the migration issue, we should not lose sight of what was happening in Cuba in the interwar period, and even earlier. More than 850,000 Europeans, mostly from Spain,arrived on the island between 1898 to 1932.17 Jewish migration developed in three large waves.According to available data, around 6000 Jews from Turkey arrived in Cuba in 1902–1914. In the next wave (1925–1935), 4000 Ashkenazi Jews, speaking Russian,Polish and Yiddish on a daily basis, came to the island. After 1938, subsequent groups of Jews arrived from Germany, totalling about 6000. Their destination was not so much Cuba as the United States, which restricted immigration from Germany and Eastern Europe pursuant to the Immigration Act of 1924. This led Cuba to become a kind of waiting room  for these migrants.18

When taking into account the diversity of the Jewish diaspora in Cuba, researchers distinguished three main groups: the numerically small but influential Portuguese-Dutch and American colony; a colony of Turkish Jews closely connected to that first colony; and a third colony, which consisted of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, referred to locally as polacos. These divisions proved to be so strong that they were decisive in internal relationships; the groups were neither inclined to integrate nor cooperate. Usually, the JDC (the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, sometimes known as ‘the Joint’) and HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) undertook integration activities. Jews from Eastern Europe had the greatest problems with adapting to their new circumstances, although there were groups of Jews from Poland who quickly integrated. The editorial staff of the newspaper Kubaner Yiddische Vort was such a group. Polish Jews also ran a school called Elojchem Szul.19 In the last years before the outbreak of the World War II, the life of the diaspora was focused on the refugee issue and the fight with escalating anti-Semitism fomented by German intelligence in Cuba.20

In 1942, it was noted that 5000 Polish citizens or people of Polish origin were resident in Cuba, including 2000 refugees.21 Their lives were concentrated solely in Havana. In 1943 the number of war refugees shrank to 900, which was a result of their immigration to the US, being granted Cuban citizenship, or the use of   a different registration criterion to qualify as Polish nationals. For instance, other calculations for the same year indicate that a total of 3400 people of Polish origin resided in Cuba, including 1600 Polish citizens and 1800 people ‘coming from Poland.’22 It is difficult to determine not only the basis for those estimates but also which groups were being considered: old immigration or refugees, or maybe both groups at once. It is also unknown how many Jews were in the group of Polish citizens analysed.
Despite this problem, which we probably cannot resolve, our attention will focus first on the refugees; according to estimates, 95% of these refugees were  of Jewish origin. They arrived in Cuba mainly from Italy, France, Belgium and Portugal, using ‘exotic transit visas’ issued mainly in France, and to a lesser extent in Belgium, by the Honduran, Guatemalan, Haitian and Chinese consulates. Some of the newcomers had certificates issued by Polish consulates or Offices Polonaises in unoccupied France. The others had documents of stateless persons (some had only their certificats d’identité).23 They got to the island by bribery; as Drohojowski stated in 1942, “the way [...] is still open for anyone who lodges a deposit of 650 dollars and respectively pays an often not very meticulous law firm in Europe, which has an associate in Havana.”24 In 1942, Jewish refugees of Polish origin were maintained by the JDC, which had its own delegation in Havana. This situation persisted until the end of the war.25 In the remaining areas under the care of Dębicki, approximately 20 people of Polish origin were in the Dominican Republic, including some who did not have Polish citizenship but wanted to renew it, and there was a small group in Haiti in 1943 of no more than ten Polish citizens (refugees and representatives of old immigration).26



1The most recent study is by M. Malinowski, ‘Polonia na Kubie’in Relacje Polska–Kuba.Historia i współczesność,ed.K.Dembicz,Warsaw 2013.From older literature, we may mention some studies, though they do not relate to the war period: A.Dembicz,Kuba,Warsaw 1969; I. Klarner-Kosińska, ‘Polonia na Haiti’ in Dzieje Polonii w Ameryce Łacińskiej. Zbiór studiów, ed. M. Kula, Wrocław 1983, pp. 159–162; M. Kula, ‘Polonia na Kubie’ in Dzieje Polonii…, pp.128–156.The memoirs of Jan Drohojowski,the Polish minister plenipotentiary in Cuba, also deserve attention, despite their many shortcomings. In those memoirs,he disassociated himself from his past which connected him with the Polish government-in-exile,and (which is most noteworthy) almost completely omitted the activities of Kazimierz Roman Dębicki, the envoy of the Legation of the Republic of Poland in Havana, whom he presented as an intriguer and thief (J.Drohojowski,Jana Drohojowskiego wspomnienia dyplomatyczne,Cracow 1972, pp.11,123,284). Dębicki also wrote his memoirs and two volumes of diaries, which have not yet been published. Dębicki’s papers are kept at the Józef Piłsudski Institute of America in New York, archival fonds no. 040, no. 2 and 3 in the inventory.

2 A well-documented work by Zhava Litvac Glaser entitled Refugees and Relief. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and European Jews in Cuba and Shanghai 1938–1943, New York 2015, contains rudimentary information about Jews from Poland. This work is mainly dominated by deliberations about divisions within the Jewish diaspora into Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as into old and new emigration. Robert M. Levine devoted a great deal of attention to issues such as culture shock, national identity, adaptation and acculturation in the war context (R.M. Levine, Tropical Diaspora. The Jewish Experience in Cuba, Florida 1993, pp. 150–188; M. Bejarano, ‘Sephardic Jews in Cuba (from All Their Habitations)’, Judaism. A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 2002, no.1, pp.96–108; J.Levinson,Jewish Community of Cuba.The Golden Age 1906–1958, Nashville 2006).

3 Let us list the most important studies devoted to Polish diplomacy and the Polish diaspora in Latin America during the World War II: M.T. Koreywo-Rybczyńska, ‘Polityka Polski wobec emigracji w Ameryce Łacińskiej. Od mirażu ekspansji do polityki współpracy’ in Dzieje  Polonii…, pp. 443–480; J. Perlin, ‘Historia stosunków dyplomatycznych Polski z Ameryką Łacińską (part II)’, Ameryka Łacińska 1996, no. 3, pp. 101–103; Polityka zagraniczna państw Ameryki Łacińskiej w okresie IIwojnyświatowejwświetleraportówpolskichplacówekzagranicznych 1939–1941, compiled by K. Smolana, Warsaw 2014; Stosunki dyplomatyczne Polski. Informator, vol. 2: Ameryka Północna i Południowa 1918–2007, ed. K. Szczepanik, A. Herman-Łukasik, B. Janicka, Warsaw 2008; see also E. Kołodziej, ‘Rola polskich placówek dyplomatycznych i konsularnych w latach 1939–1945’ in Władze RP na obczyźnie podczas II wojny światowej 1939–1945, ed. Z. Błażyński, London 1994, pp. 774–820.

4 On this topic, see e.g. D. Engel, In the Shadow of Auschwitz. The Polish Government-in-Exile and  the Jews 1939–1942, London 1987; idem, Facing a Holocaust. The Polish Government-in-Exile and the Jews 1943–1945, London 1993; A. Haska, ‘“Proszę Pana Ministra o energiczną interwencję.” Aleksander Ładoś (1891–1963) i ratowanie Żydów przez Poselstwo RP w Bernie’, Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały 2015, vol. 11, pp. 299–309; D. Dyrwa, ‘Działalność Poselstwa RP w Bernie na rzecz polsko-żydowskich uchodźców w latach 1939–1945’ in Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice, ed. W. Grabowski, Warsaw 2014, pp. 99–123; E. Pałasz-Rutkowska, ‘Ambassador Tadeusz Romer. His Role in Polish-Japanese Relations (1937–1941)’, Silva Iaponicarum 2008, vol. 18, pp. 82–104; D. Stola, ‘The Polish Government-in-Exile and the Final Solution. What Conditioned Its Actions and Inactions’ in Contested Memories. Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, ed. J. Zimmermann, New Brunswick 2003, p. 89ff. It must be noted that the documents from the collection of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs kept in the Hoover Institution were used only scarcely in all of the studies listed above.The pages in the files in this collection are not foliated, and the references only give the folder number.I have refrained from quoting the titles of documents because in a majority of cases one decision or a singular event is reflected in several,several dozen or several hundred documents,including coded dispatches with similar, though not identical, content.

5 Karol Sachs, son of Markus and Eleonora, whose family came from Kiev; he came from a family of assimilated Jews and was related to the families of Aszkenazy, Ginsberg and Oldenburg. He held a PhD, and before the war was counted as one of the most influential industrial sugar manufacturers; he held the office of vice-president of Związek Cukrowników Polskich (the Union of Polish Sugar Manufacturers).He was also the director of the Anglo-Polish Bank and the president of several  sugar refineries, as well as a co-founder of the international sugar cartel established in 1931. The sugar factory in Zakrzówek in the Lublin region belonged to him. Jan Drohojowski counted him as one of the co-creators of the Chadbourne plan from 1931, which consisted of dividing up the sugar markets as well as regulating supply and demand for this product. The ONR-Falanga (National Radical Camp Falanga) denied Sachs’ vital role in the Polish sugar industry before the war, ridiculing the connections of Jewish industrialists with the Polish landed gentry. In 1939,  Sachs was a director  of Komitet Pomocy Uchodźcom z Niemiec (Committee To Aid Refugees From Germany) in Warsaw. However, Drohojowski’s statement that Sachs was the vice-president of Żydowska Gmina Wyznaniowa (Jewish Religious Community) in Warsaw is false (‘Cukier krzepi… Izraela. Tajniki “królestwa” rodziny Przeworskich’,Falanga 1937, no.24, p.1; J. Drohojowski,Jana Drohojowskiego wspomnienia…, p.146; see also: H.Kawalec,‘Działalność gospodarcza’,Wieści Zakrzowickie 2016,no.14, pp.18–20, an issue dedicated to the Jewish community in the Zakrzówek district in the years 1918–1939; J. Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland 1919–1939,Berlin – New York – Amsterdam 1983,p.116;
R.Żebrowski,Żydowska Gmina Wyznaniowa w Warszawie 1918–1939.W kręgu polityki, Warsaw 2012, p.579; see also: E. Słabińska, ‘Wkład ziemiaństwa w  rozwój  przemysłu  cukrowniczego w województwie kieleckim w latach 1918–1939’, Studia z Historii Społeczno-Gospodarczej 2010, vol. 7, p. 228).

6 In the 1930s, the interest in creating new consulates increased in Poland as a result of the global economic depression and the increasing social problems in the communities of the worldwide Polish diaspora. As many as 87 career consuls and 141 honorary consuls were operating in 1939 (W. Michowicz,‘Organizacja polskiego aparatu dyplomatycznego w latach 1918–1939’in Historia dyplomacji polskiej, vol.4, ed.P.Łossowski,Warsaw 1995,pp.45,56;see also:W.Skóra,Służba konsularna Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej.Organizacja,kadry i działalność,Toruń 2006).

7 The Hoover Institution Archives (hereinafter HI Archives), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs collection (hereinafter MSZ),9,f.10.Cuba was an important point on the war map as an important surveillance point for the Allied forces. All the principal political powers were interested in the Atlantic war theatre, including the Abwehr within the framework of Operation Bolivar (for more see T.Schoonover,Hitler’s Man in Havana. Heinz Luning and Nazi Espionage in Latin America, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky 2008).

8 After the end of his short mission in Cuba, the Polish government was considering, at the initiative of Stanisław Mikołajczyk, the candidacy of Drohojowski for the position of consul general  in Jerusalem. Jan Stańczyk opposed his candidacy,and wrote in December 1943 to Mikołajczyk: “In interpersonal relations among Polish people, Mr Drohojowski did not yet demonstrate either the coexistence with people or the impartiality which is necessary to control the quite difficult situation in Palestine. [...] He is not a personality whose authority,restraint and solemnity would be able to normalise relations in that place.” In another letter, Stańczyk explained directly that Drohojowski has an anti-Semitic attitude, as was proved by his pamphlet about the Jewish issue and the fact that he had edited the Przewodnik Katolicki weekly before the war (HI Archives, MSZ, 295, f.7).As Przemysław Różański mentioned, Drohojowski was an author of a study for Ministry of Foreign Affairs entitled Zarys problemu żydowskiego w Polsce (The outline of the Jewish problem in Poland) in which,referring to the protests by American professors related to the matter of ‘ghetto benches’ in Poland, he noticed that in the US “segregation was practised in many public places, seaside resorts, clubs and hotels, making  it impossible for Jews to access the mentioned places” (P.Różański,‘Stany Zjednoczone i Polska w drugiej połowie lat 30. XX wieku. W kręgu spraw żydowskich’, Dzieje Najnowsze 2010, no. 1, pp. 63–79).

9 HI Archives, MSZ,9,f.10.

10 HI Archives, MSZ,43,f.17.In May 1941 Jacques Soustelle was the representative of Gen.Charles de Gaulle for the countries of Central and South America (HI Archives, MSZ,532,f.22).

11 HI Archives, MSZ,44,f.6.

12 HI Archives, MSZ, 125,f.8; HI Archives, MSZ, 156, f.27; HI Archives, MSZ, 161, f.10.Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski was nominated to become envoy to Cuba,and he obtained the consent of Minister of State of Cuba to arrive on the island in April 1942. When Wieniawa committed suicide on 1 July 1942, a problem arose whom to appoint in his place (for more see a polemical article by Witold Dworzyński concerning Jacek Majchrowski’s remarks on the theme: W. Dworzyński, ‘Biografia Wieniawy’, Zeszyty Literackie 1991, no. 95, pp. 210–214. For more on Wieniawa in the Cuban context, see also HI Archives, MSZ, 43, f. 17).

13 HI Archives,MSZ,47,f.19.When writing about these sentiments,Dębicki was referring to the Napoleonic era when Polish soldiers found their way to Santo Domingo, that is Haiti, where some of them decided to join the Haitian insurgents (for more, see e.g. A.M. Skałkowski, Polacy na Santo Domingo 1802–1809, Poznań 1921).  

14 HI Archives,MSZ,47,f.19.

15 HI Archives,MSZ,43,f.17.

16 The monthly budget consisted of the envoy’s salary (US$350), supplement (US$150), the attaché’s salary (US$250), material costs (US$290), the press and informative fund (US$40),and the so-called special fund (US$40.25). All the expenses added up to US$1080.25 (HI Archives, MSZ, 238, f. 11; HI Archives,MSZ,253,f.17).

17 A Chinese diaspora, counting 300,000 people, as well as 250,000 Haitians and Jamaicans, also lived in Cuba (R.M. Levine,Tropical Diaspora…, p. 10).

18 M. Bejarano, Sephardic Jews…, p. 96. The author of the Immigration Act, Albert Johnson, saw Eastern European Jews as a threat to the US, as he described them as “unassimilable, filthy, un-American,and often dangerous in their habits” (R.Daniels,Not Like Us.Immigration and Minorities in America 1890–1924, Chicago 1997,p.131;Z.L.Glaser,Refugees…, p. 29).

19 In the 1920s, the consul general of the Republic of Poland in New York  wrote: “Nearly not a day goes without scenes and scandals and press revelations,that are highly unfavourable for Poland, even though neither native Poles nor even Polish citizens are involved. The press and the Cuban government count the biggest scandals, immigrational filth and scum on account of Poland. Finally, all Communist activities are attributed to Poles” (V. Pauliuchuk, ‘Różne drogi do Ameryki. Próba nowego spojrzenia na emigrację żydowską z Polski do USA w latach dwudziestych XX wieku’, Białostockie Teki  Archiwalne  2016, vol. 14, p. 138). Although there was a great deal of exaggeration in these words, the stereotype of a Polish Jew as a human trafficker, and the Jewess as a promiscuous woman, were perpetuated in Cuban consciousness (‘Zabludover landsleyt in der velt. In Kuba’ in Zabludove izker-bukh; di geshikhte fun der yidisher kehile Zabludove fun ir breishes biz ir fartilikung durkh di natsishe rotskhim, ed. S.Cesler, J.Reznik, I.Cesler, Buenos Aires 1961, p.343).

20 Z.L. Glaser, Refugees…, p.30. It should be mentioned that the first synagogue for Eastern European Jews was erected in Cuba in 1925 (J. Levine, Tropical Diaspora…, p.23).

21 Certainly, the Polish mission did not count all polacos in the Polish group. According to postwar estimates, in the years 1933–1944 Cuba accepted  about  12,000 Jewish newcomers from  Europe (M. Bejarano,‘The Jewish Community of Cuba. Between Continuity and Extinction’, Jewish Political Studies Review 1991, vol.3, no.1/2, p.124).

22 HI Archives, MSZ, 9, f. 10.

23 Ibidem.

24 Ibidem.

25 HI Archives,MSZ,121,f.27; HI Archives,MSZ,548,f.1.

26 HI Archives,MSZ,47,f.19;HI Archives,MSZ,55,f.30.


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