Looking for Harris: the Cuban connection

And now for something completely different on this blog:

Orlando (left) and Reynaldo Garrido, former Cuban tennis stars who won the Canadian Open in 1959, pose with a photograph of their victory at Orlando's house in Havana.

Orlando (left) and Reynaldo Garrido, former Cuban tennis stars who won the Canadian Open in 1959, pose with a photograph of their victory at Orlando’s house in Havana. They helped me identify the Cuban tennis player who aided my stepfather when he arrived in Cuba as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany.

In early 1989 my widowed mother happened to sit next to a man on a plane who would change her life.  They began talking during the flight and he told her his personal history: how he grew up in Germany and fled the country when Nazi persecution became too much for his Jewish family.  His parents remained behind, as did his sister, who urged him to take her engagement ring and sell it to support himself wherever he landed.  He refused to take her ring and found a place on a ship, the Iberia, leaving Hamburg and sailing for Cuba.

It was 1939, and one month later the MS St. Louis ocean liner carrying 937 Jewish refugees from Germany would also set sail from Hamburg but would not be allowed entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada and would head back to Europe (this story is told in a book and film, The Voyage of the Damned).  But Harris Jarrick, aged either 24 or 25 and an accomplished tennis player, was allowed into Cuba and went straight from the ship’s dock in Havana Bay to the country club where a Cuban tennis player he had once met in Germany worked.  This man, he told my mother, was “the most famous tennis player in Cuba,” and helped him find work at the club and a place to live.  Harris stayed in Cuba for less than a year, before making his way to the United States and settling in California.  After WWII ended, he learned that his parents and sister—who secretly had sewn her engagement ring into his jacket—had perished in Auschwitz.

Harris and my mother married within a year and lived happily until his death in 2006.  During my visit to Cuba last month, I wanted to see if I could find the tennis club where he played and any other details of his time there.  But  first I would have to find the identity of “the most famous tennis player in Cuba” of 1939.

My first stop was Cuba’s national library, the Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti  (http://www.bnjm.cu/), which faces Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion.  Somewhat nervously, I told the women behind the desk that I was researching a family connection with Cuba, gave a brief summary of Harris’s arrival in Havana and could I look at materials on Cuban tennis in the 1930s-40s?

They could not have been kinder.  One woman helped me fill out a library card form, another brought me a tiny cup of strong Cuban coffee and another found ancient back issues of the long-defunct Revista Vedado Tennis Club, which contained pages and pages of pre revolutionary Cuban society news, but nothing about tennis.  Would Harris have been there, or one of the other possible venues, such as what was once the Country Club de la Habana or the Habana Yacht Club? Someone brought me the Almanac del Mundo 1938-39 and in the sports section tennis listings were two Cuban players, Ricardo Morales and Jorge Cancio.  But I could find nothing about either man in the library’s catalogue.

One of the librarians suggested I visit Cuba’s Ciudad Deportiva and consult their archives, and I stopped there the following day. The man with whom I spoke told me to call the Cuban tennis commission, which in turn told me they had no archives as such, but why didn’t I call Orlando Garrido, a retired Cuban tennis player who would almost certainly know the names of the top players from that period.

I called Orlando, and he graciously invited me to visit his home and look at his old tennis files.  His brother Reynaldo was visiting from Miami, and it just so happened that the two brothers were Cuba’s top players in 1959, playing each other in the men’s singles at the Canadian Open, winning first and second place that year.  Reynaldo also played for the Cuba Davis Cup for five years, while Orlando is a respected biologist, co-author of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba, a book on Cuban mammals, a forthcoming work on Cuban reptiles and co author of several other works.  He has an extensive taxidermy collection of birds and animals, including a species of Cuban rodent he discovered and which bears his name, and a large aviary in his patio.

The Garrido brothers maintained that the “most famous tennis player in Cuba” in 1939 was not either of the men whose names I found in the almanac, but Gustavo Vollmer, a Cuban of German descent who very likely had travelled to Europe during the 1930s.  And in Havana he played at the Vedado Tennis Club, which still stands today, albeit in a dramatically reduced state. Reynaldo told me his wife knew Vollmer’s daughter Marina, who lives in Miami and might have more information.  I later obtained Marina’s number, called her in Miami and she told me her father had indeed travelled to Germany in the 1930s. She did not recall him ever mentioning Harris, but we agreed to stay in touch and meet the next time I came to Miami.

Before I said goodbye to Orlando and Reynaldo the two brothers posed for a picture, holding the photograph of their 1959 victory at the Canadian Open. I stopped at the old Vedado Tennis Club, which once had half a dozen tennis courts.  Only one was still being used for tennis, and the others were either crumbled or overgrown with weeds or both.  Before I was warned not to take photos I managed to use my cell phone to get a quick shot of the building, which seemed structurally intact, if a bit faded.  I walked up the wide stairs leading from the courts to the building’s rooms, which were empty save for a lone musician playing drums on the second floor.  This is where Harris had been.

The once-elegant Vedado Tennis Club, where Harris arrived in 1939. Only one of the tennis courts to the left is still in working order.

The once-elegant Vedado Tennis Club, where Harris arrived in 1939. Only one of the tennis courts to the left is still in working order.

The next day I walked around Havana’s old port area and noticed a building bearing the words “Terminal Sierra Maestra San Francisco,” and next door, another building with the word aduana, customs. I took another furtive cell phone picture, then noticed the uniformed man standing outside. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, I crossed the street and spoke to him.  I was researching some family history, I told him, and would this building be the place where ship passengers arrived during the 1930s and ‘40s?

Yes, he said, though he did not know when it had stopped being a terminal. An elderly man standing nearby joined our conversation, telling me it certainly was the place where ship passengers used to arrive, though there were two other sites further along the waterfront where ships also docked.  But I figured Harris must have walked around this area at some point during his time in Cuba.

A former passenger terminal in Havana's historic district.

A former passenger terminal in Havana’s historic district.