My Havana, My Homeland

Bud Schwarzschild went looking for the Cuba of his childhood. What the Owings Mills' man found amid the streets and hangouts of his memories made this the trip of alifetime.

February 08, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Bud Schwarzschild's return to Cuba was a happy and friendly expedition into the lost world of his childhood. For the first 10 years of his life, he lived in the elegant, exotic and wayward Havana of the 1920s and '30s. It was a lush, tropical playground where American sports and movie stars, gamblers and bootleggers mingled with well-born and well-heeled Cubans in a heady mix like the lime and rum of the Floradita daiquiri. His Havana was a place of constant, pulsating rumbas and sons, where the elderly musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club were young. A place Schwarzschild hadn't seen in nearly 50 years.

"I had the most wonderful young life any boy could have," says Schwarzschild, who came to Baltimore 65 years ago and now lives in Owings Mills.

He lived a childhood enormously different from Elian Gonzales, the 6-year-old boy whose rescue from the sea has embroiled Cuba, the United States and the exiled Cuban community in an extraordinary public battle over his custody.

Schwarzschild grew up amid rare colonial privilege in old Havana. His family resided in a grand Italianate mansion with a columned portico and palms in the garden. They were served by a chauffeur, a gardener, a butler and nanas, personal nursemaids for the children. He lived the life the regime of Fidel Castro abolished.

He remembers his childhood with great, great fondness but no regret. He lived through a decade of Cuban revolutions. And his family had left long before Castro. He was eager to return when the chance arose, even though his Cuban exile friends here disapproved. In November, he spent 10 days searching Havana's streets and parks for his boyhood.

Looking for home

Early one morning before his tour group got under way in Havana, the 75-year-old retiree who ran his own oil company for three decades went out in a taxi to find the house where he had been a child.

He pulls a photo from a file of memorabilia: "This was our house. We were very wealthy," he says, without a trace of affectation.

"The Graf Zeppelins would mistake our house for the German embassy and drop these flower wreaths that would land in the yard," he says. "And my grandfather would pick them up and take them over to the German Embassy and probably tell them to shove it because he was Jewish."

His grandfather was Sigmond Simon Friedlein. His full name is Henry Friedlein Schwarzschild, but among his friends he's Bud. His grandfather, an American citizen born in Bavaria, went down to Cuba about the time of the Spanish-American War.

"He was in liquors, and he supplied the hotels and casinos down there," Schwarzschild says. "He was feisty, but he was very good with us kids. He included us. He was a great, great guy. He had the ability to land on his feet."

"I lived at 13th and E streets in Verdado." He pronounces Verdado something like "Berrthatho," speaking Spanish without an English accent.

"I'm absolutely bilingual," he says, not boasting. "They don't know unless I tell them that I'm American. I could pass for a Cuban if I wanted to. The only thing is you don't get 6-foot-5 Cubans down there. I would stand out."

He went to the corner of 13th and E. He remembered riding his bike and avoiding a big hole there.

"The house had been torn down and made into an apartment building," he says. "I recognized the house next to me and the house across the street. The driver wanted to wake the people up and get them to talk to me."

He felt a sudden surge of emotion and turned away.

"I know damn well they would probably all be dead by now," he says. "I didn't want to go back to that. It was a very emotional time for me, the whole trip."

He, his grandparents, parents, brother Ted and cousin Betty Friedlein Adler all lived at the Verdado mansion. Betty Adler, who would become the brilliant Pratt librarian who cataloged the papers of H. L. Mencken and launched and edited the Menckeniana journal, was raised as his sister after she lost her parents.

The family came to the United States for the first time in 1934 when he was 10 years old, in part because his mother wanted an American education for her children.

"When we came up, we lived in the Marlborough Apartments. We were on the same floor as the Cone sisters. The Cone sisters used to complain that my brother and I made too much noise."

The sisters' collection of Matisse paintings now grace the Baltimore Museum of Art.

A delightful childhood

"I didn't want to leave Cuba," Schwarzschild recalls. "I had the most wonderful young life any boy could have.

"I liked to wander around in those days. I'd stop by the seawall [the Malecon] and there would be kids fishing and I would join them, grab a line. I'd go up into the city. They used to have performers, jugglers. They still do. I found a couple of performing groups."

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