This is the second portion of a two-part article about Nery Kircher and her life in Cuba.
One of the painful memories was when the women were forced to work through a severe thunderstorm.
“The soldiers were the ones, that when it was thundering and raining, kept us in the field, laughing at us,” she recalled. “We were just soaking wet, with rain and thunder and lightning, with machetes in our hands. And they were laughing at us. We were scared to death. We were afraid we were going to be hit by lightning.”
Barnet Kircher was working by a river when she made a startling discovery.
“We were working on land that had a river,” she said. “And you know what, that land was once owned by my great grandparents. And I thought, ‘Wow, who was going to tell me I was going to be working on this land?’”
The women were given water that was kept in a canteen, then poured into a metal cup.
“There was dirt in the bottom,” Barnet Kircher said. “And you shared the cup with everybody.”
Eventually, Barnet Kircher came up with a better solution. “We were by a river and I said, ‘Oh… I have an idea.’ By then I had my own cup. It was a small metal cup. I went to the river and I waited for a stone. I waited for a stone for the water to run over so I wouldn’t get tadpoles in it. You wait for the rock, then you put your cup there. I drank the water. I washed my face, my hands.”
Barnet Kircher had other memories of working by the river.
“And when you went to the restroom, there was no way to clean yourself. You used leaves or whatever. We were by the river then. We were picking guavas. We ate the guavas. We were so hungry. But you couldn’t let them see you eating the guavas. That’s production. That’s sabotage. You cannot eat the guavas.”
She said the women were not beaten by the guards.
“It was more psychological. You were treated like you were in jail. There was a certain time when the lights were off. Then you had to be up at a certain time in the morning to work. It was exhausting. They kept you working from the first light of day till the evening when the light was going away.”
She recalls one run-in with a mounted guard named Reymundo.
“Another thing I’ve never forgotten was this soldier. He was on this horse, like a big shot. He would tell me, ‘Work, bitch. That’s the way I want to see you, full of dirt.’ Guess what, he said that to me and I started singing. And he would get so angry and get that horse going. But guess what? It made me feel better to be singing—and for him to hate it.”
Writing poetry and singing is what got her through the agony of the work camps. She also crocheted. She treasures a small plastic box that contains crocheted socks and pantyhose.
“I made this and this,” she said, displaying a pair of crocheted socks and a pair of fishnet stockings. “Look at this. I made that. It was just unbelievable. When I was in the labor camp, my mom didn’t have any money to purchase anything. My father didn’t have any money to purchase anything. I learned to crochet. I made these and I would sell them. I made them in the evening before they shut off the lights. The pantyhose were for the ladies. And then we had socks for the guys.” She laughed. “Now I don’t remember how to make them. That’s another thing that is erased from my mind. You couldn’t find pantyhose; you couldn’t find socks. My sister and my Aunt sent me the material from the United States and Mexico.
“I lost my voice singing in the fields. I developed nodules on my vocal cords. They were cured with treatment, but they were from singing. We were all singing church songs. We sang Spanish songs a lot. We sang daily. We were working. I’d say, ‘Come on ladies, sing a song.’ Then someone else would sing another song.
“I wrote poems at the camp. There were political poems; romantic poems. I started writing poems when I was 13. I was very young when I started the school for teachers. I was 2 years ahead of my age. In those years, there was no gifted program, they just moved you ahead.”
In recent years, Barnet Kircher has published the poetry she wrote in the forced labor camps.
Another blessing is a collection of black and white photographs from the Forced Labor Camp that Barnet Kircher treasures. An author who is writing a book on the UMAP camp did not believe any pictures from the Cuban forced labor camps existed.
“Somebody brought a camera and we took some pictures,” Barnet Kircher said. “This guy is writing a book about the forced labor camps in Cuba. I told him, ‘I cannot give you these pictures.’ He said, ‘There are no pictures.’ I said, ‘There are pictures.’ One of my other friends had pictures but she cannot find them. She said, ‘Nery, when I moved, I don’t know what I did with those pictures.’ She couldn’t find them. You will see us laughing and smiling in the pictures. You know what. What are you going to do?”
Barnet Kircher was smart enough to mail the photos back to her Aunt in the United States.
After a year-and-a-half in the Ceja Dos camp, Barnet Kircher was battling depression. A neighbor was the head of the psychiatric hospital in Matanzas. She was sent to see him.
“I had an incident with a psychiatrist later on, he said my mind forgets. I forgot something that he did to me. I couldn’t talk about it for 20 years. He sodomized me. The psychiatrist was my neighbor. I was very depressed with the situation. A lady that lived in the apartment was a friend of my mom. Her kids were friends of ours. She said, ’Nery, why don’t you see Dr. Ariel and see if he can help you?
“So, I went to see him; I went to the hospital. He was the director of the mental hospital in the city in Matanzas. So I went to see him with my mom. He put me under so much medication. He gave me permission to stay home, away from the fields. But I was under all of these drugs. So, one day when I went to see him, he said, ‘Hey, you’re a teacher. Could you help me do my lesson plans? I’m so busy I don’t have time. You can ask Chelita, the lady downstairs, she has a key to my apartment. You can come in and get the book.’
“So, that’s what I did. I got the book and took it home and did lesson plans for him. Then when I brought the book back to his apartment, he was there. He said, ‘You are too tense, come here, come here. He was older. He’s your doctor. He’s 40-something years old. You trust that person. He’s saying, ‘Oh, you’re too tense,’ and started massaging my shoulders. In the end, he said, ‘At least I respected your virginity.’ I was crying and crying and crying. You know he died a few years later of a heart attack. Karma.
“I didn’t speak about that for years and years and years,” she recalled. “One day, we were watching a program and Oprah Winfrey was talking about being raped. I began crying. And my husband Bob said, ‘What’s wrong with you, honey?’ I couldn’t stop crying. I said ‘I have a bad secret.’ Finally, I spoke about it. I told my parents. My father said, ‘You should have told me.’ I said, ’No, I knew what you would do.’ I couldn’t tell anybody. That happened in 1969. It was about 20 years later when I was able to speak about it. Back then I wanted to jump off the balcony and kill myself. Because you feel dirty.
“Something happened in the hospital and they sent him back to Havana. They put a new doctor in there. I went to see him. He could not believe it. He said to my mom, ‘What was he doing? All these drugs! Oh my gosh, I need to detox you now.’
“I was like a zombie. It went on for a few months. Then, this doctor, the new doctor, he said, ‘You know what, you’re not going to be away from home. You’ve going to be sent to a camp that is not too far from here, so you can come to sleep at home, so I can supervise all this process.”
For her final one and a half years in forced labor camps, Barnet Kircher was allowed to come home. “I was able to sleep in my bed. I was home; I was with my mom.”
The end of Barnet Kircher’s forced labor came suddenly and unannounced.
“When the soldiers came,” Barnet Kircher said, “I was in the fields. My father was, too. The soldiers came and knocked on the door and said to my mom, ‘Okay, that’s it, you guys are leaving. You need to leave this house at this moment. Get a change of clothing.’
So, they got them out of the house and put a seal on the house. Barnet Kircher got on the bus back home for the final time.
“This time, the truck took me right to my house. I thought, ’This is weird. He’s taking me to my house.’ It seemed like the driver knew what was going on because he stopped right in front of my house. Normally, he would have left me at the park.”
Her mother was thrilled when she got off the bus.
“My mom said, ‘We’re leaving, we’re leaving!”
Barnet Kircher gave her backpack to the ladies who were on the bus to use in the fields.
“My mother told me that I could not go back into the house. So, we came to the United States with one change of clothes. We had to go to my Great Uncle’s house and wait overnight for my dad.”
The next morning, Barnet Kircher got a ride from her Great Uncle to the forced labor camp where she had to return her work boots.
“When it came time for me to leave, I was supposed to return the boots. And when I got there, there was Reymundo. I never forgot his name. I get there and I put the boots on his desk and I said to him, ‘Here are your boots. I’m going to be eating good food while you’re still here eating dirt.’”
He shouted at her, “That can cost you the exit of Cuba!”
“I ran out of there,” she said. “I got the satisfaction. He told me he wanted to see me full of dirt and I told him, ‘You are still going to eat dirt.’”
Barnet Kircher then immediately rode to the airport and boarded a Freedom Flight to the United States. “When the plane lifted it off, it was like a heavy load was lifted off of your back. It was like you were feeling freedom already, like a bird. The plane was full—I would say 60 people. As soon as we could see we were leaving Cuba behind, everybody started singing the Cuban national anthem. Then someone screamed, ‘Viva Cuban Libre.’
After we sang the national anthem, the pilot came on the speaker and said, “The United States government welcomes you to freedom.”
“We were crying,” she recalled of the 1971 Freedom Flight. “We were emotional. We were so happy. We couldn’t believe it. We said, ‘Oh, Lord, who cares about the material things!’ That was nothing. All this is nothing. But your freedom, your life, is so important.”
Nery Barnet Kircher’s book, “Path to Freedom!” is available on amazon.com.
The following is a poem written by Nery Barnet Kircher while she was a teenager in the Ceja Dos Forced Labor Camp.
By Nery Barnet
My flesh has learned of tortures,
It has suffered pain and bitterness.
I have tasted the elixir of torment,
I have cried.
Just had a moment of weakness,
But in my agony, I’ve resisted.
No pain or death torments
I can scream, I am free!
I have affronted and defied him.
For the shame of the tormentor,
And my honor, I have conquered it!