Nery Barnet Kircher is a survivor and a fighter, but most importantly, she is free.
As a child during the Cuban Revolution in 1959, she recalls watching Dictator Fidel Castro being feted in the streets after overthrowing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Cubans country-wide celebrated. Little did she know that several years later she would spend 3 tortuous years in a series of forced labor camps before tasting freedom as part of the Freedom Flights of the 1960s-1970s. Kircher tells all this and more in her recently-released book “Path to Freedom!”
Barnet Kircher grew up just two blocks from the beach in what she called a Cuban middle-class neighborhood.
“I have great memories as a child,” Barnet Kircher began. “We grew up by the beach. The house wasn’t on the beach, it was almost two blocks from the beach. Women stayed home with the kids. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and a piano teacher, but my father wouldn’t let her work.
“We were middle class in Cuba. My father worked very hard, six days a week, in a material store. The only day he had free was Sunday. He was a provider; he began sweeping the floor and going to school to become a bookkeeper. He kept getting higher levels in the store. One time he had an offer from an American company distributing materials and they gave him a job traveling the island, distributing the material, along with a car. My mom wasn’t happy because he was traveling the whole week, he wasn’t home. After about a year, the owner of the store called him and said, ‘Barnet, I need you. The business is going down.’ He offered him 60% of the profits to return. So, it was like it was his store.”
Fulgencio Batista was the President of Cuba at this time.
“Batista was a dictator,” Kircher said flatly. “The people didn’t like that. He began killing people. I even saw when he had a young teenager killed in front of my house. My father called us and said, ‘Girls, come and look what the soldiers are doing.’ The guy was on the ground and they shot the guy. My father was against Batista. It was 1958. When Castro came, everyone was happy, but he was such a liar. He said he was going to bring democracy and there were going to be elections.”
She recalls a big parade in the streets when Castro took over in 1959.
“The guys with beards came down out of the mountains,” Barnet Kircher recalls. “We were happy. We went out on the street. We were cheering. We were finally getting rid of the dictator without knowing what was coming later. Everybody was happy.”
Unfortunately, the happiness did not last long.
“The first thing they did was the confiscation of the arms. Disarm the people. Why? So the people didn’t have any means to do something against the revolution, against what was happening. First it was voluntary. This was the first year, 1960. Then it was a law, you had to turn in your arms. Imagine that? I have friends who went from Cuba to Venezuela, then they had to run away from Venezuela to the United States. It happened to them twice.”
The next move was to change the currency.
“Then they changed the currency,” Barnet Kircher said. “That was the second thing. That’s a distribution of wealth. They were confiscating all the businesses, banks, leaving you with no money. You could keep $200. They took away your savings. Everything was gone. ‘Oh, no, I’m sorry sir, this belongs to the government.’”
The Barnets lived in the upstairs of a two-story house. They had five daughters. “The downstairs had four sisters and a brother—all of them were single. We were there and assisted them when three of them died. There was only one sister left in that house. The government came to her and said, ‘I’m sorry. You have two choices. This house is too big for you. You go to an asylum for the elderly or you find somewhere else to go. We are taking over your property.’ I remember that poor lady crying. She said to my mom, ‘Maria, look what they’re doing to me.’ They put a family with 14 people into her house.”
Barnet Kircher also remembers food rationing.
“You couldn’t go to the store and get what you want to,” she said. “It was rationing. Still to this day, 61 years later, it’s still the same. Ration cards—you get whatever the government allows you to buy. Now there’s a black market, but if you are caught buying something on the black market you go to jail. That’s today. Today it’s worse. There’s a lot of hunger.”
The government took control of her father’s business. Ironically, a woman who had helped her mother clean their house was put in charge of the store. “The government put her in charge of my father’s business, and she didn’t know anything. She said, ‘Mr. Barnet, how do you like this? I’m your boss now.’ My father said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. What do you know?’ She said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You teach me.’ It was very demoralizing. What can you do?”
The Barnets were going to send their children to the United States under Operation Peter Pan, where 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children between ages 6-8 were sent to the United States to avoid communist indoctrination in the schools between 1960 and 1962. The program was scuttled when all air travel between the United States and Cuba ceased in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
“I had two friends who were sitting on the plane and they couldn’t go,” Barnet Kircher recalled.
During the Bay of Pigs Invasion, people were being moved into baseball stadiums, according to Barnet Kircher. The Barnet children were spared.
“A guy we knew that was in the military service,” she said. “When they were picking up people and taking them to the stadiums, one of them said, ‘What about the Barnet girls?’ The guy told them, ’No, they were already picked up.’ We were lucky.”
Things became especially grim for the Barnet family in 1965.
“My father was left without a job because he presented documentation to leave the country in 1965.”
Things became even worse 3 years later according to Kircher.
“In 1968, Castro said, ‘You think you can leave the country so easily? No, you can’t, you have to work your way out.’ So, he sent us to forced labor camps. These camps were for people who presented paperwork to leave the country.
The following 3 years tested young Barnet Kircher’s mettle. She and her father were sent to separate forced labor camps. When a bus came to collect them, they had no idea what was going to happen.
“They had forced labor camps before,” Barnet Kircher said. “The UMAP camps. They put religious people and undesirables in these camps.”
The forced labor camps are considered among Fidel Castro’s greatest atrocities and crimes.
UMAP is a Spanish acronym for Military Units in Aid of Production. Castro interned those who refused to volunteer on behalf of the revolution in these camps along with those believed to be homosexual, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, along with members of the Catholic and Protestant clergy.
“He closed the UMAP camps and he opened all these other camps for the people who were trying to leave the country, and presented paperwork to leave the country,” Barnet Kircher said. “He was a madman.
“My father and I were sent away on June 21 to the forced labor camps. It was similar to the holocaust. They had buses.
“My mom and my sisters came with us to say goodbye, to see what was going to happen to us. We had to report to the plaza where all the buses were. We were supposed to bring working clothes. I didn’t have any working clothes, so my father gave me two shirts, including the shirt I’m wearing on the cover of my book that has an ink stain. My father said, ‘Take this one,’ because it had the ink stain. So, I had two shirts, I had a pair of jeans, and the government gave me the boots.”
Saying goodbye to her mother and sisters was particularly difficult.
“It was very painful,” she said. “The uncertainty of where they’re taking you. Where are you going to go? When are you going to see your family again? What are they going to do to you? My mom was losing a husband and a daughter without knowing what was going to happen. How was she going to support her kids? My mom was trying to be strong, but you could see the pain on her face. My sisters were crying, the smaller ones.”
When they reported to the bus, the men and women were separated.
“The men were taken away to where the UMAP camps were,” Barnet Kircher said. “We were taken away too; it was about 2 hours away. The camp was called Ceja Dos. Ceja means eyebrow in English.”
When the bus arrived at Ceja Dos, Barnet Kircher was greeted by a shocking scene.
“We were scared. We were trying to be strong, but we were scared. There were armed soldiers waiting for you. There were other buses there. There were about, I would say, ten or twelve buses there. When we got there, I said goodbye to my father. He was going to the camp for the men. It was very sad; because you didn’t know what to expect. You were not sure what was going to happen. Or when you were going to see him. Or if you were going to see him. Or what you were going to be exposed to. It was bad. It was very sad. There was a tall wire electric fence.”
Barnet Kircher joined 500 other women, some as young as 16. “I was a teenager. There were all ages there. They put you in line. They gave you a number. According to your number, that was the barracks where you would go. They identified you by this number.”
Surprisingly, Barnet Kircher doesn’t remember her number.
“No, I don’t, that is erased from my mind.
“The youngest was a friend of mine, Nora, she was 16. There were women there who were in their 50s. Even though they had camps for people that were leaving the country, they also had camps for the students. The students were also sent to work in the fields.”
The women stayed in barracks. There was a barracks where they were fed.
“The food was miserable,” Barnet Kircher remembers. “No breakfast. Breakfast was, they’d say, ‘Okay, go and get your cafe con leche.’ You know what it was? They got peas and they burned them and make like a dirty water,” she said with a laugh. “That’s what we called it. Dirty water. That was our breakfast.
“The food was pitiful. Sometimes they gave us something that looked like grits. It was a yellow grit that was made of corn; they gave us that. It had the little weevils inside. We used to laugh at that. We’d say, ‘We have the grits with some meat.” She laughed. “Insects were in the grits. And we had pea soup that was mostly water. The funny thing is that we used to make fun of that. We’d say, ‘Here we go again.’ Same thing. Don’t complain, you have some meat there. We’d put the weevils aside.”
Barnet Kircher’s weight quickly dropped from 115 to 85 pounds. Her mother was heartbroken the first time they embraced during a short visit home.
“When my mom saw me, she embraced me and said, ‘You look so bad.’ I said, ‘Yeah,’” Barnet Kircher recalled, holding back tears. “But I was so glad to see her. It had been a month and a half since I saw my mom—and my bed.”
Bi-monthly visits home were not granted out of compassion, according to Barnet Kircher.
“They didn’t have soap for you to wash your clothes,” she said. “Your clothes were filthy and dirty. And then they decided okay, after a month and a half, we were all dirty and stinking. They decided to let us go home every two weeks, on the weekend. Women are different; we have a certain time of the month, and they didn’t provide anything. So, it was difficult. That’s why they let us come home every two weeks. When I came home, I wanted my bed. We didn’t have any beds. They were bunk beds with a piece of burlap stretched across. Insects were flying all over the place because there were no covers for the windows.
“There was no hygiene. I took a shower with the older women; naked women. I did not like that. It was wide open. I wasn’t used to that. We invented something.” She laughed. “We began to hang some sheets—whoever had some extra. We covered ourselves.”
Drainage was non-existent.
“The floor got full of water with pee and the whole thing,” she said. “The water was up to your ankles when you went to the restroom. The sewage was bad. Just think about so many women taking showers. The smell was bad, awful. And you smelled bad too, because you wore the same sweaty clothes for days and days and days. I don’t know how much water they had. When I was able to go home, my mom said, ‘Let’s go exchange some of the things that I have at home with another family and see if they have some soap.’ So, we went to one of my aunts, but she didn’t have any soap. And toothpaste, I couldn’t take the only toothpaste in the house. But you know what, it’s fine.”
The women were released from the barracks on Saturday morning and were left to their own devices to find a ride home. The two-hour ride home was filled with peril.
“We had to hitchhike and get on trucks. My dad was very far away and he wasn’t allowed to come home.
“Oh my gosh you were desperate,” she said. “You were desperate to find a ride. Truckers would stop. We would all jump. It was just a flatbed. There were no sides to hold you on. So, we were just praying and just getting close to each other. Trying to stay low—and not so close to the edge of the bed that we would fall off of the truck. But we did it. The drivers knew what was going on. They knew.”
What was most heartbreaking for young Barnet Kircher was being ostracized by her friends during her brief visits home.
“But what hurt the most is when I went to the park the kids, teenagers, some of my friends, put me aside. They didn’t want to be seen with me or marked by the revolution. Afraid they wouldn’t look good with the revolution because they were my friends; even family. But you know what? I forgive them all. I think they had to act that way to survive. I was very mature for my age. When you go through things like that in your life, things in life help you mature. Anything bad that happens to you helps you to grow up. To be more receptive and acceptable of things—and to be a fighter.
“I was only home for a few hours, really. Because I left the camp in the morning to find a way home. I would get home in the afternoon. Then I had to report back the next day in the afternoon. Because you had to work Monday. It was only a few hours, really.”
The bus would pick up the women on Sunday morning. Again, this was not done out of compassion.
“On the way back, they had a truck to pick us up,” Kircher said. “It would go around and pick you up on the way back. It was because they wanted you back to work.”
Some of the camp guards were nicer than others.
“Some of them, in the fields, were nice,” she remembered. “Some were not. Some were there because, I guess, their farms were confiscated. They limited the amount of land you could have to one acre. And they took all of the animals away. So, what else was there for them to do? So you see some of them, they agreed to pose in the pictures that I have. Because some of them had to be there. If you were a farmer, they took everything away and you had to work. And they were the ones who knew how to the farming. Because the soldiers don’t know.”
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…
Tune in for “Part II” in the Next Edition