Lilian Genovese hadn’t heard the news yet Saturday morning.
“Castro’s dead?” she said. “Wonderful.”
She’s a good Catholic, she quickly added sheepishly. It seemed a terrible thing to say.
“But he was a horrible man,” she said.
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The 65-year-old Kansas City woman was only 10 when her terrified parents determined they needed to flee their country.
While many were cheering Castro’s revolution, many people anticipated an oppressive, even murderous regime.
Genovese’s father was a dentist in Camagüey in eastern Cuba, and they were ranchers with land. Castro’s administration seized the dentist office, as it did all services, meaning the dentist was working for Castro. And the government seized their land.
It became well known that anyone seen as rebellious to the new order was disappearing — taken away to “El Morro,” Genovese said. Many people taken away to this castle on the bay in Havana were never heard from again. That included neighbors of Genovese’s family.
Firing squad executions were played on television.
Confusing moments fill her childhood memory.
Her mother and father in the summer of 1961 buried money and jewelry in their yard, including her mother’s diamond wedding ring.
The family had two maids who were given that day off. They were like family, Genovese said, but her parents said no one must know what they were doing.
She lay awake at night hearing mysterious gunfire. Militia men were posted throughout the country and in their neighborhood.
Castro was allowing families to leave Cuba at that time, but they had to leave everything behind. She remembers the government official on their property, inventorying everything they had — the house, everything inside it, their cars.
Government officials checked again the day they left in October of 1961, and the ordeal in the airport was terrifying.
The one suitcase they were allowed was opened, dumped and searched. Genovese had a doll in her hands, and it was taken and cut open in the back to assure nothing was hidden inside.
Her 14-year-old sister had already been sent ahead months before to a private boarding school in St. Augustine, Fla., because teenaged children in Cuba were being required to spend a year working in the fields for the government and undergoing indoctrination.
Silvia Smith, 68, of Shawnee, Kan., was put on a plane out of Cuba along with her twin sister in early 1961, not knowing if she’d ever see her parents again.
They wanted to be sure the girls escaped the teenage work camps. They had been attending a private school and were sent through Miami to move on to an affiliated school in San Antonio, Texas.
“I remember feeling so much despair,” Smith said. “There was nothing you could do about it at all.”
She remembers her final days in Cuba in Camagüey, walking to school and seeing militia men on the street corners with rifles.
They knew these children were from families that did not support the revolution, she said, and they kept pointing their rifles at them and mocking them.
“This is what we were going through,” she said. “Guns were pointed at our faces.”
Both Genovese and Smith say there were lucky. Genovese’s father knew some Americans who had lived in Cuba and after desperate phone calling he was able to get a temporary license to practice dentistry at a state hospital in Vinita, Okla., before coming to Kansas City to complete a U.S. license.
Smith’s parents also were able to get into the U.S. before Castro completely shut down the border.
“But many kids never saw their parents again,” Smith said. “It’s sad. A lot of families were separated.”