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Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

3.65  ·  Rating Details ·  306 Ratings  ·  80 Reviews
Daniel has escaped Nazi Germany with nothing but a desperate dream that he might one day find his parents again. But that golden land called New York has turned away his ship full of refugees, and Daniel finds himself in Cuba.

As the tropical island begins to work its magic on him, the young refugee befriends a local girl with some painful secrets of her own. Yet even in Cu
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published March 31st 2009 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) (first published January 1st 2009)
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Newbery 2010
39th out of 103 books — 546 voters
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Latino/@ Young Adult Literature
2nd out of 13 books — 7 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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I give Tropical Secrets, A Story of the Holocaust 4.5 stars because this book is too short. Geared toward a teen audience, Margarita Engle writes the story of Daniel a 13 year old German Jewish refugee in Cuba. Fleeing from Berlin right after Kristalnacht (night of crystals), Daniel obtains a visa but lands in Havana rather than New York. At first timid, Daniel makes the most of his situation thanks to his newly found mentor David, a Russian Jew, and Paloma, the daughter of El Gordo, the corrupt ...more
Mar 13, 2009 Becky rated it it was amazing
Read. This. Book. True, it won't be released for a few more weeks. But make note of it now to get to this one when you get the chance. Written by Margarita Engle--an acclaimed verse novelist--the book is the story of Daniel, a Jewish refugee, and the friends he makes in Cuba--Paloma and David. Daniel had no intentions of going to Cuba. When his parents tearfully sent him away--hoping and praying that at least their son may survive--this was right after the Night of Crystal or Broken Glass; they ...more
Jun 07, 2009 Betsy rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 08, 2009 Kris added it
Margarita Engle teaches children another fascinating time in Cuban history in Tropical Secrets Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. When Holocaust survivors left Europe they landed in different parts of the Americas. This story focuses on three main characters. Daniel is a young boy whose means of escape was a ship to Cuba. Paloma is a young Cuban girl who wants to help, even hiding people in the dovecote in her backyard. David is a Cuban Jew who is able to connect with Daniel through the Yiddish ...more
Krista the Krazy Kataloguer
The subject, Holocaust refugees in Cuba, was intriguing, but the book was disappointing. This is one of those stories that might better have been told at greater length in prose, perhaps in epistolary or diary form, than in verse. I felt there was something missing from the story. I expected a greater emotional impact, considering that it was about refugees. The historical note at the end provided more information, and I'm thankful that Engle did provide a reference to a book where one can read ...more
Destinee Sutton
I honestly don't get why this book has received so much critical acclaim. The subject matter was very interesting, yes, (I didn't know Jewish refugees from the Holocaust were turned away from New York harbors and sent to Cuba) but the writing was not what I would call top-notch, especially for poetry. The voices of the different characters were not distinct. It didn't strike me as especially beautiful or moving. In fact, one of the first stanzas made me cringe:

"My parents are musicians--/poor p
Oct 23, 2011 Whitney rated it it was ok
The story of Holocaust refugees ending up in Cuba is interesting and I would consider investigating it further, but I don't feel like this book really does a wonderful job with it. I think it just fell a bit flat and, as a personal note, I have trouble differentiating between Davids and Daniels in real life so having both names appear as main characters really threw me for a loop.

That being said, the fact that it is written as poems could make it a good book to put in the hands of a reluctant re
Kathleen Ferrel
Jun 23, 2012 Kathleen Ferrel rated it liked it
Daniel is a young Jewish boy who fled Germany during the Nazi regime. The ship he was on has been turned away from the "golden land" also known as New York. He now finds himself in Cuba facing obstacles he never could have imagined for his young life while he dreams of seeing his parents again one day. Due to discussions between characters of the violence that took place in Nazi Germany this book would be best suited for children grades 5th through 8th. Children who are interested in learning ...more
S10_Jessica Oster
Jul 30, 2010 S10_Jessica Oster rated it really liked it
Shelves: jewish, poetry
format: verse novel (audio version)
age: grades 5-8
protagonist: Daniel

Since this is written in free verse, the audio version has different narrators for each character which is a nice change from the typical one narrator you get with most stories. However, I don't think this book would have been as effective to listen to without the different voices to help signify when the character changes. Overall, I liked listening to it and found it easy to follow with the different narrators.
Alex Baugh
Jun 02, 2015 Alex Baugh rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-war-2
This free verse novel, written from a first person perspective by three separate and distinct voices, introduces the reader to Daniel, a 13 year old German Jewish refugee who held the hand of his grandfather as he died on Kristalnacht; Paloma, the 12 year old daughter of a corrupt Cuban official who determines, for a high price, who gets a visa to enter Cuba. Paloma also works at a shelter to help the refugees adjust to their new surroundings; and David, an elderly Russian Jew who fled his ...more
Mar 06, 2010 Josiah rated it liked it
"That is how I think of peace
and peace of mind—as timid birds
that we have to search for,
not bold ones that come
looking for us."

—Paloma, Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, P. 163

Margarita Engle straddles the concept of historical accuracy in storytelling and the poetic outcries of souls in great distress in all of her books, and nowhere does she accomplish it with more grace and ability than in Tropical Secrets.

The torturous events of Kristallnacht—the first night of major wid
This is yet a another book I read for my intercultural connections class. The topic of conversation surrounding this book, along with a few others, was “war and political unrest in children’s literature.” I think it was good to discuss how we present such heavy topics to children. I’ve only recently read a little Margarita Engle, and I already love her. I do tend to like novels in verse. They’re quick reads, and because of the poetry the language is on a different caliber than most juvenile ...more
May 13, 2016 Ethan rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 11, 2010 Alison rated it liked it
Shelves: young-adult
Daniel's parents can only afford one trip away from Nazi Germany to safety, and they send him. Rejected at the United States and Canada, Cuba is the last hope for the passengers of Daniel's ship. "El Gordo," a Cuban official, allows them to enter, but only after charging exorbitant fees. His daughter, Paloma, is secretly doing her best to help the refugees feel at home while her father profits off of them. David, an adult who fled from Russia several years ago, offers his wisdom as the two young ...more
Jun 16, 2009 Tasha rated it it was amazing
Daniel left his family behind in Nazi Germany and sailed for New York for a new life. But his boat is rejected by the Americans and ends up in tropical Cuba. He still hopes to reunite with his parents one day, but doesn’t know how they will ever find him in this unexpected port. He is befriended by a young Cuban girl, Paloma, who is the daughter of the man who decides the fate of the refugees that arrive in their port. And there is also David, a Russian refugee who fled long ago to Cuba. These ...more
Vanessa Maeda
Nov 19, 2012 Vanessa Maeda rated it really liked it
Main characters: Daniel, Paloma, and David
Setting: Cuba
POV: alternating between characters


Tropical secrets is an unusual book that covers the plight of Holocaust refugees that are in Cuba. The story is told from various perspective of several characters in the book in verse. Daniel, a young refugee, hopes to find his parents when he arrives at Cuba but is sad when he does not. He explains how people from his family were killed and how hatred has becoming all consuming as is seem almost a
Scott Pagel
Nov 03, 2013 Scott Pagel rated it it was amazing
Tropical Secrets is told through 4 characters speaking in verse. Daniel is a Jewish boy who has escaped Germany at the beginning of World War 2. His ship has been turned away in both the USA and in Canada but he has been able to take refuge in Cuba. He is happy to not be sent back to Germany, but he is concerned because he is hoping to meet his parents in New York if they are also able to escape. David is a Jew from Ukraine who has lived in Cuba for some time - long enough for him to accept his ...more
Sharon Lawler
Told in verse with four voices, Margarita Engle’s Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (Henry Holt, 2009) is based on the exploitation of the Jews as they flee Nazi controlled Europe, and the problems of adapting to their new environment. Exorbitant fees were charged for passage on these ships and disembarkation was not guaranteed without additional fees. Cuba, the setting for this story, actually took in a higher proportion of Jews than the United States. thirteen year old Daniel has ...more
Sandra Stiles
Oct 31, 2009 Sandra Stiles rated it really liked it
Shelves: middle-grades
This is a historical novel told in poetic form. I enjoyed it as much as I did her book “The Surrender Tree”. I didn’t know this part of history until I had read the book. The story is about Daniel, a Jew from Germany. His parents have taken all of their money and purchased a ticket for him to America. What none of them can know is that America has been denying access to the refuges. The ships are then sent on to Cuba. If Cuba denies them then they are sent back to Europe with the prospect of ...more
Scarlett Sims
I wasn't crazy about this book but it was ok.

What I liked about it:
1. I had no idea that Cuba had taken in holocaust refugees, so it was informational in that regard and I learned something new

What I didn't like about it:
1. The book is a novel in verse that alternates viewpoints between several characters. However, sometimes there are two poems in a row, or more, that are narrated by the same character. Since the poems don't stand alone, I wasn't sure of the point of that and feel that the story
Erin Forson
Dec 07, 2011 Erin Forson rated it really liked it
Tropical Secret
Margarita Engle
When Daniel arrives in Cuba, a Jewish refugee from Germany trying to escape the Nazis and who has nothing, it is only the kindness of Paloma and David that help him to cope with the loss of his parents. When Nazi spies are suspected of being in Cuba, white Christian refugees are taken away to prison camps and interrogated. Oddly, being an immigrant with a “J” for Jew on your passport is the only thing that protects you here in Cuba. It is the exact opposite of life
I was totally captivated by this story. Until reading it I had no idea what so ever that there had been Holocaust refugees in Cuba. This is a lovely little novel, told in verse, about the experience of trying to find a sense of place, home, comfort, and belonging in a land so radically different in every possible way from everything that you know.

Young Daniel who has been sent to New York by his German parents to escape persecution as a Jew with the plan that once they have saved enough money th
Brooke Shirts
Sep 16, 2009 Brooke Shirts rated it it was amazing
Haunting, lyrical verse novel tells the story of Daniel, a German Jewish boy who was sent overseas by his parents to escape the Holocaust. His boat is denied entry into U.S. harbors, and so he ends up stranded in Cuba. His story is interspersed with poems from the perspectives of war profiteers, other refugees, and Paloma, a Cuban girl who volunteers to aid refugees.

Engle does a marvelous job of depicting the characters' voices in such spare text. She also makes effective use of folkloric icons
Apr 24, 2012 Joanne added it
Shelves: ya
Very intriguing, unique perspective of Holocaust, makes me want to do more research into what happened to refugees who were turned away from America and Canada. In verse form, so information is sparse, but there is a very short narrative at the end to give some background. Still, this one is best for giving readers a sense of the displacement that refugees experience, not for gaining facts and details about the Holocaust.
Favorite passage:
A few weeks ago,
if you had told Mark
that he would be the
Abby Johnson
Oct 30, 2009 Abby Johnson rated it liked it
At the beginning of World War II, Daniel's family only has the money for one passage out of Germany and his parents decide he should take it. They promise to meet up with him in New York as soon as they can get out. When the ship is rejected by the United States and Canada, Daniel ends up in Cuba, befriending Paloma, a Cuban girl with secrets.

It's a very interesting topic for a book and WWII is a popular topic among middle-graders. I'm just not that into novels in verse - I can think of a selec
Feb 04, 2016 Salsabrarian rated it really liked it
Narrated by four readers. Here's a book about an aspect of WWII history I hadn't heard about: Jewish refugees in Cuba. During the war Cuba took in 60,000 refugees, more than any other Latin American country and about as much as the United States. This poetry novel is told through four perspectives, the main one being Daniel, a 12-year-old boy sent off on the boat because his parents could only afford one passage. David is an older Ukraine Jew who sells ice cream and has lived in Cuba for ...more
Oct 28, 2009 Cassandra rated it really liked it
So far everything I've read by Margarita Engle has been lovely. This book didn't grab my gut in the same way that her Poet Slave of Cuba did, but I still found it to be pretty un-put-downable. I had no idea about the history of Holocaust refugees in Cuba. My 9 year old is reading it now as she is in a WWII historical fiction phase, (started with NUMBER THE STARS.) TROPICAL SECRETS is a unique and welcome addition to that cannon of MG WWII literature that gives young readers a sense and empathy ...more
Novel in verse, not difficult to read, recommended for all Seniors, esp. re: Cuba and/or Holocaust studies.

Tells the story of a German Jewish boy whose parents send him on a ship to America to escape the Nazi Regime. His ship is rejected and sent to Cuba, where he tries to adjust to life in the tropics. Two other main narrators tell their own stories: a Cuban girl who turns against her father in order to aid the refugees and an elderly Russian immigrant.

Clearly, this book holds a lot of potent
Jul 05, 2016 Laura rated it really liked it
Shelves: mc-latino
Daniel is 13 years-old and a German Jewish refugee that was sent away to freedom by his parents while they stayed behind and tried to survive the Nazis. He ultimately ends up in Cuba and befriends, David, an older Jewish man, and Paloma, a 12 year local girl whose father is the man getting rich off all of the refugee’s misery. As the story unfolds we learn about each character’s worries and secrets during this tragic time period of World War II, while learning more information about this time ...more
Jan 29, 2011 David rated it liked it
When 13 year-old Daniel arrives in Cuba as a Jewish refugee from Germany in 1939, he is not sure what he’ll discover on this unfamiliar, tropical island. Soon he discovers 12 year-old Cuban native, Paloma, and Jewish-Russian émigré, David, and forms a lasting friendship with both. Engle provides a unique perspective, and one that is not generally familiar in Holocaust studies, on the state of refugees to Cuba during the Second World War. Through the narratives of many characters, readers will ...more
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Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She lives with her husband in northern California.
More about Margarita Engle...

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“If only the peace I feel right now
could be stored up and released later
when cruelty surrounds me
in the dark
during nightmares.”
“I feel the heaviness of nightmares
even though I am awake.

How weary I am, how sleepless
and hopeless—there is no escape
from the torment
of wishes.”
More quotes…