In October of that year, Hotz’s parents, Ruth and Harry, had boarded the SS Homeric in New York and sailed south on a seven-day voyage that would turn out to be one of the last cruises to the island.
“I remember hearing him talk about that trip growing up and never thought about it again until all the recent publicity and coverage,” said Hotz, of Fort Lauderdale. “I also knew my father loved taking lots of photographs on their trips.”
So he called his mother in Hamilton, Ontario, his hometown, and inquired about a trip that was ancient family history. She remembered it, though — it was the first of many cruises for the couple — and offered her son more than photographs. Husband Harry had shot film on his new motion picture camera.
“I was very curious to see what Havana looked like at that time,” Hotz added. “As a boy [in Canada] I had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and then living all over South Florida, Cuba has had such a big impact. I thought there might be some history in it.”
There was. The old family movie provides a glimpse, somewhat grainy, of a last cordial moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, when, as Hotz put it, “tourists were still posing with soldiers.”
That film, now digitized, has been donated to the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami Libraries. The 12-minute edited version can also be viewed by the general public on YouTube. It features shots both on the Homeric cruise ship and Havana, including views of the skyline, El Morro Castle and the city cemetery. The clip ends with scenes of the ship’s return to New York.
Though the film has no sound or explanation, it can add a different insight to the era, said Meiyolet Méndez of UM’s Cuban Heritage Collection. “Every little bit of history can illuminate what happened at a certain time in its own way,” she said. What’s more, film footage “tends to be more accessible than a document because you can see what something is with your own eyes.”
In 1959, Hotz’s parents were intrigued with the tropical island. “Havana,” recalled Ruth in a telephone interview, “was the go-to place.” Their four children — they had two more later — were old enough to leave with a sitter when the pediatrician and the housewife booked the cruise. At the time, Fidel Castro had yet to declare himself a Communist and the first-time cruisers weren’t worried about any danger.
“We weren’t aware we would be making history or that our ship was to be one of the last [U.S.] cruises docking there,” Ruth added.
The couple was not disappointed. Ruth described Havana as “a very elegant city, very lively” and was enthralled with the shows at Tropicana. The cars were “new and shiny.” She did notice a strong military presence on the streets, however.
“There were a lot of soldiers on the streets, but things were pretty calm,” she said. “We weren’t worried about anything.”
Ruth is now 89 and Harry is 95. Though his memory has faded, Harry practiced as a pediatrician until he was 91, working part-time in a clinic for mostly immigrant and refugee children during his later years. St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton named its pediatric short stay unit after him. The couple never returned to Cuba, but they went on to take about 30 more cruises. Four of the six Hotz siblings now live in the U.S., three of them in South Florida, both part-time and full-time.
Finding the film was no easy matter. Ruth Hotz stored films and photos in a cupboard in her house. She knew the Cuba reel existed but couldn’t remember the last time the family had watched it. “You know how it is when you take pictures on a trip,” she said. “You don’t really look at them after a while.”
Hotz recruited one of his brothers who lives nearby to help their mother comb through the family collection. He tried to play it on their father’s old film projector without much luck and then found a place that would digitize it frame by frame.
Watching it again made Ruth a bit nostalgic for lost customs and lost cities. “You really dressed up to go on a cruise back then,” she recalled. “You went to dinner with your good dress and even on land tours you dressed nice.”
She’s read that parts of Havana have not been kept up. “I don’t know what those buildings would look like now,” she lamented.
Some things haven’t changed, however. As her son Bob noted from the film clip, “There’s still a lot of food on cruise ships.”