Kibbutz In The Caribbean

Exhibit and accompanying book tell about the Holocaust refugees who found a haven farming in the Dominican Republic.

That a murderous Caribbean dictator was the only leader to open his country’s doors to Jewish refugees in 1938 is a little-known chapter in Holocaust history. When 32 countries met at the Evian Conference, only the Dominican Republic offered the possibility of immigration, and Gen. Rafael Trujillo offered assistance in transforming an abandoned banana plantation into a Jewish settlement.

The first group of Jewish pioneers arrived in March 1940 and soon began milking cows and planting fields, as documented in an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “Sosua: A Refuge for Jews in the Dominican Republic,” on view until July 25. An accompanying book by historian Marion A. Kaplan tells the background story in vivid detail.

Some early 1940s photos of European refugees who settled in Sosua resemble images taken in Palestine, when Jewish young people who had never farmed before arrived in their new homeland, still dressed for cosmopolitan urban life. But for those who made their way to the Dominican Republic, Sosua was not a place they had longed for, nor did these settlers have a strong desire to work the land. But it was a safe harbor, a welcoming community and they were grateful to be far from the Nazi terror.

“The person who wanted to help us was not a humanist. But did we have a choice? Hitler, the German racist, persecuted us and wanted to murder us. Trujillo, the Dominican racist, saved our lives. We were in the awkward position of having to be thankful to a dictator,” Luis Hess, one of the original settlers and still a resident of Sosua, told Kaplan. “If a murderer saves your life, you still have to be grateful to the murderer.”

The exhibition has the feel of a tropical island, with walls painted a deep turquoise blue and structural elements made of light pine. On display are original documents, photographs of daily life, three films featuring the voices of current and former residents and material aspects of the community like farming implements, maps, sheet music brought from Germany, a handmade wooden menorah and the gown worn by an infant at his circumcision.
That the exhibit is bilingual has something to do with its creative origins. In 2004, the museum was approached by state Sen. Eric Schneiderman, who leads a district with large Jewish and Dominican populations, along with leaders of the American Jewish Congress, about the possibility of documenting the story of the Jewish community in Sosua. Schneiderman’s interest was in highlighting this model of cooperation and compassion between his two constituencies, and in telling a story that had been largely untold. The museum was interested, and the work began.

Kaplan’s book, “Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945” (Museum of Jewish Heritage) began independently, but she started working with the museum once she learned of their planned exhibit. A professor of modern Jewish history at New York University and author of several books, she had heard of the community in Sosua and visited there while on a trip to the Dominican Republic with some Dominican friends from the Upper West Side, where she lives. At the Museo Judio de Sosua, she found an archive largely untouched ? “a treasure trove for a historian.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, she posed the question that drew her interest, “How did these middle-class urban Central Europeans, more at home in a cafe in Vienna than among cows and horses, more accustomed to business ventures in Berlin than growing tomatoes, how did they manage to live their new lives?”

She points out that the community survived through the support of the Dominican government and Trujillo, the graciousness and generosity of the Dominican people and the financial support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which organized their escape and settlement. DORSA, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association, was established by the Joint.
Kaplan describes Trujillo’s motivations as complex, fueled by a desire to increase the “blanquismo,” whiteness, of his country; an interest in the potential of Jews as positive forces in building up the nation; an eagerness to curry favor with Washington, and personal feelings of gratitude to a Jewish family who helped his daughter.

As Kaplan notes, between May 1940 and September 1947, a total of 729 refugees lived in Sosua, with another 300 or so living in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital; 76 babies of refugees were born there. Perhaps others who received Dominican visas ultimately didn’t come to the island, but may have been saved nonetheless because of the visas.

Although the Dominican Republic was prepared to allow in thousands, arrivals slowed, due to intentional foot-dragging of American officials, who, among other reasons, suspected spies amidst the refugees. Kaplan writes, “The Dominican Republic and DORSA saved many lives, and would have saved more had the war and the U.S. government not stopped them.”

Kaplan’s book is the subject’s first comprehensive account in English by a historian. She chronicles the shift from collective to individual ownership of farmland and the successful farming and dairy cooperatives the community established. The Europeans – some of whom escaped from concentration camps – slowly adjusted to Dominican work routines and diet, and devoted their evenings to reviving aspects of their culture, with a Jewish theater group, poetry readings, lectures and two Viennese coffeehouses where people danced to recorded music. They created a burial society, held communal Passover seders, celebrated bar mitzvahs, published newspapers in German and Spanish, and enjoyed the beach, soccer and basketball, with teams for young men and women. But with little news received from Europe, they continued to worry about those they left behind.

Kaplan also describes the postwar exodus of a large number of refugees, many of whom sought urban life again, greater educational opportunities for their children, reunion with family members and, particularly for the many bachelors, larger Jewish communities. In addition, there was growing political unrest in the Dominican Republic.

Sosua today is a resort community that bears little resemblance to the agricultural settlement of the 1940s. A visitor might notice the street signs, with names like Rosen and Stern, and realize that this isn’t a typical Dominican town. Local taxi drivers are proud to speak of the town’s Jewish history, and the long-operating, prosperous dairy cooperative was recently sold to a Mexican conglomerate. A local elementary school is named for Luis Hess, who taught languages and served as principal of the school for 33 years.

When I visited Sosua last year, finding Hess, now 99, was not difficult, as he likes to sit at the gate of his home, or in a local cafe, and he enjoys greeting guests. The first member of the community to marry a non-Jew, Hess was married to his late wife for 59 years, very happily, as he points out; his two sons live abroad. He can’t say enough good things about the Dominicans. Even with all the connections he had as the son of a very prominent and wealthy German family, he found all doors closed to him – except for the prospect of a Dominican visa. Since he had studied languages in Switzerland, he became an interpreter for the community when he first arrived and worked on the original DORSA contract negotiations between the Joint and highly placed Dominican officials.

At the opening of the exhibit, the original wearer of the circumcision clothes, Daniel Kohn, was present, along with his mother Ruth Kohn. She arrived in Sosua from Germany with her parents when she was 14, very happy to be out of Germany after a harrowing escape. She trained to be a nurse, met her husband and married there, and as she says, “Sosua was my home.” Like many of the original settlers, she didn’t stay there, leaving for the United States in 1951. Still, whenever she travels, she sleeps with her passport. She speaks favorably of Trujillo, who was “very good to us.”

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