Sosua’s beginnings: a haven for Jews fleeing Hitler

Today the Dominican Republic welcomes thousands of sun-worshippers to Sosúa, its popular North-Coast beach resort. In 1940, the Dominican Republic also welcomed travelers, but they were hardly tourists: they were Jews fleeing Nazi terror – and in all the world, this was the only haven offered to them.

The unlikely notion of a Jewish colony in the tropics had its origin in a seemingly unrelated event on March 12, 1938 – the day Hitler’s troops marched into Austria. The next day, the Anschluss (unification) of Austria with the German Reich was declared.

Austrians greeted the takeover with wild enthusiasm. When Hitler crossed the border at Linz that evening, a joyous throng awaited him at the city hall. Göring reported in a telephone call, “There is unbelievable jubilation in Austria. We ourselves did not think that sympathies would be so intense.”

The elation climaxed in a triumphant speech by Hitler in Vienna, before a wildly cheering crowd of 250,000.

Within just a few days of the Anschluss, 70,000 political dissidents and Jews had been arrested.

In the three years since the Nuremberg laws canceled Jewish citizenship in 1935, some 150,000 Jews had fled Germany, mainly for Palestine. But Britain’s strict immigration policies kept most out. The Anschluss had now made some 200,000 more Jews stateless; thousands fled or were dumped by the Gestapo into neighboring countries.

President Franklin Roosevelt had come under mounting pressure from Jewish groups to confront Germany over its treatment of Jews and to push Congress to liberalize American immigration laws. But America was mired in isolationism, which had reawakened in the 1920s and took on a distinctly anti-Semitic stripe in the ’30s.

In many circles it was believed that just as the “Jew Deal” had been engineered by Jews, so would be America’s entanglement in the European war. Likewise, there was entrenched opposition to opening America’s doors to a flood of Jewish refugees. The New York Times of November 26, 1938 reported that New York department stores had to deny rumors they would fire a given number of employees and replace them with Jewish refugees.

The world, said Chaim Weizmann, “was divided into two camps: One, of countries expelling the Jews and the other, of countries which refused to admit them.”

After the Anschluss, Roosevelt realized Europe would soon be awash with refugees. Eleven days later, he invited thirty-three nations to confer on the refugee problem at Évian-les-Bains, France. FDR had carefully circumscribed the goals of the conference to head off opposition: The agenda stipulated that no nation would be expected to admit more refugees than its present laws permitted, making it crystal clear that the haven sought was to be outside the United States. And lest Germany take offense, no mention was made of that country or of Jews.

Sure enough, at Évian the U.S. would do no more than cut existing State Department red tape for German and Austrian refugees. Thus, for the first time, the U.S. would allow the number of such immigrants to reach the legal quota of 25,957. (The U.S. fulfilled its annual quota of German-Austrian immigrants only once in the next six years – in 1939, following the shocked reaction to Kristallnacht, in November 1938.)

The other delegates readily followed suit: France had taken enough refugees; Britain was not a “receiving nation” and Palestine, of course, was off limits; a senior Canadian official said “None is too many.” (A number of high Canadian officials of the day were anti-Semitic, including the prime minister.)

The sole glimmer of hope came when the delegate from the Dominican Republic, Virgilio Molina, rose to declare that his country would take in up to 100,000 Jewish refugees as settlers on the land – a staggering number for a small country of only 1.5 million.

The conference closed after creating a permanent body, the Intergovernmental Committee on Political Refugees (IGC) to study the problem further.

Ironically, the idea of saving European Jews had originated with Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the ruthless dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist.

Trujillo, widely known as el Jefe, exerted absolute power over the populace with unbridled brutality and a secret police force that didn’t shrink from torture and murder to achieve its ends. Though the nation’s populace was poor, he was counted among the world’s richest men, because he and his relatives used the country as a family business.

The dictator was so consummately evil it was difficult to imagine. He had an interest in medicine; so, Mengele-like, he tested his crackpot health remedies on his unfortunate underlings. The previous year, he had drawn worldwide criticism for beheading 20,000 Haitians living as illegal aliens in the Dominican Republic.

Why would a Latin-American mass murderer offer to save the Jews from a European mass murderer? Some thought he wanted the European influx to lighten the racial stock of the country. Others thought he wanted to curry favor with the United States by helping Roosevelt with the refugee problem.

Perhaps the simplest explanation is the most convincing. When Trujillo’s daughter Flor de Oro was attending school in Paris, the other girls snubbed her because she was dark-skinned. A Jewish girl, Lucy Cahn, befriended her and el Jefe never forgot the kindness: when Lucy married, he gifted the couple with a tobacco plantation.

* * *

More than eight months passed while the United States studied alternative settlement areas, from Alaska to British Guiana (now Guyana).

Finally, the State Department acted on the Dominican plan. The American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation was chosen to finance the project. It would be headed by James N. Rosenberg, a western Pennsylvania attorney and philanthropist renowned for his work with refugees.

The Dominican Republic Settlement Association was incorporated under New York State law, with Rosenberg as its president. DORSA would select the settlers, transport them to the Dominican Republic, then support and train them until they were self-sufficient.

Rosenberg drew up the most extraordinary agreement ever made between a corporation and a government. It contained a bill of rights guaranteeing the settlers and their descendants the irrevocable right to live in the Dominican Republic “free from molestation, discrimination or persecution, with full freedom of religion.” It was signed by Trujillo himself on January 30, 1940, in the presence of representatives of the IGC, DORSA and the U.S. State Department.

In essence, the bloody dictator of this tiny nation had returned to Jewish refugees the very rights Hitler had taken away.

Rosenberg and his second-in-command, Dr. Joseph Rosen, an agronomist, traveled to the Dominican Republic to select a site for the settlement. They had worked together before, resettling urban Russian Jews in the Crimea. They selected Sosúa, a 26,000 acre abandoned banana plantation donated by Trujillo.

The dictator was now dubbed El Benefactor by the largest newspaper in the republic, which declared Sosúa would be the largest Jewish settlement, second only to that in Palestine.
On May 11, 1940, more than two years after the Anschluss, the first 37 Jewish settlers arrived at the settlement. A total of 600 would come, but the rescue of 100,000 Jews was not to be.

The refugees found themselves in a place that must have seemed like paradise. Sosúa was situated on a striking crescent bay surrounded by palm, mango, and avocado trees, its tropical climate moderated by cooling trade winds.

But conditions were not totally bucolic: there were snakes, malaria, no running water or electricity, and unfamiliar foods. The colonists were cultured, middle class – habitués of cafés and the opera. To them, working the land in a jungle outpost was utterly alien.

To make matters worse, most of them spoke German; only one spoke Spanish. Worst of all, though now safe, they knew that thousands left behind in Europe – including their families – had been less fortunate. Some colonists were simply unable to adjust; one couple committed suicide together.

* * *

A cooperative system was set up, similar to Israeli kibbutzim. It was to be the source of constant friction and discontent. The colonists farmed the land; DORSA provided food, clothing, and social services. The settlers ate in a common dining room and slept in barracks-style buildings.

Communal groups were set up, each containing at least one married couple so the woman could do the cooking and laundering.

The colonists tried to raise a variety of crops – beans, corn, peppers, oranges, tomatoes, pineapple – but often could not find markets for their produce and had to dump large quantities in the bay.

Some ingenious solutions to problems were developed. Mongooses were imported to rid the colony of snakes. The settlers built windmills to pump rainwater down from the hills.

Gradually, they began to replace the society they had left behind with a new one, distinctly Sosúan. Longing for their lost cafés, they built a rustic surrogate in the jungle, Café Stockman. They also built a clinic, pharmacy, school, library, bank, theater, newspaper and synagogue. Local foods were adapted to recipes from home: potato salad was made from yams and dumplings from yucca. Though torn from a dozen European countries, they shared one experience: most had lost relatives; so the colony became their family.

The colonists abandoned farming and turned to livestock production, which proved far more successful. “If you sent four cows out to pasture, six came back,” Ernest Schreiner, one of the colonists, would later recall.

Two cooperatives were set up, to market meat and dairy products. But the Sosúans continued to chafe under the communal system. A normal family structure was lacking; wives were expected to cook and clean for the entire group.

Determined to make Sosúa successful, Rosenberg recruited a consultant in 1944: David Stern, director of Agricultural Colonization in Palestine for the Jewish Agency.

Stern eliminated much of the friction by instituting a moshav system. The colonists would continue to market their products collectively through the two cooperatives, but the land would be individually owned and worked by the settlers.

More difficult to solve was the problem of maintaining Jewish identity. The majority of the emigrants were secular Jews who had had little Jewish tradition in their lives. Men outnumbered women 2-1, and a number of them married Dominican women.

Attrition and intentional obstruction by the U.S. State Department kept the colony from growing beyond some 600 members. When the door from Europe was slammed shut in 1943, further growth from outside was impossible. The dream of rescuing 100,000 was dead and as a Jewish community, Sosúa seemed doomed as well.

But the anti-Semitism they had suffered awakened many of the colonists to their Jewishness, and they made a valiant effort to revive and hold on to it.

As time passed, the community acquired a number of Eastern European Jews whose lives had been steeped in Jewish tradition. They brought to Sosúa classic Yiddish plays, such as S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” and Shalom Aleichem’s “Mazel Tov.” A musical, “Die Romanische Hasena,” was so popular that it was presented later to audiences in the capital.

The settlers established a school with a teaching staff of six. The curriculum included Dominican history and Spanish, but also daily Hebrew and biblical history. The whole town joined in huge Purim and Chanukah festivals.

In 1990, more than 300 original settlers and their families returned from Canada and the United States to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sosúa’s founding; the theme was “50 Sosúa L’chaim.” Both these writers attended.

The secretary to the Dominican president addressed the returnees: “We’re so proud; the real saga is what you have accomplished here.” That night, Dominicans and Jews stood together, clapping to Spanish and Hebrew songs.

All agreed that Sosúa’s history must not be forgotten. To that end, a museum was dedicated to house artifacts of the settlement and photos from the era. The Sosúans felt the town was a place unique in the world – a town entirely populated by Holocaust survivors. They believed that present-day Jews should not forget what happened in Europe and should know that only the Dominican people welcomed Jews in their darkest hour. They must ever be vigilant, as dark days could come again.

Many reunion participants felt the years they spent in Sosúa were the most important in their lives, and feared the gathering would be their last. Indeed it was.

Today, Sosúa boasts a throng of tourist hotels that have wrought profound changes on the area, though Sosúa’s main street is virtually unchanged. The Jewish community is small – numbering fewer than 50 – but its impact on the Dominican Republic has been large. The dairy and meat cooperatives created by the refugees employed thousands of Dominicans over the years. The community still treasures the small, wood-frame synagogue where the original settlers married and held bar mitzvah ceremonies. It is still sometimes used for weddings.

After 68 years, few of those settlers remain. Luis Hess, age 100, was the longtime principal of the school that still bears his name. But Dezider Scheer was its first principal and founder. A teacher in Slovakia in 1938, he was told one day he could no longer teach because he was a Jew. He lost seventy family members in the war. After coming to Sosúa, he established the school and left a lifelong mark on its graduates.

We asked Sheer what the legacy of Sosúa was. He replied that he had seen pictures of children who perished in the Holocaust on display at Auschwitz.

“Walk the main street of Sosúa, and you will come to the school. We had sixty children. They lived to become engineers, doctors. All have made their mark. Their happy faces look down at us from pictures, still hanging in the school. They are the same age as those in the pictures at Auschwitz. The children who lived are the legacy of Sosúa.”

By: Myrna & Robert Ulfik / The Jewish Press / Wednesday, December 03 2008

Myrna and Robert Ulfik are award-winning radio, television and print journalists. Their primary interest is reporting unique stories of the Jewish experience around the world.

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  1. Fran Walshin says:

    I spent time in the 80’s visiting Sosua. I have many fond memories of the people, the beaches and the beautiful weather. The beaches have white sand and deep blue waters. It is truely breathtaking. There are many changes now but the warmth of the people and the beautiful mountains and countryside remain.

  2. Ruby Patin says:

    What a facinating piece of writing- I throughly enjoyed reading the history of Sosua. MY husband and I are traveling to the Dominican in March. We look forward to visiting Sosua.

  3. Joan Kerlow says:

    Will there be a chanukah clebration in Sousia

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