Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa

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Seven hundred and fifty Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany and founded the agricultural settlement of Sosúa in the Dominican Republic, then ruled by one of Latin America’s most repressive dictators, General Rafael Trujillo. In Tropical Zion, Allen Wells, a distinguished historian and the son of a Sosúa settler, tells the compelling story of General Trujillo, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and those fortunate pioneers who founded a successful employee-owned dairy cooperative on the north shore of the island.

Why did a dictator admit these desperate refugees when so few nations would accept those fleeing fascism? Eager to mollify international critics after his army had massacred 15,000 unarmed Haitians, Trujillo sent representatives to Évian, France, in July, 1938 for a conference on refugees from Nazism. Proposed by FDR to deflect criticism from his administration’s restrictive immigration policies, the Évian Conference proved an abject failure. The Dominican Republic was the only nation that agreed to open its doors. Obsessed with stemming the tide of Haitian migration across his nation’s border, the opportunistic Trujillo sought to “whiten” the Dominican populace, welcoming Jewish refugees who were themselves subject to racist scorn in Europe.

The Roosevelt administration sanctioned the Sosúa colony. Since the United States did not accept Jewish refugees in significant numbers, it encouraged Latin America to do so. That prodding, paired with FDR’s overriding preoccupation with fighting fascism, strengthened U.S. relations with Latin American dictatorships for decades to come. Meanwhile, as Jewish organizations worked to get Jews out of Europe, discussions about the fate of worldwide Jewry exposed fault lines between Zionists and Non-Zionists. Throughout his discussion of these broad dynamics, Wells weaves vivid narratives about the founding of Sosúa, the original settlers and their families, and the life of the unconventional beach-front colony.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] fascinating tale that combines a passionate devotion for one’s patrimony with the dispassionate critical perspective honed in decades of superb scholarship. It makes for the best kind of history.” - Robert Jan van Pelt, American Jewish History

“Allen Wells has written the definitive history of a controversial refuge for Jews escaping Nazism: an agricultural enclave in the Dominican Republic at Sosúa, created by Jewish charities and the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. . . . [A] fascinating, behind-the-scenes portrayal of highlevel negotiations among diplomats and Jewish organizations, coupled with a social history of the experiences of the Sosúa settlers that brings the account up to the present.” - Max Paul Friedman, History: Reviews of New Books

“[T]his fascinating book is an important contribution to the study of the role of Latin America in the rescue of Jewish refugees, as well as to a better understanding of Trujillo’s dictatorship and U.S.-Dominican relations. Allen Wells, the son of a colonist in Sosúa, confronts the collective memory of the refugees with the contrasting factors that determined their fate, demonstrating their vulnerability.” - Margalit Bejarano, The Americas

“[F]ascinating. . . . The reader will find in this excellent book rich hindsight on these and other unintended workings of human action as well as ample documentation to follow the complexities of this historical experiment of Jewish refugees escaping Europe and forced to recreate their lives in the tropics.” - Luis Roniger, Journal of Latin American Studies

“Allen Wells has written a fascinating book. . . . This is an original, well researched and well written text. Wells discusses the settlers’ experience in the Dominican Republic, at the same time as he sheds light on a wide variety of other, larger issues: U.S. restrictive immigration policies, the attitudes of American Jewry on the eve of World War II and during the war, Zionist and non-Zionist struggles over the ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem,’ U.S.-Latin American relations, the Trujillo regime and the high cost of Washington’s complicity with the brutal dictatorship of the Dominican tyrant.” - Raanan Rein, Latin American Jewish Studies

“This illuminating and irony-laden study deftly integrates twentieth-century Latin American, Jewish, and American history with that of the Holocaust. Readers interested in any of these fields will be rewarded and have their perspectives widened. An admirably researched and crafted book, and a touching one, too.”—Peter Hayes, Theodore Zev Weiss Professor of Holocaust Studies, Northwestern University

“This is a masterful study of Jewish refugees who found an unlikely haven in Rafael Trujillo's Dominican Republic, written with the head and the heart by a gifted historian of Latin America. Their full story is firmly anchored here in its salient contexts—personal and local, national, New World, European, global, and temporal. It will be of lasting value to students of Latin American, European, and world history, as well as modern Jewish studies.”—William B. Taylor, Muriel McKevitt Sonne Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

“This is an extraordinary and original contribution to Latin American, Jewish, and U.S. history. In a remarkable work, Allen Wells describes and assesses how and why one of Latin America’s bloodiest dictators was willing to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution.”—Friedrich Katz, Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Latin American History, University of Chicago

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344070
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 1/12/2009
  • Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 972,524
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Allen Wells is the Roger Howell Jr. Professor of History at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Yucatán’s Gilded Age: Haciendas, Henequen, and International Harvester, 1860–1915; a co-author of Summer of Discontent, Seasons of Upheaval: Elite Politics and Rural Rebellion in Yucatán, 1876–1915; and a co-editor of The Second Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen, and Oil during the Export Boom, 1850–1930.

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Read an Excerpt

Tropical ZION

General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa
By Allen Wells

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4389-9

Chapter One

"Our Ethnic Problem"

Efforts to intensify the cultivation of our lands are realized and, at the same time, indirectly, there is a favorable change toward ameliorating our ethnic problem, since these immigrating currents bring capable and desirable racial elements to our soil. RAFAEL TRUJILLO, 1940

More than two hundred delegates, journalists, and observers crowded into the Hôtel Royal in Évian-les-Bains, an idyllic spa town facing Lausanne across Lac Léman in southeastern France, for nine days in early July 1938. Roosevelt called the conference at Welles's behest to counter criticism of the restrictive U.S. quotas. FDR's goals were modest enough: resettle political refugees still in greater Germany, assist with the most urgent cases spilling over into countries of transit, and create an international committee to pursue a long-term solution.

State Department officials knew from the outset that getting the delegates to reach a consensus on these goals would not be easy. Finding a site for the conference proved challenging enough. Switzerland begged off as host to avoid embarrassing questions about its restrictive policies. Many of the participating nations sent delegates reluctantly, out of respect for Roosevelt and, significantly, only after Washington assured them that they did not have to revise existing immigration laws and that relief funds would come from private sources.

Even so, Great Britain needed additional prodding. Unwilling to repudiate its Arab allies, the Foreign Office refused to participate until Washington agreed that Palestine was off the agenda as a resettlement site. The British also instructed their delegation to make sure that Jewish immigration to their colonies in the West Indies, British Honduras and British Guiana, was similarly excluded from consideration.

Nor was France, heretofore the continent's most welcoming nation, enthused at the prospect of accepting more refugees. In the run-up to the conference, the French government declared that it had reached the saturation point with more than 3.5 million foreigners and was shutting its borders to permanent immigration. Just a week before the delegates assembled, a Foreign Ministry memorandum left little to the imagination when it asked rhetorically, "Is it in France's interest to appear as the refuge of all the misfits and ... everyone Germany considers its natural enemy?"

At the insistence of the British government, conference organizers conceded that only German and Austrian refugees were to be considered, ignoring five million Eastern European Jews. It was the specter of that enormous number of refugees to the east that haunted the proceedings. Left unspoken was the fear that if Western nations agreed to accept Nazi Germany's discarded now, they risked opening themselves up to a much larger exodus in the future.

Organizers never even acknowledged that Jews accounted for more than 90 percent of the refugees. Instead, the exiles were blandly labeled "political" refugees, to appease the Germans. But this semantic sleight of hand avoided admitting that Germany and Austria's Jews were bona fide victims of discrimination who were being driven out for ethnic and religious reasons.

Some observers refused to ignore the Reich's role in precipitating the crisis and implored delegates to take action. Myron Taylor, who headed up the U.S. delegation, spoke for many when he warned of "catastrophic human suffering ahead which can only result in general unrest and in general international strain which will not be conducive to the permanent appeasement to which all peoples earnestly aspire." The allusion to appeasement was not lost on those already convinced, months before Chamberlain's visit to Munich, that negotiating with Herr Hitler was not only pointless but dangerous. Shortly after the conference began, foreign correspondent William Shirer filed a prescient report: "I doubt if much will be done. The British, French, and Americans seem too anxious not to do anything to offend Hitler. It is an absurd situation. They want to appease the man who was responsible for their problem."

Pundits were quick to point out that Évian spelled backwards was naive. The conference proved to be a spectacular failure; the participants agreed only to the creation of an Intergovernmental Committee on Political Refugees (IGC). Even this meager achievement was unpopular with delegates, who fretted that it would raise expectations that could not be met. The IGC's mandate was to negotiate with the Reich to secure an orderly release of its refugees and to let those departing take a portion of their assets with them, and to reconnoiter sites for permanent resettlement.

Delegate after delegate came to the podium to insist that their nation's record on immigration was unassailable and that the restrictions their government had imposed were meant only to make sure refugees did not become public charges or pose a threat to native employment. Some diplomats were uncharacteristically blunt, however, about why they refused to pry their borders open. The Australian delegate admitted that his nation had no interest in importing Jews: "as we have no real racial problem we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration."

To make matters worse, representatives of twenty-one American Jewish organizations attending the conference as observers proved incapable of setting aside their differences and agreeing on how best to assist their brethren. These agencies had raised upward of fifty million dollars for relief since 1933 and had been invited to attend the conference only because Western governments had no intention of absorbing relocation costs. Zionist and non-Zionist groups openly bickered with each other, some advocating increased immigration to Palestine while others called for resettlement in underpopulated countries. American Zionists were divided between moderates who counseled firm lobbying of Great Britain and hawks who demanded the immediate creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. This squabbling sent precisely the wrong message to the delegates, who did not have to search far for reasons to avoid making a commitment. One Jewish publication lamented that Évian was a "spectacle of Jewish discord and disruption."

Neither the European countries bordering Germany, the countries of the largely underpopulated British Commonwealth and Empire, nor the Latin American republics came forward to amend their restrictive policies. Roosevelt was especially disappointed that Latin American nations were not more responsive. Religious intolerance and anti-Semitism were so interwoven with economic concerns that experts often could not determine what underlay Latin American reticence. To be sure, Latin American governments had little interest in Jewish entrepreneurs and professionals. Contending with low wages and unemployment during the Depression, these states had restricted immigration to farmers and workers with specialized skills, effectively denying entry to almost all German and Austrian Jews.

Latin American delegates resented America's self-righteous posturing; the Argentine representative chided the U.S. delegation when he reminded participants that since 1935, his country had accepted almost as many Jewish immigrants, even though it was one-tenth the size. Although Nazi doctrines of racial purity and anti-Semitism were spreading like wildfire throughout the region, one knowledgeable observer contended that it was fear of German economic reprisals that best explained Latin American caution. In the months after Évian, a number of countries, including Argentina and Brazil, which up to that point had had some of the most liberal immigration laws in the hemisphere, actually tightened their regulations.

The German press had a field day with the proceedings, charging the Western nations with hypocrisy because they professed sympathy but refused to open their doors. The Nazi mouthpiece Vöelkischer Beobachter ridiculed the nations in attendance: "They weep crocodile tears over the Jews, but nobody is willing to make a sacrifice for these 'unfortunates,' since everyone knows what the Jew means within a national community. Thus it is impossible not to recognize the fact that those states who themselves refuse to take any Jews merely justify the German Reich's defensive measures against the Jews, measures which are in any case not yet sufficiently far reaching."

Nazi racial policy had been predicated on forcing its Jewish population to emigrate, and now Évian had offered proof that the West was unwilling to accept its rejects. If the Third Reich "could no longer expect to export, sell, or expel its Jews to an indifferent world that plainly did not want them," the historian Robert Wistrich has observed, with the benefit of hindsight, "then perhaps they would have to do something even more drastic." That awful moment came on October 18, 1941, when Germany radically altered its prewar policies by sealing its borders and prohibiting Jews from leaving. But until then, the German state continued to pressure its Jewish population to emigrate. Sadly, Vöelkischer Beobachter had it right when it crowed that "making a sacrifice for these 'unfortunates'" would never be a priority for the West.


Even before the conference, the gathering storm over what to do about the refugees provoked considerable debate in the United States, where it was invariably refracted through the lens of immigration policy. Roosevelt's negotiating team at Évian, led by Taylor and two prominent American Jews, Paul Baerwald, the chair of the JDC, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, the president of the American Jewish Congress, knew that the U.S. Congress and the public were opposed to raising quotas. Even though this was a land of immigrants-more than thirty-seven million Americans were foreign-born on the eve of the Second World War-nativist hostility to immigration had simmered during the 1920s and was rekindled during the Great Depression. New York Representative Samuel Dickstein made efforts to transfer all unused slots in the British quota to the German one, but the White House spurned them, along with his proposal to mortgage future German slots to admit desperate refugees to the United States immediately.

Indeed, this could not have been a worse moment to raise the issue. Unemployment rates were spiking upward during "Roosevelt's Recession" of 1937-38. Robert R. Reynolds of North Carolina, the Senate's Military Affairs Committee chair and a contributor to the anti-Semitic periodical The Cross and the Flag, captured the prevailing sentiment: "These aliens are constantly competing with our own American citizens for employment ... the United States is the only one [nation] which has failed to protect its employment opportunities for its citizens.... They deserve first consideration and aid."

Anti-Semitism only added fuel to the fire. Roosevelt was especially sensitive to charges that his administration had too great a Jewish presence. "Jew Deal" and "President Rosenfeld" were epithets invoked regularly by bigots such as Father Charles E. Coughlin, whose Sunday afternoon radio program boasted a nationwide audience of thirty to forty million. The priest filled football stadiums with loyalists eager to hear him spew invective about how Jewish financiers in cahoots with either international communism or the Bank of England had tampered with the money supply, dragged the United States into the First World War, and precipitated the Depression. The priest had the audacity to claim that Kristallnacht was justified by historic wrongs committed by Jews against Christians. Moreover, he serialized The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and published transcripts of Joseph Goebbels's short-wave broadcasts in his weekly Social Justice.

Coughlin was not alone. William Dudley Pelley, a white supremacist, established a fanatical Silver Legion committed to the creation of a global Aryan Federation, and the German-American Bund filled New York City's Madison Square Garden with 22,000 supporters at a rally in 1939 that called on the faithful to "Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America!"

Meanwhile, isolationists, America Firsters, and pacifists condemned American Jews and Roosevelt for warmongering and the president specifically for daring to summon the Évian conference. Public opinion did not lag far behind. Even though Americans overwhelmingly condemned Nazi mistreatment of Jews, two-thirds of those polled by Fortune magazine in July 1938 thought the quotas should not be relaxed.

Faced with such a mandate, some American Jewish groups were reluctant publicly to advocate liberalizing quotas. Moreover, State Department officials actually pressured Jewish leaders to tread lightly, warning that if the "issue of revision [of quotas] came up" on Capitol Hill, the "temper of Congress" was such that the laws would be tightened, not relaxed. Instead, the Jewish leaders counseled silence or acceptance of restrictions so as not to prompt an anti-Semitic backlash or indirectly support those who had the political clout actually pressured Jewish leaders to tread lightly, warning that if the "issue of revision [of quotas] came up" on Capitol Hill, the "temper of Congress" was such that the laws would be tightened, not relaxed. Instead, the Jewish leaders counseled silence or acceptance of restrictions so as not to prompt an anti-Semitic backlash or indirectly support those who had the political clout to make matters worse for the refugees. An AJC spokesperson articulated the dilemma: "While [the] humanitarian accomplishments in bringing ... victims of persecution to the United States and finding work for them cannot be highly enough praised, this is helping to intensify the Jewish problem here. Giving work to Jewish refugees while so many Americans are out of work has naturally made bad feelings. As heartless as it may seem, future efforts should be directed toward sending Jewish refugees to other countries instead of bringing them here." That as late as 1938, a prominent Jewish advocacy group was so reluctant to pressure the administration as to take this position illustrates just how anxious leaders were about anti-Semitism and how pessimistic about the chances of revising immigration policy.

Even Zionists were reluctant to rock the boat. Indeed, a majority of Jews polled in 1937 were opposed to admitting the refugees. That is why a number of key Jewish organizations preferred private lobbying the State Department rather than public posturing, and actively discouraged their membership from joining boycotts against the Third Reich.

In truth, the Jewish leadership was reluctant to criticize Roosevelt publicly at all, let alone on something this controversial. The president's compassion for ordinary Americans struck a resonant chord with Jews, earning him more than 90 percent of their vote in 1936. More to the point, Jews made up more than 15 percent of the Roosevelt administration's top hires, though they constituted only 3 percent of the population. But if the New Deal had converted Jews from political "outsiders to insiders," their ambiguous identity as Jews and Americans inhibited their ability to exercise power.

In retrospect, the way Jewish leaders tolerated Roosevelt's inaction says a lot about the membership's status as assimilated Americans. Acceptance in society and access to power mandated that Jewish leaders conform to the roles and mores of their reference group, U.S. citizens. As such, they were loyal to a fault. According to the historian Jerold Auerbach, there was more than a hint of irony in FDR's methods, because in reality he gave American Jews very little: "By giving them nothing as Jews, he was confirming their status as Americans. Recognition as Americans was what American Jews craved more than anything else; it was all Roosevelt ever gave them, but it was more than enough."


Excerpted from Tropical ZION by Allen Wells Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


ix....................Abbreviations xi....................Prologue 3....................Chapter 1. "Our Ethnic Problem" 28....................Chapter 2. Think Big 44....................Chapter 3. Jewish Farmers 69....................Chapter 4. "The Eyes of the World Are on the Dominican Republic" 91....................Chapter 5. One Good Turn 105....................Chapter 6. Lives in the Balance 127....................Chapter 7. Playing God 151....................Chapter 8. First Impressions 176....................Chapter 9. Flawed Vision 198....................Chapter 10. Containment 219....................Chapter 11. Trial and Error 243....................Chapter 12. The Man Who Saved Sosúa 266....................Chapter 13. A "Splendid President" 281....................Chapter 14. Golden Years 299....................Chapter 15. "The Beginning of the End" 314....................Chapter 16. Ravages of Aging 339....................Epilogue 355....................Acknowledgments 359....................Notes 409....................Bibliography 437....................Index
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