Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945

Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945

by Marion A Kaplan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780971685932
Publisher: Museum of Jewish Heritage
Publication date: 02/01/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 255
Product dimensions: 6.32(w) x 8.92(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Marion A. Kaplan is Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History at New York University. Robert Liberles is Professor of Modern Jewish History at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, Israel. Steven Lowenstein is the Isadore Levine Professor of Jewish History at the University of Judaism. Trude Maurer is Professor of East European and Modern History, University of Goettingen.

Read an Excerpt

In 1940, a small group of harried Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe arrived in Sosúa, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.[i] They had fled the ever-worsening, brutalizing persecutions that the Nazi regime had unleashed upon them, first in Germany, starting in 1933, then in Austria, with its annexation in 1938, and finally as Germany engulfed Europe in war, in 1939. Having lost their livelihoods, their educations, their homes, their personal freedoms, their physical safety, in sum, their human rights, to a government the viciousness of which they had never experienced and could never have imagined, the refugees had wandered Europe seeking a safe haven. Desperate to escape the radicalizing and horrifying fanaticism against the Jews, they eagerly accepted the Dominican Republic's offer to take them in as farmers. Urban, middle-class Europeans, about whom the description "unlikely farmers" would be an understatement, they nonetheless learned to cultivate land, raise animals, establish dairy and meat industries, and build a community on an abandoned banana plantation. The story of their everyday lives offers a fascinating vignette that illustrates their enormous energy, perseverance, and hopes. But just as important, it shows the crucial role of three supportive groups. The refugees could not have survived without the support of the Dominican government that offered them a shelter, the American Jewish philanthropists who organized and subsidized their escape and settlement, and the Dominican people who worked with and for them. Thus, this story will offer a kaleidoscope of views and voices that came together in the creation ofSosúa.
From the moment the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany's economic, legal, and eventually physical attack on its Jewish population provoked mass flight. As German policies grew more radical and Germany first invaded and then annexed its neighbors, many Jews frantically looked for countries to take them in. At a moment of excruciating need, "in those black hours, the Dominican Republic...opened wide its doors ...." [ii] Dominican generosity stood out starkly against the prevailing mood at the Evian Conference in July 1938. Convened at Franklin Delano Roosevelt's behest in order to find new homes for Hitler's victims, the thirty-two countries gathered there "managed brilliantly to do nothing, except to give lip service .... Only one made a tangible offer."[iii] That nation, the Dominican Republic, led by the dictator, General Rafael Trujillo, offered to take in 100,000 refugees -- a staggering number for a small nation of 1.6 million -- although only a fraction of that total ever arrived. The tiny island nation promised "full freedom of religion" to the Jews and adhered to the spirit and letter of its promise. Ironically, Trujillo's dictatorship, a self-serving and murderous regime, offered refuge to some of Europe's hunted Jews. The Dominican government eagerly welcomed exactly those immigrants deemed "racially inferior" in Europe, in part because it had cruelly persecuted the Haitians at its border.
But the Dominican government could not have sustained the refugees on its own. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or more commonly known as the Joint), with its considerable financial resources and years of experience in rescue and rehabilitation, attempted to save Jews from the Nazi juggernaut.[iv] Its agricultural branch, the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation, or Agro-Joint, originally created to establish Jewish colonies in the Soviet Union, set up a subsidiary, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association, or DORSA, once the Dominican government had tendered its offer to take in refugees. DORSA raised funds, hired experts, chose managers, selected refugees in Europe, booked their passages, and then trained the settlers. The United States, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt offering personal words of encouragement, briefly supported these endeavors in the Dominican Republic. Soon, however, the United States Department of State turned against the refugees, dashing hopes and creating a tragedy of missed opportunities. Its purposeful inaction caused enormous frustration among Jewish organizations, the Dominican government, and, most critically, the victims stranded in Europe.
Whereas few American officials came to the aid of Jews and most Americans opposed their immigration, Dominicans received and supported the refugees. They offered their advice and labor, a far cry from what refugees experienced in either Europe or in most other lands in which they later put down roots. Without the help of local Dominicans the Jewish refugees would have been lost. Many developed solid working relationships, and friendships as well as marriages ensued. Still, interactions between Dominicans and refugees, thrown together by world events, also evinced an asymmetrical power relationship in which even the poorest settler appeared to be and some later became employers.[v] How these relationships evolved is also part of the history of Sosúa.
Other countries took in more Jews. At its height, Sosúa amounted to no more than 500 Jewish settlers, although another 200 had passed through. The Dominicans may have saved over 3,000 lives, if one includes those living in the capital and those possibly saved as a result of holding Dominican visas, but who did not reach Sosúa. In comparison, about 100,000 Jews reached Latin America[vi] and the Caribbean between 1933 and 1945, and about 160,000 came to the U.S. between 1933 and 1942.[vii] But numbers do not convey the full story. The United States, for example, only once fulfilled its yearly quota of German-Austrian immigrants between 1933 and 1944, and that was in 1939, after the shock and empathy that emerged in response to the open violence against Jews in Germany on November 9, 1938, known as the November Pogrom, or Crystal Night.[viii] Latin American countries also restricted immigration or set up quotas against Jews.[ix] Refugee politics differed among Latin American countries and within them, even from province to province. Countries changed their policies depending on the regime or party in control and the perceived needs of their economies, which had been weakened in the worldwide depression. Many Jews had to cross borders illegally or without proper visas, bribe consuls or port officials, and even convert to Catholicism. Some did this with the help of the future Pope John XXIII, who authorized baptismal certificates without conversions.[x] Nativist, Nazi, or Christian groups frequently opposed Jewish entry.
In contrast, the Dominican government openly invited Jews to come as farmers and then allowed DORSA to choose the land best suited for its venture. The Dominicans with whom the Jews interacted accepted these strangers, worked for them, and did business with them. From all reports, Sosúan Jews encountered not the slightest bit of antisemitism, for which they remained grateful for the rest of their lives. Moreover, unlike other Latin American governments, Dominican officials in Ciudad Trujillo, the capital city (renamed by Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator, after himself in 1938), encouraged Jewish immigration. Dominican governments and society had allowed Jews to integrate earlier, in the nineteenth century, and in 1882, its leaders had even invited a mass immigration of Jews. In the twentieth century, their invitations started before the Evian Conference and continued even after World War II ended. This small Caribbean nation already had an openly friendly attitude toward Jews and a special relationship with these strangers in need.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Acknowledgements ix

Timeline xii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1
The Evian Conference and a Dominican Invitation 9

Chapter 2
DORSA and the Contract with Trujillo's Government 29

Chapter 3
Arriving in Sosúa 49

Chapter 4
Rescue and the Obstacles to Rescue 83

Chapter 5
Settling into "Metropolis Sosúa," 1942-1945 105

Chapter 6
Problems in Paradise 135

Chapter 7
Leaving and Staying:
The Postwar Exodus and Lingering Memories 155

Epilogue 175

Endnotes 179

Bibliography 225

Index 235

What People are Saying About This

Judith Laikin Elkin

"Dominican Haven expands our understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and barriers to refugee resettlement anywhere in the world."--(Judith Laikin Elkin, Author of The Jews of Latin America)

Ramona Hernández

" . . . begins to answer so many of the questions . . . about this most peculiar case of refugee migration that changed the lives of those fleeing the horrorof Nazism and of those in the Dominican Republic that welcomed them."--(Ramona Hernández, Prof. of Sociology and Director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, The City College of New York)

Peter Gay

"A fascinating story, as Kaplan brings to bear all her historian's skill and literary lucidity, making hundreds of Central European businessmen and housewives, confronted by a new climate, a new vocation, and a new language, come alive."--(Peter Gay, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University)

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