My interest in Jews of the Dominican Republic piqued (or peaked, or maybe peeked) after my visit to the country. The Rabbi on my Dominican Republic kosher vacation casually mentioned how hundreds of Jews were saved from the holocaust not too far from the resort with kosher restaurants where I was staying. Why hadn’t I heard about this before? Two books later, I’m here to report what I know. One book is “Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945” by Kaplan. The other is “Tropical Zion” by Wells. Both books are similar – they’re written by academics in largely high handed and detached academic style with a whole lot more about the geopolitics involved in what was an agriculture project to resettle displaced Jews from Europe to the Dominican Republic. Very little is told about the personal stories and struggles of the individuals whose lived it. In many respects, they’re similar to books like “Six from Leipzig” which is about my partner’s former partner at my law firm – big on politics, short on personal story.
Here’s the short answer why there aren’t 100,000 Jews in the Dominican Republic today: economics, the United States, and Israel. The long answer follows.
Rafael Trujillo took over the Dominican Republic by military force in 1930 and lost power in 1952 after his assassination. He feared takeover by Haiti – the French, black, and poor country that shares the island. He also feared and needed the United States, the economic giant in the hemisphere. He was a ruthless dictator but an ally of the United States in whatever it wanted. In return, the United States largely looked the other way after his army slaughtered 20,000 Haitians. While being part black himself (he lightened his skin with powder in official photographs) he desired a whiter population. Lest there be any doubt about his racism, he stated his opinions clearly upon the inauguration of the Jewish settlement of Sousa. His desire was to make his island lighter skinned and differentiate it from Haiti while keeping the blacks at bay by raising his white population to compete with the Haitians who had many more children per woman. History hasn’t changed much – look at the news in 2015.
Meanwhile in Europe, Germany was systematically stripping Jews of their rights, taking over neighboring countries where they then stripped those Jews of their rights, and creating a human catastrophe. It all seemed horrendous until we consider what came next. Each year the exchange rate given to a Jew was decreased until he could get maybe 10% of the actual value of his money out of the country if he could still find a way to leave and had any money left after a depression and his business was destroyed. The rest of the world, still feeling the Great Depression, had no desire to take in poor refugees except one country – the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic stood up at two refugee conferences organized by the United States and declared the intention to take in 100,000 Jews. Various reasons are given but race seems to be the most convincing argument to me. As racist as Hitler was towards Jews, Trujillo was favorable because European Jews are white. Countless times in history, one country expelled Jews while another absorbed them.
The Dominican Republic, it is said in the books, probably managed to save a few thousand Jews by issuing visas. Even if a Jew couldn’t or didn’t want to make it to the Dominican Republic, a Jew in Lisbon, Portugal (a transit point out of Europe) could remain there until finding another refuge.
So why were only 1% of the spots filled? First and foremost, the Dominican Republic was poor. It was in receivership to the United States and under a corrupt dictator who controlled most business. Even once the settlement got started, sugar was out of the question as this was part of a state monopoly. Most other businesses failed as the cost to import and export was prohibitive. Meanwhile, most people lived in dirt floor huts. Why would you want to live there? Those who came usually wanted to leave for the United States as soon as they could. In fact, around this same time period, 20,000 refugees from the war in Spain came to the Dominican Republic . . . and left.
Next, Trujillo and those selecting Jews for the settlement wanted the young and strong who could work the fields and do hard manual labor day after day. Jews in Europe were mainly city dwellers and mainly attached to families. Those who did come were largely single and male with a huge dearth of young women. The women weren’t desired, nor did they desire to leave their parents on their own. This meant the settlement couldn’t populate future generations and those who were there had every incentive to leave to find a wife, without a family or homestead to tie him down. (Trujillo hoped for intermarriage which was exceedingly rare.) There were plenty of children from those who came over married and wanted to replace what was lost. Other Jews, who weren’t up for the labor, lived in handouts from Jewish philanthropists in the U.S. but were teh subject of complaints by Trujillo and the settlement administration causing “evictions” of Jews from the settlement to the capital city. It wasn’t until after WWII that Sosua really functioned as a place work as opposed to a place of refuge largely by those not fit for the task circumscribed for them.
The next problem: the United States. Why the Dominican Republic or the Jewish financiers of the operation did not send ships to Lisbon, Amsterdam, or Italy and just take over boatloads of Jews while bypassing the United States, I do not understand. Many Jews, especially those who made it to Italy, held out for transit to Israel which was almost non-existent in the 1940s. However, I say this with the power of hindsight. Most didn’t expect extermination and the “slow growth” of the settlement was considered necessary as well as keeping on good terms with the United States. The State Department in the U.S. had to approve every application. This bigoted department (then and now, actually) usually served to make it next to impossible. For years, it was completely impossible to get a transmit visa from Europe through New York. When they did, a Jew in Ellis Island was a closely guarded prisoner for fear he’d escape to the United States. More often, the papers weren’t all in check for a valid or bogus reason and with the winds of war coming, the United States claimed to fear spies or those with relatives stuck in concentration camps who could be bribed to hand over intelligence information. Nasty rumors spread about spies already who came as refugees. After the first arrivals from Germany in 1940, Germany soon too closed it’s borders. In other words – those who needed refuge the most and would have most readily come could not.
After the war, the United States actually didn’t change it’s laws one bit… they just changed policy in the State Department and all of the sudden all the unused spots from years past were made available to refugees. This caused an exodus of Jews from Sosua to the United States as well as an exodus of remaining Jews in Europe to the same location. Some, especially who stayed the war in Shanghai, did join the settlement in Sosua. Most others chose Israel. Over time, the settlers who remained grew old and their children did not remain except to visit. Had the Jews been welcomed as merchants, doctors, and lawyers (as is more of our calling, it seems) as entire families maybe there’d be a larger Jewish population there today and the DR might also have a much stronger economy. As it is, the largest milk and cheese factory in the country was founded by the Jews of Sosua. Instead, the children of the settlers went to seek their education and technical jobs largely out of the country with many resettling to nearby Florida. The synagogue remains, but hotels and tourism have taken over what is now a “working class” travel destination in Sosua, a town filled with street names like “Dr. Rosen” and “David Stern.”
Not long ago I wrote to a law firm in the Dominican Republic which handles trademark applications throughout Latin America. A client of mine wanted a price quote to file same in a smattering of countries. I added to my letter that I stayed close to Sosua (in what is a very nice resort with the kosher food and synagogue, the only one of it’s kind in the Caribbean) and would be happy to send my money through a country that would have saved my life. At the airport today, an Israeli flag is listed on every customs sign showing that is one of the few countries where the passport holder need not pay an entrance fee. Dominicans are so much the opposite of anti-semitic that they want to marry Jews and look at it as almost a status symbol to say they are descended from a Jew. The attorney’s answer fell along these lines: “There is a huge Jewish community and its descendants have integrated completely in the Dominican Republic making many cultural and trade contributions. For your information my wife last name is Hazim and Majluta” which are Sefardi names, reprensentative of the large number of such Jews who settled the island throughout the 1800s. With mixed emotion, it’s nice to know there are places in the world that have been and probably will be friendly to the Jews for a long time but not so nice to know that the Jews there that forget what they’re supposed to do in the world.