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Behind the Headlines the Dominican Republic: a Haven for Jewish Refugees from Nazism

The Dominican Republic which occupies two-thirds of the Hispaniola Island and is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, is a relatively small country in the Latin American area, with a population of five million. Over a million of the Republic’s inhabitants reside in the capital city of Santo Domingo which has become, due to its all year-round summer-like climate, a flourishing tourist center.

In July of 1938, during the Evian Conference, called by 30 nations to deliberate the fate of the Jews in Hitler Germany, the “strongman” and at that time dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, come forth with an offer to permit immigration, resettlement and absorption of 100,000 Jews into his Republic. His declaration was met with great enthusiasm, in view of the fact that none of the other nations — large and small — including the United States, at whose initiation the conference was convened, was ready to admit them and had their borders tightly shut to all the unfortunates.

As a result of the Trujillo offer, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) formed a special agency, in New York, to deal with the resettlement of the Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic and-named it the Dominican Republic Settlement Association, for short — D.O.R.S.A.

In January 1940, D.O.R.S.A. and the Trujillo government signed a contract to admit the first group of refugees. Trujillo was very proud of his deed and immediately assigned a special area in his country where these new immigrants would engage in farming. At the same time, he managed to procure shares in the undertaking, thus becoming a partner in the project.

JEWISH COLONY DEVELOPED

The tract of land was bought for $50,000 in the then wilderness of the village of Sosua, near the town of Puerto Plata, in the northern region of the country. The first group of refugees, all of them skilled workers, arrived directly from Germany in May of 1940 and consisted of some 35 persons. The latter groups come, via Portugal, in September and December of the same year from Switzerland where they were kept in special refugee camps under the auspices of the JDC.

On a recent visit to the Dominican Republic this reporter spend three days in the area of Sosua and had the opportunity to become more closely acquainted with the life and problems of the remaining Jewish colonists. I also met with many leaders and members of the tiny Jewish community of Santo Domingo.

Of the 100,000 refugees Trujillo promised to admit only 700 or 800 actually came. At the beginning, most of these arrivals settled in Sosua and started their agricultural experiment, patterned after the kibbutz system of Israel, and failed. “The reason for this failure,” explained Judith Kibel, who was a kitchen worker in the Sosuan settlement, “was our lock of idealism and the overabundance of materialism.”

Later, they turned to private forming, following the example of the Israeli moshav, and started to sell their meat and daily products to factories. Today, these colonists own a daily factory which produces many kinds of cheese, butter, yogurt and chocolate drinks. They also have a meat factory where they make various sorts of sausages, hot dogs and hams.

Sosua, which now has a population of 10,000 and can be reached in only three-and-a-half hours by automobile from Santo Domingo, is famous for its beautiful beaches and picturesque landscape.

WELL-KNOWN THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY

The meat and daily factories of Sosua belong to 49 formers, 75 percent of whom are the Jewish colonists. This information was related to me by Herman Strauss, president of the Board of Directors of the Sosua Company, well-known throughout the country. He proudly stated that their sale of meat and dairy products amounts to $7 million annually and that over 4000 people are excepted in the factories built by the Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. He also stressed that the original shares in this enterprise were sold at 10 pesos each. The current price is 15,000 pesos per share. The official price of each peso today is one dollar.

There is speculation, to this very day, as to what prompted Trujillo, who was assassinated in 1961, to welcome these Jews into the Dominican Republic. But regardless of his motive, his was the only country to welcome the Jewish refugees during that period, even though not quite 1000 of the projected 100,000 come.

Of the first group of 35 who reached Sosua from Germany and Austria, only three remain. A number of them died and others migrated to a number of cities in the United States. A similar fate befell the members of the other groups who settled in Sosua in the course of 1940. Of these groups there are at present only 36 Jewish families. It is, of course, no simple matter to account statistically for these families. Actually, there are in all of Sosua but six or seven all-Jewish families, with the rest of them intermarried to non-Jews.

I was also told that most of the 1940 newcomers were young men who were married to Dominican Catholic women. Also — that the children of the survivors who came to Sosua after World War II, via Shanghai and Israel, married non-Jews. In my conversations with the colonists, I gathered that to them intermarriage is a very “natural” phenomenon, justifiable by the fact that “also the non-Jews attend the synagogue.”

(Tomorrow: Part 2)

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