During a radio interview two years ago, Prof. Irving Abella, coauthor with Harold Troper of “None Is Too Many,” the acclaimed historical study of the Canadian government’s anti-Semitic immigration policies before, during and after World War ll. was asked to describe the 1938 Evian refugee conference.
Abella indicated that the 32-nation conference, called at the behest of President Roosevelt and held in Evian, France, did absolutely nothing to help European Jews who were trapped in the nightmare of Nazism. Only the Dominican Republic made a small gesture in this regard, he said. The Dominican Republic?
Some 46 years after its helpful gesture, the story of the Dominican Republic’s extraordinary act of humanitarianism toward European Jews is becoming part of the public record. The number of Jews from Europe who actually obtained sanctuary on the inland of Hispaniola was relatively small — some 600 in all — but the symbolic nature of their rescue is all-important.
REASON FOR THE DOMINICAN ACTION
The reason why the Dominican Republic made the offer at Evian in the first place was reported in the March 16 edition of the Ft. Lauderdale News Sun Sentinel.
In a front page article in that publication, staff writer John Platero indicates that Dominican Republic President Rafael Trujillo offered asylum “to soften world reaction to the slaughter in the Dominican Republic in 1937 of an estimated 20,000 Black Haitians and to whiten the racial mixture in his country through intermarriage.”
Shortly after the Evian meeting was concluded, the Dominicans showed they meant business when they set up DORSA (Dominican Republic Settlement Association), a New York-based organization which sent representatives to Europe to select those to be offered refuge in the Caribbean island.
Almost 100 of the original 600 inhabitants of Sosua, the settlement site on the Atlantic side of Hispaniola, now live in Florida. They recently shared with the Ft. Lauderdale newspaper their reminiscences of the flight from Europe and the reception they received in the Dominican Republic.
The first settlers arrived at the remote coastal strip of land, some 20,000 acres in all, in May 1940. The terrain was mostly jungle without any roads or the other amenities of civilization.
GIVEN 20 ACRES, 10 COWS AND A HORSE
Each of the new immigrants was given 20 acres of land, 10 cows and a horse. The intention was that the Jewish settlement would engage in cattle-raising and dairy farming. Those interviewed by Platero indicated that farming came hard to the urbanized Jewish settlers. In addition they were much bothered by the tropical climate and ignorance of Spanish.
Despite these impediments, the Sosua dwellers managed to raise cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables. In fact, during the war years the community in Sosua actually prospered, “but most of the residents knew that they would not spend the rest of their lives in Sosua.”
Many of the single men in the Sosua settlement eventually married Dominican women. There were many divorces among this group because of divergent backgrounds and other forms of incompatibility.
With the end of World War II, most of the Sosua residents drifted away, some to the Dominican capital but most to the United States–particularly Florida.
“Many sold their land to neighbors who opted to remain and became wealthy dairy farmers. Currently they produce much of the milk, meat and cheese consumed in the Dominican Republic,” Platero wrote.
BUSINESS TIES RETAINED
A small number of the Sosuans who live in Florida still retain business ties in the Dominican Republic and shuttle back and forth frequently.
Today only about two dozen Jewish families remain in Sosua and their numbers decline each year. Sosua is a growing area for tourism with new hotels, condominiums and homes under construction.
Annual reunions are held by those who spent the war years in Sosua; they are held in the Miami area, in New York City and Los Angeles. “The older we get, the closer we feel,” said one veteran Sosuan, now living in Florida. “It seems as if destiny and a unique experience drew us together.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.