SOSUA, Dominican Republic, May 2 (JTA) Though Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the shores of the Dominican Republic more than 500 years ago, the city of Sosua, only a few miles from where he landed, is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
When a group of 40 Jews climbed ashore, bereft of their possessions and loved ones and surrounded by jungle, they couldn’t help but wonder what was in store.
“I could see some houses. I was surprised when I saw lights,” said Martin Katz, 82, one of the original Jews to settle in Sosua, along the north coast of the Dominican Republic, in 1940.
Two years earlier, while the Evian Conference on Refugees was taking place in France, ships carrying fleeing European Jews were being turned away from safe harbors, and the doors of asylum were slamming shut around the world.
Within a month after the conference, during which delegates from 32 countries expressed sympathy for refugees but few opened their doors to them, the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Gen. Rafael Trujillo, offered to issue visas and resettle up to 100,000 Jewish refugees.
Trujillo’s motivation has been the subject of much speculation over the years.
Some have said that his generosity was a veiled attempt to win favor among international leaders, since he had recently massacred thousands of Haitians. Others claim his offer was really an effort to “whiten” the population and develop the island.
Those whose lives were spared seem less inclined to question his intentions.
“For me, the question is not why he did it. I am thankful he did it,” said Katz, who lost his sister in the Holocaust.
Other residents echo his sentiments.
“The Jewish community is very thankful to the Dominican Republic, the Dominican people. The truth is, he did a good deed,” said one descendant of a settler.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped organize resettlement efforts and made an initial investment of $200,000, which was to be paid back as the community became self-supporting. The purchase agreement with Trujillo, transferring the land to the settlement association and granting citizenship and religious freedom to all refugees, was signed in January 1940.
On May 10, the first shipload of refugees arrived by Portuguese ship on the shores of Hispanola, the Caribbean island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
Over the next few years, more than 600 Jews came to Sosua, mainly from Germany and Austria. After learning the basics of farming, settlers were given opportunity to purchase 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule and a horse, explained Katz, who recalled paying $10 per month for his low-interest homestead loan.
The Sosua Jews built workshops, a sanitation system and a clinic. They established a school and a dairy, Productos Sosuas, both of which are still in use today. They brought malaria under control too, said Katz, who managed the dairy for 29 years and “made very good cheese.”
The transition from urban sophisticate to tropical farmer was not easy, and once the war ended, many Jews emigrated to the United States. Those who stayed have developed Sosua into a thriving tourist center, where the cultures of visitors and locals alike intersect as readily as do streets with names like Calle Dr. Rosenberg and Calle David Stern.
Tucked between a thatched-roofed resort disco and a small hotel sits a well-tended, pastel-colored building, no bigger than a one-room schoolhouse, with a crooked stained glass menorah and Star of David above the door.
The shul, built by settlers, contrasts rather sharply with Sosua’s barrio of El Batey. The grounds of the temple, shaded by palm fronds and bordered by tall hibiscus, offer respite from the brutal Caribbean sun and incessant buzzing of motorcycle taxis as they weave among cars. The beat of salsa and merengue is palpable everywhere.
A woman walks down the street out front, a laundry basket of wares atop her head. The baseball diamond across the street sits idle, ready to spring to life in the evening when local teams come out to play pelota, ball.
The small Jewish community, numbering “a few dozen,” according to one resident, meets occasionally for services and for Chanukah, Purim and Passover celebrations. For the past couple of years since a visiting rabbi and cantorial student from Buenos Aires returned home after spending a year each with the congregation lay leaders have conducted services.
Though they’re a tiny minority in a devout Catholic country, said Sylvie Papernik, daughter of settlers who met en route to Sosua, now in her late 50s, “Growing up as a child, I never remember a bad experience with anti-Semitism.”
Locals are familiar with the synagogue and quickly offer directions when asked. In response to a question about Jews in his country, a non-Jewish Dominican businessman said, “We have Jews,” and rattled off a few names. “Well, they are Dominicans,” he said, “but their roots are Jewish.”
Besides a handful of original settlers, now in their mid-80s and 90s, some children and grandchildren of settlers remain and have made their lives in Sosua.
Felix Koch, 82, still runs his guesthouse with his native Dominican wife, Gloria. Of his life he says, “The past is the past. I am here. I am at peace. I am happy.”