Tropical Refuge

Museums

By Ilan Stavans

Published June 05, 2008, issue of June 13, 2008.
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As early as 1935, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the dictator who led the Dominican Republic from 1930 through 1961, suggested that his country would welcome as many as 100,000 refugees from Europe. It might seem ironic that Trujillo, known for his repressive regime, would invite Jews to the island, promising them religious freedom, but in this instance, it’s just one irony among many.

HORSING AROUND: Sosúa offered middle-class European Jews a bucolic haven.
HORSING AROUND: Sosúa offered middle-class European Jews a bucolic haven.

The fascinating story of the few hundred Jewish refugees who took Trujillo up on his offer and settled in the town of Sosúa, on the Dominican Republic’s northeastern shore, will be on view at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust through July 25. It’s a little-known episode in the still-to-be-written history of how the Holocaust played out in Latin America.

Sosúa was a rural habitat. For shtetl Jews, the landscape might have been a modified version of what they were used to in the Pale of Settlement: more arid, tropical and humid, but no less provincial. But it wasn’t shtetl Jews who found themselves in Sosúa; it was their urban, middle-class counterparts. How did they respond? The black-and-white photographs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, along with other memorabilia collected by the curators, teem with disappointment. The place was remote, rudimentary, challenging in every way. “No maps were in existence,” a settler, Félix Bauer, wrote in his memoirs. Another, Barbara Steinmetz, described Sosúa as “just a piece of land with a few buildings on it… and very sparsely populated.” And a third refugee, David Kahane, stated: “There were two barracks and a few shacks. No electric lights, and the mosquitoes were humming.”

Shock gave way to some degree of comfort and, ultimately, gratitude. From the start, Sosúa’s locals were friendly. They interacted with the newcomers, doing business with them and striking up friendships. The relationship was fruitful. Over time, it resulted in a strong collaboration and, in some cases, even marriage. Yet despite Trujillo’s good will, the total number of refugees to Sosúa never reached beyond 500, with another 200 passing through. The small number speaks to the missed opportunity this episode in Holocaust history allowed. How many thousands could have been saved in the Dominican Republic had the American government been more accommodating?

Marion A. Kaplan, a professor of modern Jewish history at New York University and the author of “Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosúa, 1940-1945” (Museum of Jewish Heritage), the exhibition’s companion volume, puts thes tory in context. “In comparison,” Kaplan writes, “about 100,000 Jews reached Latin America and the Caribbean between 1933 and 1942, and about 160,000 came to the U.S. between 1933 and 1942.” Kaplan adds: “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.”

The exhibition photographs are rich and evocative. Jews and Dominicans, their religious and ethnic selves evident, appear near cattle in a dairy farm. There are calves, horses and roosters nearby. A settler drives a tractor. Four male swimmers lying on the beach smile at the camera. Children work the land. A long shot of the dorms shows a couple of inhabitants at the door. A 13-year-old celebrates his bar mitzvah.

The photos are touching in their immediacy. In spirit, they might appear similar to those of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to Moisés Ville and other settlements in the Argentine Pampas, where Jews coexisted with gauchos. Yet the tenor is dramatically different: Again, the Sosúa refugees came from a relatively high rung on the social scale. Their escape from the old country took place at a time of extreme desperation.

Today only a handful of Sosúa’s Jewish settlers remain. The majority left a long time ago, mostly for the United States, where, like other Jews from Latin America, they intermingled with the American Jewish community. The Dominican Republic remains one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. Sosúa is currently a tourist attraction because of, among other things, its sex trade. The synagogue still stands, and there is a museum that remembers the Jewish presence more than half a century ago. The companion book indicates the gratitude of those who lived in Sosúa, summarized by a settler, Paul Cohnen, who is quoted thus: “We owe the Dominican Republic so much. After I became more comfortable I donated land for people who had worked for me for 27 years. I’m proud to do it. I’ve donated land and money for the school.” Others described their Caribbean interval as “a second life.”

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His next book, “Resurrecting Hebrew” (Schocken/Nextbook), will be out in September.


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