A Jewish Refuge on Caribbean Shores

Fleeing the Nazis, a small group of Jews found sanctuary on a beach paradise in the Dominican Republic. Now efforts are underway to preserve the unusual history of Sosua.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

On the northern shore of the Dominican Republic lies the beachfront town of Sosúa, known for over 70 years as "Tropical Zion.” It is a typically Caribbean town, with an atypical history that includes a chapter as a haven for Jewish refugees. Hot and humid all year round, with daily downpours, Sosúa boasts a pretty beach, lined with coconut palms, colorful ramshackle houses and colorful residents. It is home to some 50,000 people of 30 nationalities. In the 1980s the town turned into a tourist destination, drawing visitors from all over the world. There are quite a few similar locations along the shores of the Dominican Republic, but none have the surprising Jewish history of Sosúa.

Its story has received a lot of attention lately, mainly thanks to Ilana Neumann de Azar, who has served as the mayor of the town since 2010. Neumann is a cheerful and pleasant woman in her forties. Her mother was Dominica; her grandfather was a Jew who lived in Sosúa for decades. Her father immigrated to Israel, but returned to the town of his birth in 1961.

It is important to tell the little-known history of the town now because soon there will be nothing left of it, said Neumann at a recent event held for the Israeli press. We are fighting here for the last scrap of memory, she said wiping away a tear and smiling, while Alexander De La Rosa, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to Israel, hugged her .

The story begins in 1938, with the Evian Conference in France. The international gathering was convened at the initiative of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to find a solution for the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe in the wake of the Nazi ascent. Of the 32 nations attending the conference, only one – the Dominican Republic -- agreed to offer sanctuary to 100,000 Jews on the remote Caribbean island, east of Cuba. The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the nation of Haiti on the Western side.

There are a number of explanations for the generosity of the Dominican Republic's president at the time, Rafael Trujillo, the strongman who ruled the country from 1930 through his death in 1961. The accepted explanation is that Trujillo wanted to erase the memory of the so-called Parsley Massacre he ordered only the year before, when some 15,000 Haitians were executed. Western nations were not thrilled to grant him legitimacy in the wake of the massacre; his offer to accept the Jews was one of a series of attempts he made to win renewed international support.

'Whitening the natives'

The president may have had additional reasons for opening the doors of the country to Jewish refugees.

The Jewish Museum in  Sosúa, Dominican Republic.
A new seaside park in memory of the Jewish community of  Sosúa, Dominican Republic.
Sosúa Mayor Ilana Neumann with Israeli ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Alexander De La Rosa.
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The Jewish Museum in Sosúa, Dominican Republic.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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A new seaside park in memory of the Jewish community of Sosúa, Dominican Republic.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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Sosúa Mayor Ilana Neumann with Israeli ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Alexander De La Rosa.Credit: Moshe Gilad
The Jewish community of Sosúa

Initially, the Dominican government set a quota of 5,000 visas to be given out to European Jews, but the Jewish community was in no hurry to exploit the opportunity. In the end, only 645 Jews – or possibly 800, according to another version– crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in the Dominican Republic in 1941.

They were sent to Sosúa, then a small, remote village a long ride away from the capital of Santo Domingo. Today the drive, which crosses the island from south to north, takes about five hours; it probably took an entire day back then. Trujillo saw the arrival of the Jews as a way of developing a particularly poor region of the country. There is much evidence that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee transferred large sums of money to Trujillo for developing Sosúa.
The president also saw an opportunity to "launder" or "whiten" the local black population. The racist idea of marrying white men from Europe to local black women in order to lighten the skin color of the local population was part of Trujillo’s declared policy – which was apparently as unsuccessful as it was outrageous.

But some Jews arrived and here – against all odds – the story took on a twist. Many succeeded in building new, and good, lives for themselves. They adopted different professions, largely out of a lack of choice, abandoning positions as doctors, teachers and other professionals in order to become farmers. Every Jew who settled here received a small plot of land, a few cows, a bull and a horse. They built farms and established a cooperative – Neumann explained to us that it was just like a kibbutz – that marketed and jointly sold the milk and meat products from their farms. Seventy years later, Productos Sosúa is still considered to be the largest dairy and meat marketing organization in the entire region.

After the Second World War ended, another group of Jews arrived in Sosúa, in 1947. Some were refugees from Europe and others arrived from Shanghai. The community grew – but not for long. In the 1950s and 1960s the pace of emigration intensified. Many left for New York and more to nearby Miami, just an hour-and-a-half flight. Thousands of the descendants of Sosua’s original Jews live in Miami today.

As to how many Jews remain in Sosúa today, it depends who you ask. Neumann says there are about 100 Jews. Another source maintained there were only about 30, while a number of articles published in the United States referred to approximately 70 Jews. The difference in the numbers is easy to explain: Not everyone agrees who is a Jew, and many of those who now live in Miami still keep their family home in Sosúa, visiting at least once a year. They still regard themselves as residents of Sosúa.

Missing Miami

On the beach at Cabarete, a small town close to Sosúa, I met Evelyn and Hedy Meyerstein, sisters who were both born in Sosúa. Their father arrived here after fleeing Germany in 1943. Their mother came from Shanghai a few years later. The girls were born and raised in Sosúa. The whole family moved to the United States in the 1970s, but they still have a house here and visit a few times a year. This isn’t exactly a vacation, said Evelyn Meyerstein. When we come back to our childhood home there are a lot of mixed feelings, she said.

Hedy said their father used to call Sosúa the Garden of Eden. But they both agree the town has changed since then – and not for the better. Maybe it is because they used to know everyone in town, and now almost everyone is a stranger, they said. Also, there is almost no one left from the Jewish community.

In a small courtyard in the center of Sosúa stands the local synagogue and next to it, the Jewish Museum. The synagogue is built entirely of wood, painted white and turquoise on the outside, and shades of brown on the inside. It looks modest and active. There is a Torah ark covered with a curtain and a bimah (raised platform) for the person leading services and reading from the Torah scroll. Neumann says there are services held on some Saturdays and important holidays. At the prayer service held in our honor, there was, as is customary here, no separation between men and women.

The museum contains black and white photos documenting the community from its very first days. The people in the pictures look like European pioneers and for a second it seems to me I am standing in the museum of the kibbutz in the Jezre’el Valley, looking at the founding groups that arrived from Germany. They look young and smiling, with fair hair and fair eyes – and full of hope. In appearance they stand in sharp contrast to the vast majority of the town's residents, both then and now, who are dark-skinned, curly-haired and have dark eyes.

Ari Barshi is an Israeli who has lived in Cabarete for 25 years. He and his wife, Marie Josee, took part in the dinner given in our honor by Ilana Neumann in the city hall building. Barshi, 51, fell in love with Cabarete because of the beach, sea and extraordinary conditions for sailing and surfing. That is why he came here, and stayed, and built a flourishing business for boating and surfing equipment along with a sailing training center. Very little is left of the impressive past of the community, he said.

“There are people here who are investing a great deal of effort in preservation," said Barshi, citing Mayor Neumann in particular. "The best proof of that is the new park in memory of the Jewish community that was dedicated in the city last year. But it is already hard to talk about real communal activity,” continued Barshi. “Most of the activity today is designed for the benefit of the local population. We must help them get a better education. Our children studied in private schools and our daughter today lives in Israel, but the local children need improved education in the public school system and we are making efforts toward that end."

The next day Barshi drove me to see the local school built with donations from American Jews, and told me about the library his wife, Marie Josee, built for the students.

The small municipal park that was built in remembrance of the Jewish community is in the prettiest place in the city: It looks out over the sea and beach and a broad bay. In the center of the park is a prominent white Star of David. A large gate leads from the park to the beach, to the sea and to the horizon. If you continue this line a bit more you reach Miami – just as many of the former residents of Sosúa have.

A new seaside park in memory of the Jewish community of Sosúa. Hundreds of European Jews made new lives here, but today only a few dozen remain.Credit: Moshe Gilad

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