Dominican Republic question #latinamerica
Sorry, I cannot locate the query that was recently sent asking about relatives settling in the Dominican Republic (I have poor vision), but I have an answer:
During my years as a journalist writing a syndicated Jewish travel column, I visited Sosua, Dominican Republic several times, the last time in 1992. My stories about the community appeared in many national Jewish newspapers. Unfortunately, that was so long ago they no longer appear on Google. I’m enclosing a copy from my early files from my JGS of Palm Beach County newsletter; that will perhaps answer some of your questions. [You might want to add it as an attachment]
Scattered Seeds <> Only the Dominican Republic welcomed Jewish refugees after the 1938 Evian conference. About 600 German and Austrian Jews arrived in 1940, promising to do agricultural work. Today only 12 families remain in the Dominican Republic town of Sosua. Molly Arost Staub relates her personal visit and a related exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. <>
A HIDDEN SOURCE OF RELATIVES IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC By Molly Arost Staub (Member) Of all the places Jews might have looked for their genealogical links, the Dominican Republic probably doesn’t head the list. Yet it was here that 600 Jewish refugees were transported from Germany and Austria in 1940, saved from Hitler’s dreaded decree. The story is currently being told in an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. However, this reporter visited the community they established on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast on several occasions, and interviewed two of the original immigrants. Genealogists might find certain surnames here or in the larger city of Santo Domingo, where many of them relocated and produced families; a visit is certainly fascinating.
But how did they get there? In the late 1930s, as some became aware of the Nazi threat to Jews, Chaim Weitzmann said the world "was divided into two camps....One, of the countries expelling the Jews and the other, of the countries which refused to admit them." Immigration laws prevented acceptance of those trying to escape. But one country stood out. When U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened an international conference in Evian, France in 1938, more than 30 countries participated. The only one offering refuge to Jews was the Dominican Republic, governed by dictator Rafael Trujillo. He invited 100,000 Jews. In 1940, according to those in Sosua who related the story to me, HIAS transported 600 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, who were guaranteed full religious and other freedoms, with equal opportunities and rights. The only condition – the group must work in agriculture, even though most had been educated urban dwellers.
I first learned of the town's development from the late Elsa Beller, then 89, in 1990, during my second visit to Sosua. Beller, her husband Walter, and daughter, were among those who emigrated from Vienna. The Jewish families established CILCA, a meat and cheese cooperative company that belonged to the Jewish community. One factory produced dairy products, the other processed meats such as salami and sausage. The project also brought employment to many unemployed Dominicans.
Felix Koch, owner of the Koch Guest House and one of the original settlers whom I met when I returned in 1992, said his father had been a university professor. Koch, who was 22 when they arrived, recalled that the community cleared the jungle using oxcarts, built 10 barracks with tin roofs, and brought in running water and electricity. "Some of us – including myself – had been in concentration camps," Koch said. "We were so thankful to Trujillo for saving us, and then we saw this beautiful land with 80- degree temperatures and bananas growing! We were so happy."
They settled in Sosua's neighborhoods of El Batey and Charamicos. They became a charming tourist region reminiscent of European spots with low-rise buildings, narrow streets and numerous outdoor cafes. And a beautiful beach – one of the country's finest. The community created the Christofer Colon School, which maintained a fine academic reputation, and a hospital, pharmacy, bakery and other enterprises.
Gradually, however, after the war, some returned to Europe. Others moved to U.S. cities, and some intermarried; most men had Dominican wives, Koch said. Today only about 12 Jewish families remain. (Several Sosua congregants also attend services at Santo Domingo's Centro Israelita de la Republica Dominicana.)
Why did the cruel dictator make this move? Speculations range from his desire to improve his worldwide image, to his plan to infuse his population with the mental faculties he associated with Jews. Nevertheless, Trujillo saved the lives of 600 Jews and their descendants. Their 1941-synagogue is a cream-colored clapboard building with baby blue-painted trim, a corrugated tin roof and a Jewish star on its gate. Services are held in the pine-paneled sanctuary seating 70 once a month (call 809-571-1386 to learn of the date).
In 1990, when celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their arrival, the community opened a museum next to the synagogue, exhibiting photographs of the original moshav-like settlement. Next to the museum stands the dairy cooperative, Compania Industrial Leche. When I spoke to Koch, he said some of the Jews owned hotels, while some still owned dairy farms and had shares in the dairy cooperative. Street names include David Stern and Dr. Rosen.
For information, contact the Dominican Republic Tourism Offices: 305-444-4592 in Miami. Sosua Synagogue is at Calle Dr. Alejo Martinez and Calle Dr. Rosen, El Batey (15 minutes from Puerto Plata hotels).
Ed. note: Molly Arost Staub has been a member of the JGS Palm Beach County for several years. She is a professional travel writer and has been kind enough to provide us with articles in the past.
Molly Arost Staub
M. A. in Journalism
Boca Raton, FL