Rescued by racism

When Germany’s Jews decided to flee the Nazi onslaught in November 1938, they found refuge in the Dominican Republic...

November 1938: A Berlin synagogue burning on the night of Kristallnacht. Photograph by Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Seventy years ago, in November 1938, Germany’s Jews were feeling increasingly threatened and trapped. The Nazi onslaught on the ninth of the month, the infamous Kristallnacht, revealed the violent intensity of anti-Semitism among Hitler’s street gangs as thousands of synagogues and businesses were ransacked and torched. Many who had the means had already fled. Others were desperate to escape before it was too late.

Yet few countries were willing to accept an influx of Jewish migrants, especially in the turbulent economic and political climate of the 1930s. In the 32-nation Evian conference of July 1938, convened to address the Jewish crisis, the US, Britain and France were all reluctant to commit themselves to significant quotas of any sort. Curiously, only one country stepped forward and offered a haven to the stateless and persecuted German and Austrian Jews: the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican offer to receive up to 100,000 refugees was greeted with incredulity, and some scepticism, by international opinion. After all, the country’s dictator, Generalísimo Rafael Leónidas Trujillo (whose brother Virgilio led the Dominican delegation) was hardly known for his human rights record. (The previous year he had presided over the massacre of some 30,000 Haitians around the Dominican–Haitian border and regularly “disappeared” political opponents.)

Yet Trujillo had good reason to make the offer. It won him all-important American approval, especially after the bad press generated by the massacre, and it also fitted in with his own form of racism, which was directed not against Jews, but against black-skinned Haitians. A flood of “white” Jews from Europe, he reasoned, would lead to intermarriage with Dominicans and “whiten” a people whom he saw as under threat from their African-descended neighbours.

The first Jewish migrants to arrive, in the course of 1940, could hardly have imagined that they were part of the dictator’s bizarre social engineering scheme. Nor could the unpromising place where they found themselves have been more different from their mostly comfortable middle-class backgrounds in places such as Berlin or Vienna. Their new home was an abandoned banana plantation near the then remote fishing village of Sosúa, on the Dominican Republic’s north coast.

The canny Trujillo had done a shrewd piece of business in selling the 26,000 acres to the New York-based Dominican Republic Settlement Association, a body largely funded by American Jewry. The land had previously belonged to the United Fruit Company but was then taken over by Trujillo. And when the first settlers arrived, they discovered little more than some derelict warehouses and former banana fields that were rapidly reverting to jungle. According to one migrant, David Kahane, “There were two barracks and a few shacks, no electric lights, and the mosquitoes were humming.” The landscape may appear idyllic to modern-day tourists, but then the Dominican Republic was a desperately poor country, with next to no infrastructure and a rich array of tropical diseases.

For a year it looked as if the new colony might be stillborn. Few settlers arrived, as German U-boat activity in the Atlantic stopped non-essential traffic between Allied Europe and the Caribbean. Those who did make it were forced into a crash course in agriculture, something most of them knew very little about. Edith Gerstein, who hailed from Vienna, recalled: “So we stared at the cows. What happens next? Does one get a hold of the tail and pump until somehow milk comes out?” The majority of the refugees were professionals or craftsmen, many over 50, yet they were given land, cows and mules—and a fresh start.

Somehow, against the odds, the Jewish community at Sosúa began to grow and prosper. Although 5,000 visas were issued, a total of 700 migrants arrived, helping to build the settlement into a thriving dairy centre that produced (and continues to produce) milk, cheese and meat products for the whole of the Dominican Republic. Homes were built, along with a school, a synagogue and a cultural centre, where musical performances took place along with bar mitzvahs and weddings. Local as well as migrants’ children attended the school, and there was even a children’s choir. Like a Caribbean kibbutz, the colony had a strongly collectivist outlook.

There were also many weddings, as Dominicans welcomed the migrants into their culture, without showing, as veteran Luis Hess recalled in 2004, the slightest sign of anti-Semitism. Hess, the first Jew to marry a local woman, Ana Julia, told journalist Larry Luxner: “She was from Puerto Plata, a good woman and a good mother. We never had any differences, despite our very different backgrounds, In fact, she felt more Jewish than me.”

When the war ended, many of the Sosúa refugees moved on, mostly to the US, but enough remained to keep the community alive. Some reinforcements arrived in 1947 in the form of 39 European Jews who had become stranded in Shanghai during the war. For 20 years the colony continued to live a quiet life.But during the 1970s the town of Sosúa began to change, as tourism brought development and prosperity as well as social problems. What was once a rural backwater became a place of bars, restaurants and hustlers. New developments surrounded the colony at El Batey. Strangely, German tourists began to visit the town. As Martin Katz recalled, “When cruise ships started coming from Germany, I met tourists my age who had been soldiers in Hitler’s army. This was like a bucket of cold water on my head, and after that, I never wanted to go back to Germany.”

It is now the grandchildren of those original settlers who keep the memory of Jewish Sosúa alive, even if it is feared that an influx of wealthier Dominicans will remove most traces of the colony. The tiny synagogue is still there, along with the Museo Judio, the Jewish Museum, inaugurated in 2003. One of its plaques informs visitors that Sosúa is “a community born of pain and nurtured in love.”

Whatever Trujillo intended 70 years ago, he was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Jews who might otherwise have disappeared into Hitler’s concentration camps. As settler Ruth Kohn put it, “It was all very difficult. The language, the climate, the social situation—but we were saved.”