There was a meeting in Evian-les-Bains in 1938 where 38 heads of state gathered to address the “Jewish issue.” Germany made it clear that they were expelling the race from their realms in Europe, and the call was offered up:
“What country will take the Jews?”
The British capped emigration to Palestine at 75,000 over five years, the USA did not even want to fill their quota of Jewish immigrants, Australia said, “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one,” the French said, “the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees,” and most of the other delegates echoed these calls.
Only one country stood up. It was the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican leader Rafael Trujillo offered up 26,000 acres of property on a former United Fruit Company plantation for a Jewish refugee village, and claimed that his Caribbean island country would take in one million dispossessed European Jews.
It was later determined that the Dominican Republic could only reasonably take in 100,000 Jewish refugees, though only around 1,000 ever ended up making it into the country — a place that few of the refugees have even heard of before.
Of this thousand, 600 were given loans to obtain 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule, and a horse on a little known stretch of plantation land near Puerto Plata. This refugee village became Sosua.
Mostly, Jewish men were admitted to the Dominican Republic on the grounds that they would take up farming — and not become “commission agents, like the previously admitted Jews” — marry Dominican girls — potentially as a strategy for lightening the skin complexion of the country — and effectively raise the economic status of the Dominican Republic.
This was during a time of severe “anti-Haitianism,” and 30,000 Haitians were massacred near the border only a handful of years earlier. In effect, on one side of the Atlantic the Jews were being expelled in the name of racial preference, and on the other side they were being imported for very similar reasons.
Upon arrival, the Jews were housed in old plantation buildings abandoned by the United Fruit company, and were sent to work as farmers. Most of them knew the world of ledgers and measures much keener than the toil of earth and grain.
Some refugees wished to begin life again as Dominican farmers, but an equal number saw Sosua only as a place to wait until they could get a visa to enter the United States. It soon became clear that it would cost about $3,000 to settle a family on a tract of Sosua land and equip it for farming. The land was not highly fertile and its drainage poor. The settlers needed a period of adjustment to the semi-tropical climate of the island. Tomatoes, the first crop chosen for commercial exploitation, proved unattractive to the local Dominican population. The colony appeared headed for disintegration.
But the Jews preserved, and eventually turned their land into profitable enterprises or jumped ship to the USA.
Up until 1980 the town remained mostly Jewish, but since then the town has been developed for tourism, and not much Jewish heritage — outside of the synagogue and museum — can be observed in a casual walk through the streets. Though I have read that an entire block of lucrative hotels and restaurants in Sosua’s downtown area were owned by one of the original Jewish settlers. Apparently, his 80 acres of land were well chosen.
There are six families from the original Jewish colony still in Sosua. My wife asked the caretaker of the museum when the Shabbat services were held at the synagogue. She was told that they occur once a month, but nobody could tell us when the next one would be.
The local expats have a joke about the naming of Sosua. Over a beer one asked me how the town got its name, and I answered in accordance to what I read:
“It is the name of a river near here.”
“Maybe so, but how did the river get its name?”
I did not know.
The expat filled me in. “The first Jewish man to arrive here was named Joshua, but none of the locals could pronounce it correctly. They would say they were going over to Josua.”
Dominican Republic Travelogue Entries — Caribbean Travelogue Entries