In March 1938, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt convened a 32-nation conference at Evian-les-Bains, France, to discuss the resettlement of German and Austrian Jewish refugees to other lands. At that time, the Nazi regime was still agreeing to let Jews emigrate if they transferred their assets to the German government. The assembled nations endorsed the idea of resettlement but agreed that no nation would “be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by existing legislation.” Given the xenophobic and anti-Semitic moods of the Depression era, this meant that, in effect, no nation – even the United States – was expected to take more than a few thousand refugees.
Only the Dominican Republic, led by dictator Rafael Trujillo, expressed a willingness to accept a significant number - between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews – an offer which the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) quickly accepted. Trujillo’s generosity probably stemmed mainly from his eagerness to have the Western nations overlook his brutal massacre of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 and his desire to “whiten” the people of his country, believing that the young European men would marry Dominican women and produce light-skinned offspring.
A powerful argument against spending millions to build Jewish colonies for a few thousand refugees was that the money could be better used to feed many tens of thousands of Jews then starving across Europe. Nonetheless, the JDC decided that the Dominican offer was too good to turn down, both on humanitarian grounds and because a Dominican resettlement project might provide a model for relocating Europe’s Jews after the war. (At this time, of course, there was little if any comprehension of the mass extermination the Nazis would unleash on European Jewry). The willingness to consider resettlement in Latin America also assumed that the British might never permit Palestine to become a Jewish homeland.
The Dominican government welcomed the Jews on the condition that they become agricultural workers rather than “commission agents.” The JCS created a special organization, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA) and funded it to purchase 26,000 acres in the Dominican town of Sosua, which had previously been developed as a banana plantation but was abandoned by the United Fruit Company.
On January 30, 1940. DORSA officials signed a contract with the Trujillo regime. Historian Nicholas Ross, writing in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, quotes the contract:
The refugees were settled in the tiny seacoast town of Sosua, then just jungle land, which Trujillo had established with funding provided by the JDC. Upon arrival, every new Jewish settler was given 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule and a horse.
Despite this encouraging start, the Sosua experiment struggled. Submarine warfare in the Atlantic and the need to use Allied ships for troops and supplies made it possible to relocate only 50 or so refugees in the first year. Most of those who came initially were aged fifty or older, typical of German Jewry at this time. 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.
James N. Rosenberg, head of DORSA, refused to let the experiment die:
DORSA imported experts from kibbutzim in Palestine to teach the settlers communal agriculture. They helped design and build a communal meat processing plant and butter and cheese factory and recommended raising lemongrass for its oil, which is commercially used in perfume. A trickle of refugees continued into the town even though America’s entry into the war made it harder to cross the Atlantic.
In October 1941, the Nazis cut off Jewish emigration from the territories they occupied in Europe. Sosua’s Jewish population peaked at about 500. By this point, DORSA had invested about $1 million in the project.
By 1944, Sosua’s fortunes turned, DORSA abandoned communal agriculture and gave the settlers private plots. They focused on raising cattle and butter and cheese production and prospered. Still, most Jews left for the U.S. or Israel.
Today, about 25 Jewish families remain in Sosua. Their dairy business supplies most of the butter and cheese consumed in the Dominican Republic. Next to the town’s synagogue is a museum. The final caption on its exhibit reads: “Sosua, a community born of pain and nurtured in love must, in the final analysis, represent the ultimate triumph of life.”
Photos courtesy of D. Jason Berggren and Bonnie K. Levine-Berggren of Georgia Southwestern University.