Memories from a fading Tropical Zion

Memories from a fading Tropical Zion

When the world closed its borders at the Evian Conference 75 years ago, one improbable nation stepped up to save a few hundred Jews from Nazi Germany: the Dominican Republic

Jewish community center in Sosua, Dominican Republic. (photo credit: Yaniv Salama)
Jewish community center in Sosua, Dominican Republic. (photo credit: Yaniv Salama)

SOSUA, Dominican Republic – With its bamboo roof and breezy open air design, Baily’s Cafe near the far end of Dr. Joseph Rosen Street is the perfect place to take refuge from the scorching afternoon Dominican sun.

As soon as we are seated, a waiter heads toward us with two cups of Santo Domingo, the locally produced coffee. Joe Benjamin, 73, pours two sugar packets into his rich, dark cup of coffee and gathers his thoughts; his memories are as bittersweet as his coffee.

“What we were, the community that was here, it was unique. It was special, but it’s in the past. The next generation will know us as a chapter in a history book,” says Benjamin. He takes a sip of coffee, and adds a quick, “And that’s ok.”

Benjamin came to Sosua, now a town of some seventy thousand people on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, with his parents in 1947 via Shanghai.

Originally from Beslau in Silesia, the Benjamins were among 800 recipients of visas issued by the Dominican government in the 1940s to come to this impoverished island to work the land and develop its lagging agricultural system.

Earlier this year, Sosuans marked the 75th anniversary of the Evian Conference, sponsored by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to facilitate the resettlement of political refugees (in other words Jews) once the Nazi’s racial laws worsened the humanitarian condition in Europe. By 1938, discriminatory practices in Germany and Austria had given way to violent intimidation and sparked a refugee crisis.

The conference has been called, to paraphrase the Roman historian Sallust, “honest in face but shameful in heart.” Western Democracies across the globe shut their doors to Jews seeking asylum from the Nazi terrors in Europe, despite public expressions of sympathy by their governments at the horrors they were undergoing.

Early school days in Sosua. (photo credit: courtesy)
Early school days in Sosua. (photo credit: courtesy)

The United Kingdom, according to one diplomat present at Evian, declared that his island was “not a country of immigration,” and was “already sufficiently populated.” British colonies were deemed “inappropriate” for settlement, and Palestine at the time was off the table due to “local and political considerations [which] hinder or prevent any significant immigration,” according to “Dominican Haven” by Marion A. Kaplan.

France declared it had already reached its point of “saturation” regarding immigrants. Australians explained that because theirs was a relatively young country, they did not have a race problem and “were not desirous of introducing one.”

Industrial powers Canada and the United States, as well as needy developing countries Argentina and Brazil, found crafty reasons to not accept any refugees, despite expressing moral outrage at the situation. Some countries toyed with the idea of accepting refugees who were strictly “agriculturists,” but that too never went further than conjecture.

The most germane observation regarding Evian came from Holocaust historian Henry Feingold, who lamented, “Representatives of the Jewish organizations despaired, as hope for immediate actions was drowned in a sea of Latin eloquence.”

Enter one of the more unsavory and insidious figures of the 20th century.

The hero of Evian was not the revered Roosevelt, whose wife would come to be known as one of the greatest humanitarians of her time, but rather Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to1961. Here was a man regarded by the rest of the world as an impersonal and violent dictator whose good deeds were fueled more by opportunism than statesmanship.

While Trujillo offered to absorb 100,000 refugees, only 800 received visas between 1940 and 1945. But neither the numbers, nor his politics, mattered much to the Jews who settled in Sosua. The Jewish community didn’t get involved in politics, Benjamin explains: “Whatever Trujillo was, [if] you asked the Jews, for us he was a savior.”

Denny Hertzberg, 75, grew up in Sosua and worked for the government overseeing industries formerly owned by Trujillo until the dictator’s death by assassination in 1961. He agrees with his old friend Joe Benjamin.

Long-time school master Mr. Scheer with school children (photo credit: courtesy)
Long-time school master Mr. Scheer with school children (photo credit: courtesy)

“Looking back, saving one Jew is one more Jew who would not have been sent to the gas chambers. Many more could have been saved,” says Hertzberg.

On a cold gray afternoon in 1940, Dezider Scheer sat on the docks of a shipyard in Brindisi, Italy, gazing out toward the empty Adriatic Sea, desperately searching the horizon for signs of the Greek ship that would sail him to a better tomorrow.

He describes that moment as the loneliest in his life: His eldest brother had made arrangements for him to get to Palestine through the Czech underground, but as the day turned to night, it became clear the boat was not coming and he was out of options.

It would have seemed inconceivable to him in those despondent war-torn days in Brindisi that a few months later he would be enjoying the smiles of 100 schoolchildren, all under his care as schoolmaster, playing gleefully in the tropical sun. He eventually met some fellow Slovaks who were hiding out in the upper story of a brothel near the port. That’s where the representatives from the Dominican Republic Settlement Agency (DORSA) found them.

“It was a paradise for us,” he says about the early days in Dominican Republic in a remorseful and apologetic tone as we share tea and cake. “We didn’t know what was going on Europe. We stopped thinking about it. We were living in a paradise, and they were dying in that hell Auschwitz. Peres, Ben-Gurion, they would have been proud of us. We were farming, planting, building. But what did my brothers think about it, that I was here enjoying my life?”

The life that was created in the Dominican Republic has come to be known as “Tropical Zion.”

While Jewish communities in Europe disappeared into the gas chambers of Poland, the Jews in Sosua lived a rich, cultural, Jewish life, completely removed from what was happening to their families and friends in Europe. Life, almost exactly as they had known it before the Nazis came to power, continued.

“We had a Jewish education class once a week, given by Dr. Rubcheck. Coincidentally, it was taught in German,” Benjamin says. “There were Germans who were told to leave [Germany] because of their Judaism. Here they still did very German things, but we were also all in the synagogue on Friday night and on holidays. Even Israeli holidays after 1948.”

Hannukah play at school (photo credit: courtesy)
Hannukah play at school (photo credit: courtesy)

But the Jews of Sosua were not the only ones enjoying the German culture brought over from Europe to the Caribbean. Many non-Jewish Germans began immigrating to Sosua in the late forties and early fifties, seeking a better climate and opportunities not yet available in early Marshall Plan Germany.

“They were real-working class Germans, not sophisticated types. They didn’t know us and they didn’t know Hitler. They were just grateful to find a German speaking community with theater and music and so on. They weren’t apologetic, but they weren’t indifferent either,” says Benjamin.

Those Germans, and their children, are still here on semi-retirement, spending their days in the cafes and cigar shops that line the main street. But today, unlike the early days of the settlement, the Germans outnumber the Jews by a wide margin.

Jewish life is fading fast in Sosua. Much of the community has left for Florida, where the standard of living is far better. The most visible members of the Jewish community in Sosua today are locals who have converted to Judaism in the past decade.

Rabbi Ancel Solomon flies in from Toronto to spend half the year here, and tends to the Jews in the area. His biggest undertaking is protecting his flock from the well-financed Jews for Jesus church on the opposite end of town. Solomon will also perform the rare circumcision or tropical destination wedding.

While there are services every Friday night in the original town synagogue, there is rarely a minyan and the cantor is an Italian doctor who lives on the opposite end of the island and manages to come and lead the congregation sporadically. None of the remaining original members of the community attends services.

With me at shul on Friday night is an American couple on vacation from Ohio, the cantor and his wife, the rabbi, and a few walk-ins.

The synagogue in Sousa, Dominican Republic. (photo credit: Yaniv Salama)
The synagogue in Sousa, Dominican Republic. (photo credit: Yaniv Salama)

Hertzberg laments the loss of European ambiance. Leaving services on Friday night, when the sun is comfortably out of sight, the changes in Sosua become most apparent.

The cultural life so dear to Hertzberg has given way to the predictable underbelly tied to a thriving tourism industry, and Sousa has become a typical Dominican town.

There has also been a large migration of Haitians to the north shore of the island following their devastating earthquake in 2010. (Even though the two countries share the same island, the Dominican Republic was largely unaffected.)

Many on the poorer north shore of the island are trying to make money by any means necessary so they can send something back to support their families, which has caused the growth of two of Sosua’s more profitable side businesses: sex tourism and drug trade.

Back in Benjamin’s day, on a Friday night it would have been commonplace to see families to walk down Dr. Joseph Rosen Street arm in arm, singing and full of good humor. Today upon exiting the synagogue and walking down the street, those seen locked arm in arm are mostly middle-aged white men, or a few college age kids, headed to a quiet room with exotic prostitutes.

The homes that once belonged to the settlers which lined the main road, the last of which belonged to Luis Hess who died last year at the age of 100, have been converted into overcrowded bars and sweaty discotheques. Gangs of motorcyclists man their assigned intersections, peddling everything from cocaine to Viagra.

Herzberg is unimpressed at what his boyhood home has become. “The good old days are in memory only.”

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