Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
In March 1938, 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. 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 immigration restriction and the 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 expressed a willingness to accept a significant number: between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews.
Despite the difficulties such a massive resettlement project posed, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee jumped at the Dominican offer. At that time, the Nazi regime was still agreeing to let Jews emigrate if they transferred their assets to the German government. Thus, Jewish resettlement to Dominica would have to be financed entirely by private Jewish sources outside Germany–in effect, by American Jewry.
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 American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 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 soon unleash on European Jewry). The willingness to consider resettlement in Latin America was also based on the assumption that the British might never permit Palestine to become a Jewish homeland.
Led by Dictator Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican government welcomed the Jews on the condition that they become agricultural workers rather than, to quote a government official, “commission agents, like the previously admitted Jews.” The Joint Distribution Committee 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 then 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 Republic . . . hereby guarantees to the settlers and their descendants full opportunity to continue their lives and occupations free from molestation, discrimination or persecution, with full freedom of religion . . . civil, legal and economic rights, as well as other rights inherent to human beings.
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. Nicholas Ross quotes Rosenberg: “Half the world lives now under the shadow of war, persecution, horror and death. … Now an open door of hope beckons. … We must carry this endeavor to accomplishment. We dare not falter.”
DORSA imported experts from kibbutzim in Palestine to teach the settlers communal agriculture. They helped design and build a communal meat processing plant, established a butter and cheese factory and recommended raising lemongrass, the oil of which is used in perfume. A trickle of refugee settlers continued to Sosua despite the fact that the American entry into the war made it even 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 one million dollars in the project.
By 1944, however, Sosua’s fortunes turned. DORSA abandoned communal agriculture and gave the settlers private plots. The colonists focused on raising cattle and butter and cheese production. Eventually, they prospered. While some left for the U.S. or Israel, others stayed.
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.”