The Jews of Sosúa, Saved by Reverse Discrimination
My journey to Sosúa began with an email. It was from a travel service, inviting me to “Visit Sosúa! Discover this paradise founded by European Jews!”
The story of Sosúa—the large oceanside town where the Dominican Republic government provided Jewish refugees with land and resources—is unique, even among the annals of Holocaust history. The message felt customized just for me—a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, a writer looking for a new subject, a Spanish-speaker and infrequent yet devoted fan of Caribbean beaches.
Between 1940 and 1942, several hundred German and Austrian Jews landed on the shores of La Republica Dominicana, the Dominican Republic. The refugees had been in transit for years, in refugee, detention and labor camps and training centers. Most of them had never even heard of the island before and would certainly never have chosen it, even as a temporary home, except no other country was willing to admit them.
While recent years have seen a documentary on Dominicans and Jews that includes mention of the Jewish history of Sosúa; a virtual Sosúa museum, sosuamuseum.org; and a few news articles, the Jewish history of Sosúa is still one of the lesser-known sagas of World War II.
“The Jews brought the world to us,” says Don Luis Hernandez, a 90-year-old resident of the Sosúa neighborhood of Los Charamicos, spreading his hands wide. The refugees transformed this part of the island, building a medical clinic, paving roads and creating a kibbutz cooperative of around 50 farms that helped Sosúa become the cheese and dairy capital of the country.
I had the opportunity to see some of those transformations myself, or at least the remnants of them.
Within months of that email, I embarked on an adventure, fueled by lifelong questions about those who, like my parents, found a way to escape the conflagration in Europe. My questions were now focused on a sliver of Holocaust history set in the tropics. Along with a swimsuit and sunscreen, I carried my version of beach reading—Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa (Duke University Press), Allen Wells’s comprehensive and insightful text. The book, along with the excellent Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosúa, 1940-1945 (Museum of Jewish Heritage) by Marion Kaplan, which I read after returning from my trip, became an invaluable reference library.
In addition to the language, culture and climate, Wells explains, there was a great deal that the émigrés didn’t understand about the Dominican Republic (often called the DR). The refugees were in their twenties and thirties and in good health; most were single and men outnumbered women. They had all been interviewed and screened by the newly formed Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA), created with the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and chosen for their stamina, adaptability, social skills and youth. What they encountered was probably more exotic than they had imagined. In addition, many of the Jews were city folk; given the chance to escape from Nazi-dominated Europe, they had exaggerated their farming know-how. The irony of the settlers’ value to the Generalissimo of the DR, Rafael Trujillo, was, in fact, their white skin.
These least desirable noncitizens of the reich were now wanted because of their potential for mixing with what Trujillo thought of as a “too-dark” populace. A brutal dictator, Trujillo was responsible for the massacre of Haitians in October 1937 (estimates of the number slaughtered range between 10,000 and 20,000), his atrocity an echo of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews. Trujillo wished to promote greater “Europeanism” and a kind of racial upgrading of his country as well as to rehabilitate his dismal international reputation. At the Évian Conference in July 1938, convened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss solutions to the Jewish refugee crisis, Hector Trujillo, the Generalissimo’s brother, extended a welcome to “as many as 100,000 political refugees.” Due to bureaucratic complications, only 500 families were able to benefit from the offer. (Indirectly, about 4,000 Jews received visas to enter the DR, enabling them to leave Europe for other destinations.)
Trujillo gave DORSA a 26,000-acre tract that once belonged to the United Fruit Company. However, DORSA, together with the JDC, insisted on paying Trujillo for the land. When the Jewish homesteaders discovered that only a relatively small area was suitable for agriculture, they developed cattle ranches. Within a few years, they built an export business for salami and sausages as well as a thriving dairy factory, all under the name Productos Sosúa. The company is still in existence today, but no longer manufactures meat products.
One reason for the settlers’ success can be attributed to Arthur “Don Arturo” Kirchheimer. He recognized that the island’s feeble pigs suffered from prolonged inbreeding. With the introduction of sturdier animals from neighboring islands, Kirchheimer rejuvenated the pig population, impressing the locals.
Rene Kirchheimer, born in Sosúa in 1942, is the only son of Arthur and his wife, Ilona. I meet him almost by accident on my second day in Sosúa, having followed the shaded path beside the beach in the direction of the place formerly called El Batey, where there is a synagogue and an adjacent museum. Bathed in sweat by the time I get there, I am discouraged to find the entrance gate locked, despite an “open” sign at the Museo Judío Sosúa.
A taxi driver shouts from across the street, warning me off the property. “Closed today!” he yells in English. Grateful for my Spanish, I explain that I am a writer looking for information about “los Judíos”; suddenly I am being led two blocks to the house of one of the few remaining Judíos—Rene Kirchheimer.
Kirchheimer is the son of an interfaith marriage (Ilona, a Lutheran, fled Germany with her husband). Deeply tanned with jet-black hair and bright green running shoes, he is a semiretired singer fluent in Spanish, German and English. Recalling his “wild” youth—pristine beaches and open countryside, school hours from 8 to 12 followed by playtime all afternoon—Kirchheimer says that as a 14-year-old he was sent to New York to live with his non-Jewish half-sister. “A reaction to the uncertainties of the Trujillo regime and my own rebelliousness,” he explains. He visited Sosúa each summer, coming back to resettle on the island a few times before returning permanently in 1991. With a grown son and daughter who both live in the United States, he is, for the second time, married to a Dominican woman.
With a few rare exceptions, most of the Jewish refugees-cum-pioneers departed from the DR within a few years of the end of the war. Among those who remained, some, as Trujillo hoped, married Dominicans; several who became disillusioned by homesteading or never wanted to be farmers moved to larger cities in the DR, such as Santo Domingo, then called Ciudad Trujillo. Once it became clear that nearly all of their extended families and friends in Europe had perished, the majority of the settlers left for the United States, where the cultural and socioeconomic environment felt more familiar. By the time Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, there were only about 150 Jews left in Sosúa.
On the grass in front of the synagogue, a stone plaque is dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Jews in Sosúa, dated April 2015. I learn that there is to be a reunion of the Sosuaners, but it will commence two days after my departure. Meanwhile, Kirchheimer is eager to share his documents, photos and transcripts of interviews with his now-deceased father.
On my final day, with a plan to enter the museum at last, I find four Jewish women—all of them in their sixties and Sosúa-born—perched on the wooden steps of the synagogue. The women, who live in the United States, huddle in the shade, waiting for the caretaker to arrive and open its doors so they can prepare the synagogue for the reunion.
Two of them are sisters, Jeanette Cohnen and Eva Cohnen-Brown, who live in Miami and Anchorage, respectively. Once the synagogue is open, the group clean and air out the sanctuary and replace the blue velvet curtain covering the Ark with a richly embroidered white one that was donated for the 50th anniversary back in 1990.
In contrast to Kirchheimer’s enthusiasm, these women are reticent. “We are tired of interviews,” Jeanette Cohnen says, recalling news articles about the documentary that mentioned Sosúa. “Suddenly everyone is discovering us. And we’ve been misquoted.”
Near the conclusion of Tropical Zion, Wells writes that Sosúa’s postwar Jewish generation both do and do not identify comfortably within one cohesive community. They grew up speaking both the Spanish of their native country and the German of their parents’ countries, and had paler skin and higher status than many of their Dominican peers. Yet many of those who left for America still consider themselves Dominicanas. The Cohnen sisters, redheaded and freckled, express irritation when questioned about their ties to Sosúa. If someone says that they do not recognize that the Cohnen name is both Jewish and Dominican, says Eva Cohnen-Brown, “I tell them they don’t really know the history of this place.”
It is hard to say if Sosúa’s Jewish legacy will last another generation. The synagogue is well tended if underused; the pictures in the museum displays are fading on the walls.
There is not that much left for Jewish tourists to explore in this unusual experiment in Jewish pioneering. There is a street named after DORSA leader Dr. Joseph A. Rosen, but the gorgeous beach closest to El Batey now mostly hosts a resort. Down the street, you can see a burned-out building that once housed the original store for Productos Sosúa, and at one end of Sosúa Bay are ghostly vestiges of the United Fruit Company’s ramp to the sea.
Yet the city seal bears a Star of David. And at the Gregorio Luperón International Airport in Puerto Plata, I am astonished and touched to see that the departure lobby features several large photographs of Jewish settlers newly arriving in the DR, receiving a cool drink and a fresh banana. They are smiling and so very hopeful.
Elizabeth Rosner is working on a new novel called Survivor Café.