Dominican Jews still basking in islands glow after 60 years

SOSUA, Dominican Republic — Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the shores of the Dominican Republic more than 500 years ago. But the Jews of Sosua, only a few miles from where he landed, are about to celebrate their 60th anniversary.

When a group of 40 Jews climbed ashore, bereft of their possessions and loved ones and surrounded by jungle, they couldn't help but wonder what was in store.

"I could see some houses. I was surprised when I saw lights," said Martin Katz, 82, one of the original Jews to settle in Sosua, along the north coast of the Dominican Republic, in 1940.

Two years earlier, while the Evian Conference on Refugees was taking place in France, ships carrying fleeing European Jews were being turned away from safe harbors and the doors of asylum were slamming shut around the world.

Within a month after the conference, during which delegates from 32 countries expressed little more than sympathy for the refugees, the Dominican Republic's dictator, Gen. Rafael Trujillo, offered to issue visas and resettle up to 100,000 Jewish refugees.

Trujillo's motivation has been the subject of much speculation over the years.

Some have said that his generosity was a veiled attempt to win favor among international leaders, since he had recently massacred thousands of Haitians. Others claim his offer was really an effort to "whiten" the population and develop the island.

"For me, the question is not why he did it. I am thankful he did it," said Katz, who lost his sister in the Holocaust.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped organize resettlement efforts and made an initial investment of $200,000, which was to be paid back. Trujillo agreed to transfer the land to the settlement association and granted citizenship and religious freedom to all refugees in January 1940.

On May 10, the first shipload of refugees arrived. Over the next few years, more than 600 Jews came to Sosua, mainly from Germany and Austria. Settlers were taught farming and were made offers to purchase 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule and a horse, said Katz.

The Sosua Jews built workshops, a sanitation system and a clinic. They established a school and a dairy, both of which are still in use today. They also helped bring malaria under control too, said Katz, who managed the dairy for 29 years.

The transition from urban sophisticate to tropical farmer was not easy. And once the war ended, many Jews immigrated to the United States. Those who stayed have developed Sosua into a thriving tourist center, where the cultures of visitors and locals alike readily intersect, as suggested by streets named Calle Dr. Rosenberg and Calle David Stern.

Tucked between a thatched-roofed resort disco and a hotel sits a modest pastel-colored building, with a crooked stained glass menorah and Star of David above the door.

The shul, built by settlers, contrasts sharply with the surrounding barrio. The temple grounds, shaded by palm fronds and bordered by tall hibiscus, offer respite from the brutal Caribbean sun.

The small Jewish community, meets occasionally for services and for holidays. The congregation has been run by lay leaders, or they host visiting and student rabbis and cantors.

Though they're a tiny minority in a devout Catholic country, Sylvie Papernik a daughter of settlers and now in her late 50s, said, "Growing up as a child, I never remember a bad experience with anti-Semitism."

Besides a handful of original settlers, now in their mid-80s and 90s, some children and grandchildren of settlers remain and have made their lives in Sosua.

Felix Koch, 82, who married a native Dominican, says of his life: "The past is the past. I am here. I am at peace. I am happy."