Survivors in Dominican Republic credit dictator with saving their lives
JTA / August 11, 2004
By Larry Luxner
About the Author
SOSUA, Dominican Republic — Luís Hess
lives alone in a modest house fronting Avenida Pedro Clisante in the
little Dominican town of Sosua. At the age of 95, he's the oldest of a
dwindling group of European Jews rescued from Nazism in the 1940s by the
country's ruthless dictator, Gen. Rafael Trujillo.
"I was the first Jew here to marry a Dominican
woman," said the German-born Hess, displaying a picture of his late
wife Ana Julia. "We were married 60 years. She was from Puerto Plata,
a good woman and a good mother. We never had any differences, despite our
very different backgrounds. In fact, she felt more Jewish than me."
Hess, along with six other original survivors, have
recorded their testimonies on video for the benefit of visitors to Sosua's
newly inaugurated Jewish Museum.
Housed in a modern structure next to the original
wood-frame synagogue used by the refugees, the museum tells the story of
how Trujillo — attending the 1938 Evian conference in France — offered
100,000 Jews safe haven in the face of Adolf Hitler's "Final
The Museo Judio, located next to the Casa Marina
Hotel and down the street from the local Verizon phone company office, was
inaugurated Feb. 3, 2003, in the presence of many dignitaries including
Israel's ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
At its entrance is the text of the 1940 agreement
between the Trujillo dictatorship and the Dominican Republic Settlement
Association (Dorsa), the New York-based organization that intended to
rescue thousands of Jews from impending doom in Austria, Germany, Poland,
Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Between 1939 and 1942, the Dominican government
issued more than 5,000 visas to Jews, though in the end, only 700 actually
| That was mainly a consequence of the difficulty of getting exit
visas in the midst of World War II, but also because many Jews — not
realizing the gravity of the situation — were reluctant to give up their
sophisticated city lives in exchange for an uncertain future in a
desperately poor Caribbean backwater.
||Reproduction of Dominican visa issued in 1940 to
Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Larry Luxner. With permission. www.luxner.com
Those who did come were each given the opportunity
to purchase 80 acres of land (as well as 10 cows, a mule and a horse) with
low-interest loans in an uninhabited area near the village of Arroyo Sosua.
With Dorsa's help, these Jews built workshops, a sanitation system, a
clinic and the Productos Sosua dairy, which still produces milk and cheese
for the whole country.
|Martin Katz is one of the founders of Productos
At 86, he still goes to his farm every afternoon, often taking with him
his three grandchildren: Jeriel, 6, René, 5, and Niki, 3.
"We never had any problems here. People are
very sweet," said Katz, who arrived in 1940 and eventually married a
Dominican woman named Rosa Reyes.
||Martin Katz,, one of the first Jewish refugees
from Germany to settle in Sosua. Photo by Larry Luxner. With permission. www.luxner.com
"When cruise ships started coming
from Germany, I met tourists my age who had been soldiers in Hitler's
army. This was like a bucket of cold water on my head, and after that, I
never wanted to go back to Germany."
One wall of the Museo Judio contains faded news
clippings such as a May 11, 1940, article from the New York Times
entitled "Exiles on Last Lap to Dominican Site," while another
showcases sepia prints by La Nación photographer Kurt Schnitzer
and original paintings by artist Ernesto Loher — both children of Jewish
refugees who settled in Sosua. There's also a colorful stained-glass Star
of David and a chart extending from ceiling to floor, listing the names of
settlers, the date each arrived and their country of origin.
Artifacts on display include a large wooden menorah
crafted by hand in the colony's carpentry shop; a scale used in Erich
Sygal's pharmacy; an original telephone switch from the Dorsa offica; a
branding iron used to mark cattle, and a metal milk container from the
Productos Sosua dairy.
In 1947, a group of 39 European Jewish immigrants
arrived in Sosua from the Chinese city of Shanghai, where they had taken
refuge during the war. On exhibit is a trunk belonging to the
Strauss-Schick family, which was part of that group.
The Jews who settled in Sosua brought their
religious traditions with them, and all throughout the museum are
photographs of new immigrants celebrating bar-mitzvahs and weddings in
their new adopted country. Also on display are aging copies of La Voz
de Sosuaand other magazines in German, Spanish and English that
informed and entertained the close-knit community.
The museum is too small for a gift shop, though
visitors can buy Dominican-made ceramic mezuzah covers for $10 each.
Oisiki Ghitis, religious director of the Centro
Israelita de la Republica Dominicana in Santo Domingo, says that today,
the country has around 300 Jews. Except for 30 or 40 in Sosua, the rest
live mainly in Santo Domingo, the capital. Many of the original settlers
and their descendants have since left for better lives in the United
States and elsewhere.
One indication of the scarcity of Jews in Sosua is
the fact that the Jewish Museum's director, Cristina Román, is a Catholic
woman who wears a small crucifix around her neck.
"There is very little discrimination
here," said Ghitis. "In fact, the high rate of intermarriage is
precisely because of that. There's absolutely no rejection of the Jew in
Added Hess: "We always had good relations with
the Dominican people. There was never any anti-Semitism here."
One of his sons, Cecil, became the first Jew to
receive the Medalla de Oro award from Catholic University in nearby
Santiago. He's now president of Metrolaser, a California company
specializing in holography and laser optics. Hess's other son, Franklin,
is a computer scientist living in Berlin.
Though the Jewish Museum is exhaustive in
chronicling the history of Jewish settlement in Sosua, one can't help
wonder why Trujillo — a racist and a despot — was so willing to help a
group of European Jews escape the horrors of the Holocaust.
The standard explanation is that Trujillo wanted to
"whiten" the Dominican people through intermarriage between Jews
and the local population. Scholars also point to the fact that one year
before the Evian conference, Trujillo's forces slaughtered tens of
thousands of Haitians, and that accepting Jewish refugees might improve
the dictator's tarnished reputation abroad.
Such distinctions matter little to people like Katz.
"I'm not sure why he helped us," said the
old man, who lost his sister in the Holocaust. "The important thing
is that he did. He saved my life."
Copied with permission from www.luxner.com