Sosua, a once quiet fishing village situated in the country’s northwest region, became the only Caribbean refuge for hundreds of Jews fleeing from Nazi Europe during the 1930’s.
The community recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Jews to this coastal village.
The Dominican Republic was the only Caribbean nation that opened its doors to these families.
Once in Sosua, this thriving community launched some of the country’s first dairy farms and other successful agricultural projects.
According to the Talmud, the basic book of Jewish laws, “He who saves one life, saves the world.”
That’s exactly what occurred in the late 1930s when Jews fleeing from Nazi Europe found refuge in the once remote north coast fishing village of Sosua.
This is where some 600 Jews from Austria and Germany landed, a number that was well below the 100,000 the Dominican government announced it would be willing to receive.
At the time, Haim Weitzman said that during this tragic period the world was divided into two camps: “one formed by the countries that expelled the Jews and the other by those who refused to accept them.” Many nations of the “Free World” – from the U.S. to Austria – introduced strict immigration laws that impeded the entry of these individuals to their territories. However, the Dominican Republic was the only country that opened its doors to the Jews.
Many have speculated on the reasons why former dictator Rafael Trujillo decided to receive the refugees. However, seventy five years later, the reasons don’t really matter. According to Joe Benjamin, Vice President of the Jewish community in Sosua, when one is drowning you do not question the person that throws you a lifeline.
In the late 1930’s “The American Joint Distribution Committee” and the “American Joint Agricultural Corp.” – two American Jewish charities – created the “Dominican Republic Settlement Association, Inc.” The Association negotiated with the Dominican government that would guarantee the refugees freedom of religion, flexible immigration laws, and other facilities, including tax incentives.
Abandoned banana farms, approximately 22,230 acres, became the new home of the refugees, who had no experience in farming, much less farming in the Caribbean.
The majority of those who arrived in Sosua averaged 25-years of age. Richard Strauss was one of these young men. An Austrian Jew, Strauss managed to leave his homeland after escaping from the infamous Dachau concentration camp, situated northwest of Munich.
Uprooted from their homelands, the refugees worked the land and set up kibbutz-style agricultural farms. Years later, the community had built their own aqueduct, health system, clinic, pharmacy, school, synagogue, theater, newspaper, shops and a small bank.
Because of its remote location, the community focused on the development of non-perishable agricultural products to market. That’s how the “Productos Sosua” company, specializing in dairy products, got started.
Soon after the end of World War II, some members of the Jewish community in Shanghai, China, driven by the emergence of communism and the economic crisis, also decided to immigrate to Susa, where they arrived in 1947.
At the time, some 705 individuals passed through Sosua, but the majority left for the United States. Some 363 stayed behind and settled in the region.
Decades later, in the 1980’s, Sosua began to develop what is now a thriving tourism industry.
Today, the Jewish community in Sosua consists of some 30 original settlers. However, the community has built and operates a museum, a synagogue, a Jewish cemetery and a park, all symbols of a grateful community that survived and flourished in this small, quiet corner of the Dominican Republic.