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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: A TOURIST HAVEN WITH A HIDDEN JEWISH HISTORY

By: Dave Gordon



Famous for its rum, cigars,resorts, beaches, and rich history, the all-season holiday destination of the Dominican Republic also has a relatively unknown past. Few people realize, or know, that once upon a time, the country opened its doors wide to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.

That era is chronicled at the Museum of Jewish History, in Sosua, a city in the northern section of the country.

Located right next to the city’s synagogue, the museum preserves the memory of those Jewish refugees who sought a safe haven on Dominican soil, and left their mark on the region. It houses photographs of early-to-mid-20th century Jews who called the Dominican Republic their home, along with diary entries, ritual items, and copies of letters from Jewish agencies during the war.

Recent Jewish Immigration

Already before the outbreak of World War II, in 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned the Allies to Evian, France for a conference about how to handle the massive exodus of Jews who desperately sought to flee from the Nazi persecution. Although most of the participants at the conference expressed their sympathy, no definite resolution was formulated. Paraphrasing Chaim Weitzman (who would later become the first president of the State of Israel), Central and Eastern European Jews perceived the world as consisting of just two camps: one which hounded and hunted them, and another which closed its gates and offered them no solace or refuge.

There was, however, one notable exception.

Of the 32 countries that sent delegations to the conference, only the Dominican Republic, led by President Rafael Trujillo agreed to receive 100,000 refugees, offering land resettlement under extremely generous conditions. A group of experts on Refugee Affairs, under the leadership of James Rosenberg, was immediately mobilized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to capitalize on the Dominican offer. This was the birth of the Dominican Republican Settlement Association (Dorsa).

Between the years of 1940 and 1945, the Dominican Republic government issued 5,000 visas for displaced Jewish refugees. Tragically, however, the actual number of immigrant arrivals never reached anywhere near this figure, due to the escalation of the war, and also to what some believe to be mishandling by the Jewish Agency which resulted in delays. Of the nearly 1,000 Jews who settled in the Dominican Republic, most were from Austria and Germany, although some came from as far away from China, and some from as close as the Caribbean Islands.

Little by little, the jungle-like territory was divided into residential lots and communal dormitories (barracks) for arriving refugees. Each refugee was furnished with, as a repayable loan, 80 acres of land, ten cows, one mule, one horse, and a living wage for a month. They were assisted with training in agricultural and farming techniques, of which most had little previous knowledge.

Jews immediately took to food manufacturing, becomingsuccessful in the production and sale of sausage, milk, cheese, tomato sauce, mashed carrots, stuffed peppers, and mashed spinach. Many of these industries and corporations continue to this day. The refugees’ earnings enabled them to pay their debts and establish other small industries.

By the 1990s, however, just 36 Jewish families remained in Sosua, as most of the population either died, intermarried, or moved to larger Jewish communities abroad.

Interestingly enough, well before the arrival of these refugees, in 1916, the Dominican Republic briefly had a Jewish head of state, President Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal.

Tourism and Travel Tips

The Dominican Republic is an excellent place to visit, not only as a way to pay tribute to the country which so generously welcomed Jews, but also to take in the sights, the thrills, and the ocean – all just a four-hour flight from New York.

A must-see in Puerto Plata is Central Park (also known as Independence Square), one of the popular cultural attractions in the area. Built in 1872, at a time when the city was the capital of the Republic, the park is encircled by Victorian-style buildings, including the Provincial Court House.

Take a leisurely stroll on Malecon, a wide boulevard that runs along the shoreline for six kilometers, from Long Beach to the San Felipe Fortress. Tours of the fortress – dating back to the 1500s –
are self-guided, with an optional hand-held audio player. For history buffs, check out the indoor halls that house weaponry from hundreds of years ago.

Food

What’s amazing is that virtually every major supermarket has plenty of items with kosher certification, including imported canned goods, breads, fish, and spreads. Prices are similar to Brooklyn.
A Puerto Plata resort named Lifestylehas anon-site kosher restaurant, though only for guests staying at the resort. It’s famous for its premium delicacies, costing $150 per person per day, for three gourmet meals each day. Alternately, two hours south is Punta Cana, where the local Chabad offers ala carte food orders or meals upon request, for reasonable prices.

Where to Stay

There’s no shortage of accommodations, from motels, hotels, villas, and so on.

Particularly noteworthy is Villas Agua Dulce, a jaw-droppingly elegant and spacious facility,which spares no effort to offer its guests the highest standards of luxury and comfort, paying careful attention to every detail. Each villa is designed to offer all the amenities of home – a fully furnished living room, dining room, and washer/dryer. Three-bedroom villas are available to accommodate a family of seven.

Each bedroom’s clear glass sliding doors offer guests a stunning overview of the 25-acre complex, as well as breathtaking views of the turquoise ocean and the lush green palms. But everything’s hiked up a notch with the outdoor patio, outdoor private pool, and Bauhaus interior design.

Situated inside a private gated community, the property also includes a tennis court and basketball court, mango trees, and a spa centre. The beaches of Sosuaand Cabarete, and the city core, are only a short drive away, as is the International Airport of
Puerto Plata.

Those interested in island life, a fun getaway and some exotic sights will certainly want to consider visiting the Dominican Republic, and while you’re there, you can also learn more about how this small country – a tad smaller than South Carolina – went above and beyond most other nations to save European Jews, shining a ray of light for our nation during its darkest hour.

Suggested Adventures
in the Puerto Plata Area

Monkey Jungle –After enjoying the 4,500-foot,
seven-station zip lines overlooking the trees, visit the adjacent capuchin monkey reserve. Scores of these adorable creatures bounce around from tree to tree, hopping on your shoulders, and nibbling straight from the fruit plate in your hand.

Ocean World –This is where you can swim with sharks and dolphins, and kiss the sea lions. You can spend anywhere from a half-hour to an entire afternoon splashing around with these aquatic animals.

Tip Top Catamaran –Take a ride on the
75-feet-long and 33-feet-wide Tip Top Catamaran, together with the charismatic and affable crew. While there, tourists are offered the opportunity to experience the vibrant underwater world through snorkeling the three rocks reef and Sosua bay (snorkeling equipment provided). Immerse yourself in schools of fish, peer at the coral, get face-time with a puffer fish, play with the sea urchins, or enjoy the starfish rolling across your hand!

Waterfalls–Twenty-seven waterfalls of Rio Damajagua are tucked away in the hills of the Northern Corridor mountain range, behind the tall stalks of sugar cane. In addition to the mélange of outdoor fun – cliff jumping into natural waters, sliding along rock waterfalls, and climbing through caves – you also get to enjoy the surrounding wooded wonders through each winding pathway. And, depending on the season, lush fruit will be growing from coconut trees, avocado trees, coffee bean trees, and mango trees.