Dominican Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Rafael Trujillo


    Rafael Trujillo was without doubt one of the most malicious dictators ever seen. He ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. His crimes against humanity and his own people resemble those of so many other bloody, unelected “strong men”.  He is generally known as a tyrant and mass murderer of Haitians, whose country borders on the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola, one of the first American territories discovered by Columbus in 1492. Columbus’ companion, the Hebrew speaking Luis de Torres, landed on the island with Columbus on that first voyage.

     That was the first time Hispaniola entered Jewish history.

     The second time Jewish history was made in Hispaniola was in 1938. In July of that year, the deceptive bigot Franklin Roosevelt sought to assuage criticism for his refusal to allow German Jews into the United States, even within the quota system then in effect. Therefore, Roosevelt called a conference at Evian, France, in July of 1938 to which all countries in this world were invited. The purpose of the conference was to have each country represented allow a few German Jews into their territory so as to save them from the murderous Nazi measures in effect since 1933. Thirty-two countries were represented at that conference, which lasted nine days. Only one country among them was willing to accept even one Jew. That was the Dominican Republic. Rafael Trujillo personally donated some of his land for the establishment of a Jewish colony. He offered to take in 100,000 German Jews, who were to be given 80 acres of land each.

     Between 1940 and 1945, 5,000 Dominican visas were issued, but only 645 Jews actually came to Sosúa, a seacoast town funded mainly by the American Joint Distribution Committee. In addition to land, each Jew was given ten cows, a mule and a horse. The Jews, almost all urban business and professional people, nevertheless succeeded in establishing a cooperative called Productos Sosúa, which exists today and produces most of the country’s meat and dairy products.

     Trujillo’s motive in helping Jews when no one else would do so cannot now be discerned. It has been speculated that he sought to gain the good will of the United States because he had killed 25,000 Haitians in a brutal racist massacre. Haitians are black and there is the possibility that Trujillo wanted to increase the white population by admitting the German Jews.

     Today only thirty Jewish families live in Sosúa. All the others left for New York or Miami. Until 1980 the town was still entirely Jewish. Then a new airport nearby led to the development of Sosúa into a major beach resort with 3,000 full time residents, of whom only 70 are Jewish.  Of these, Eric Hauser, a native of Vienna, owned the land on which most of the hotels and businesses were built, so that he became the richest man in the Dominican Republic.

      There is one synagogue in Sosúa. It holds services every other Shabbat. There is a Jewish museum preserving the history of the Jewish community.

      Trujillo was shot to death on May 30, 1961 on a Santo Domingo street. His relatives left the island and buried him in Paris, France. Trujillo amassed enormous wealth during his dictatorship, although his country is one of the poorest in the Caribbean. He indulged his appetites endlessly. He also loved baseball and invited black players who were barred from playing in the United States because of racism. The great “Satchel” Page played in Santo Domingo as he pitched for a team organized by Trujillo.

      Thus, by a twist of fate, the Jewish people owe a debt to a monstrous dictator who helped us when no one else would. Not the icon of the American Jewish community, Roosevelt, not any South American country, and surely not any other place on earth was willing to help.

      There are many events in Jewish history which cannot be reasonably explained. Why would a malicious dictator save Jews when no democracy would help us? Why a dictator who had no Jewish constituency while the “great” Roosevelt told his undersecretary for immigration, Breckenridge Long, to subvert all efforts of Jews to enter this country. Yet, to this day, Jews regard Roosevelt as a friend when he was one of our worst enemies.

      We look forward to the day when the American Jewish community learns reality and recognizes the difference between our friends and our enemies. Even if the friends are dictators.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Women & Social Change in America (2009).

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