JTA / August 11, 2004
By Larry Luxner
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 Solution."
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 came. 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.
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 Sosúa. 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. "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 society here."
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."