February 23, 2008

Sosúa Exhibition

We are often told about Jews being turned away from country after country, but last month the Museum opened a new exhibition that will give us the chance to tell a different kind of story. Sosúa: A Refuge for Jews in the Dominican Republic brings to light the rarely-told history of Jews who found a haven, half-a-world away. Despite the indifference and intolerance many Jews faced in Europe from their neighbors, none of the Jewish settlers to Sosúa interviewed for this exhibition experienced anti-Semitism in the Dominican Republic. On the contrary, their dealings with their Dominican counterparts were congenial and friendly.

During the latter part of the 1930s, the Nazis were still allowing Jews to emigrate, but few countries were willing to take them in. Following the Evian Conference in 1938, when 32 nations met to discuss the refugee crisis, one nation — the Dominican Republic — offered to accept Jewish refugees. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided passage and ongoing support in order to establish a small refugee agricultural settlement at Sosúa, an abandoned banana plantation on the northeastern shore of the Dominican Republic. The settlers, with the help of their Dominican neighbors, began to cultivate the land and built a thriving town that still exists today.

Seen here L to R: DGM, Sosúa settler Ernie Schreiner, and New York State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman

In 2005, the American Jewish Congress, New York State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, and the Sosúa Jewish Museum joined forces with the Museum for a collaborative effort to archive, preserve, and interpret original artifacts related to the Jewish refugees in Sosúa. The project was launched formally at a free public program at the Museum in April 2005.

The result of the project is a bilingual exhibition in English and in Spanish, presented in association with the Sosúa Jewish Museum. The exhibition focuses on the stories of Jews forced to make the terrible choice of leaving home for a strange place they had never seen — other than on a map. The Jews did not have an easy time adjusting to their surroundings, as German settler Ruth Kohn said, “It was all very difficult. The language, the climate, the social situation — but we were saved.”

While most of the Jews left Sosúa after the war to rebuild their lives in the United States or Israel, some families stayed in the Dominican Republic where they remain to this day. A still active synagogue and a Jewish museum stand as a testimony to the resilience of the Sosúa Jews and the humanity of their Dominican neighbors. As the community museum’s last plaque reads, Sosúa is truly “a community born of pain and nurtured in love.”

The exhibition will be on view through July 25, 2008.

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)